North Carolina played third fiddle on Super Tuesday. It won’t in November

Expect the Tar Heel State to keep everyone guessing

President Donald Trump rallies Monday with Sen. Thom Tillis in Charlotte, N.C. Reliably purple North Carolina will get plenty of attention from both parties well beyond Super Tuesday, Curtis writes.  (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump rallies Monday with Sen. Thom Tillis in Charlotte, N.C. Reliably purple North Carolina will get plenty of attention from both parties well beyond Super Tuesday, Curtis writes. (Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
Posted March 5, 2020 at 6:00am

OPINION — Yes, Texas and California were the big delegate prizes on Super Tuesday. But don’t forget No. 3, North Carolina — politicians of both parties certainly won’t.

The Tar Heel State has been a battleground for votes and issues for both parties for years. While South Carolina drew all the attention as the first-in-the-South primary, North Carolina, because of the politics and policies that resonate beyond its borders, will remain in the spotlight through the 2020 election season.

Different from its neighbors — the usually reliably red South Carolina and the increasingly blue Virginia to its north —decidedly purple North Carolina keeps everyone guessing. (Though its Super Tuesday result reflected the primary outcomes in South Carolina and Virginia, with former Vice President Joe Biden winning handily and Sen. Bernie Sanders in second place.)

North Carolina was where former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg spent Saturday night making a pre-primary pitch at the “North Carolina Democratic Party’s First Annual Blue NC Celebration,” hired seemingly half the state, garnered endorsements from the mayors of Charlotte and Raleigh and Democratic leaders of the state House and Senate, and still failed to meet the delegate threshold. He dropped out Wednesday, throwing his support to Biden.

President Donald Trump certainly gives North Carolina a lot of love. He traveled Monday night to Charlotte, following his pattern of trolling Democrats the night before a big primary. Fans, some of whom camped out overnight to get a seat, filled the Bojangles’ Coliseum, which holds close to 10,000, or watched with the overflow crowd in the parking lot.

Trump may be a little conflicted about the very blue Charlotte, as he and the party will return to the “Queen City” this summer for the Republican National Convention that will nominate or crown him, anticipating a second term. The president has praised Mayor Vi Lyles, a Democrat, for the welcome she has shown for the party’s business, if not policy.

National trends

In many ways, the state reflects the rural-urban divide across the country, with the split evident from events of the last few days.

At Saturday’s Democratic gathering in Charlotte, the mood was subdued but attendees were no less determined than the ramped-up Trump fans. Marquee speakers included Tom Perez, the DNC chairman who knows, as well as the GOP, that 15 electoral votes are at stake and up for grabs this fall. While Republicans won North Carolina in 2012 and 2016, the margins were narrow, and Barack Obama proved in 2008 that the right candidate and campaign can win in a geographically and politically diverse state of farms, manufacturers, banking centers, renowned universities and more.

The rest of Saturday’s lineup showcased the down-ballot races that could determine control of Congress. In Cal Cunningham, who spoke along with the primary rivals he handily bested Tuesday night, Democrats see a veteran, former state official and someone who could beat Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in what looks to be a tight contest that could control Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fate.

Gov. Roy Cooper, up for reelection this year in a closely watched gubernatorial race, was there. The beleaguered Democrat’s party in 2018 broke the veto-proof GOP majority in the state General Assembly that had hamstrung his first years in office. But he would love to regain a majority and fulfill his campaign promise to expand Medicaid, opposed by his GOP opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a message that has worked for other Democrats in Southern states, such as Kentucky and Louisiana last year.

On Super Tuesday, North Carolina voters did not have to show an ID, though not for want of trying by state Republicans, who pushed a state constitutional amendment to require voter photo ID that North Carolinians later passed. The ensuing photo ID law is now in court after lawsuits by rights groups that contended it disenfranchises poor and minority voters because of the types of identification judged acceptable.

If it seems like a rerun, it’s because it is. Since the Supreme Court invalidated provisions of the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, North Carolina has tested several voting restrictions, including one that was tossed out by a federal court for targeting minority voters with “almost surgical precision.”

North Carolina has become the “poster child” for such efforts across the country, being fought by organizations such as Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight.

Because of court intervention, voters also had newly drawn U.S. House districts, with Democrats expected to pick up seats. Democrats had challenged the old maps, citing the breadcrumb trail of evidence left by Republicans who made their partisan intentions quite clear. The 10-3 GOP advantage may shrink to 8-5, key seats as Democrats look to retain their House majority and Republicans try to wrestle it back.

Going big

Even Trump, who likes to be the life of his own party, seemed to realize the importance of North Carolina to his own and his party’s 2020 future. He shared the stage this week in Charlotte with Tillis, who thanked the president and egged on the crowd who booed at the mention of Sanders’ name. Trump son Eric repeated his father’s slurs against political rivals and the media, and Eric’s wife, Lara, a North Carolina native, touted her father-in-law’s support from women. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, running for reelection, made a cameo.

Trump himself said little new in a speech that strung together attacks on rivals and opponents, particularly Biden, repeats of past favorites (“Mexico’s paying for the wall”), assurances about his administration’s coronavirus response (“We’re working hard on it, and we’re going to come up with some really great solutions”), and murky insinuations about some “quid pro quo” Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg received for dropping out and endorsing Biden.

But in following the example of his State of the Union show and his apparent effort to woo black voters, a crucial part of the North Carolina electorate(more than one in five registered voters), African Americans offered both the pre-speech prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. One of the few African Americans in the crowd, 57-year-old Raymond Madden of Columbia, South Carolina, was dressed in a Trump cap, a “Keep America Great Always” shirt and a bejeweled belt buckle with Trump’s image — and had folks lined up to take selfies.

Madden, who went to Trump’s inauguration and expects to “go to the next one,” told me he likes “a fighter,” a common sentiment at the rally. The minister and truck driver said he admired the president’s view on “religious freedom” and believes there will be “a big shift among blacks toward Trump,” though he said many friends and family members have yet to come onboard.

The only speakers whose applause perhaps equaled the main event were “Diamond and Silk,” Trump supporters Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson — from, you guessed it, North Carolina — who chide other African Americans for being on the “Democrat plantation.”

When they said “all aboard” the Trump train, the crowd roared, “Choo-Choo.”

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.