For years, Democrats in the South mastered the art of tacitly supporting the Democratic nominee for president and then avoiding any contact with him for the duration of the campaign. Rob Christensen recently illustrated the point when he related the story of Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign stop in North Carolina. Jim Hunt was governor and in the midst of his famous US Senate race against Jesse Helms. Attorney General Rufus Edminsten, the Democrat, was in a battle with then-Congressman Jim Martin for governor. Neither Hunt nor Edminsten greeted the presidential nominee when his plane arrived in the state and the highest ranking Democrat to welcome him was Agriculture Secretary Jim Graham. Even hiding couldn’t save the Democrats from the Republican wave that year, though. Hunt narrowly lost to Helms and Martin became only the second Republican governor of North Carolina since Reconstruction.
Back in those days, Democrats at the state level had to win in spite of the presidential nominee, not because of him–and they were all “hims.” This year, Republicans might need to learn the same trick. Donald Trump may be the Republican nominee, but he’s stuck with an approval rating that is -25 or so. Numbers like that should scare anybody in a competitive race.
Republicans like Richard Burr and Pat McCrory will face a tougher task than the Democrats before them. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Democrats didn’t count on North Carolina to win the presidency. In 2016, Trump has to have it to win the White House. He will undoubtedly campaign here and McCrory, Burr and other Republicans will need to make a choice. They can either campaign with him and risk alienating middle of the road voters, particularly women, who find Trump so distasteful, or they can risk alienating the fickle Trump supporters who made him the nominee. Not many of those folks would forgive a candidate for dissing their guy.
Hillary Clinton could make the race even tougher for Republicans. She’s already putting staff on the ground in North Carolina. By making Trump fight for the state, she’ll force him to spend more time here instead of other states he needs to reach 270 electoral votes. McCrory, Burr and a host of Congressional candidates will need to answer where they stand on the presidential nominee and whatever craziness he might have unleashed that week. For Republicans in North Carolina, 2016 could be a very long year.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >