In this week’s Roundup we head down to North Carolina, where the Republican Party is struggling to rebrand itself after a long period of mishaps and scandals. The party has faced high-profile scrutiny in the last few months, from both the courts and the public. Republicans are preparing for tight Senate races in 2020 and are looking to regain the momentum that they once had.
The biggest intra-party scandal has been the downfall of Chairman Robin Hayes. Hayes and three others, including a major GOP campaign donor, have been indicted by a federal grand jury on conspiracy and bribery charges. The four men stand accused of attempting to influence Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey by funneling bribe money into Causey’s reelection campaign. Hayes is also accused of lying to the FBI. In addition, GOP candidate Mark Harris was accused of manipulating mail-in ballots to his favor in a 2018 congressional race, something he claims a political operative convinced him was perfectly legal. Although no legal action was taken against Harris himself, the Board of Elections unanimously ordered a new special election to take place later this year.
On top of those scandals, more documents are surfacing revealing how extensive the Republican Party’s gerrymandering efforts are in North Carolina, including evidence that party members lied directly to a federal court in order to prevent a special election under new lines. In late 2016, North Carolina Republicans were accused of “racial gerrymandering,” or intentionally drawing state lines to pack African-American and Hispanic voters into just a few districts. New documents are now showing that state Republicans intentionally misled the court into extending the deadline by exaggerating how long the process would take.
Due to these mishaps and more, the North Carolina GOP lost the governorship, supermajorities in their legislature, and majority control of the state Supreme Court. As we get closer to the 2020 election season, Republicans know that some sort of rebranding and restructuring is necessary. “There’s no question that we have an image problem,” said Dan Barry, a former Union County GOP chair. The image problem that Barry is referring to is putting them in a tighter ideological race than they are accustomed to; a conservative think tank found that North Carolina voters favor Republicans over Democrats 42% to 39%, a lower margin than in previous years. Unaffiliated voters have also had the strongest reactions to the aforementioned scandals; this is particularly bad news considering that unaffiliated voters outnumber registered Republicans.
The state GOP’s new chairman is Michael Whatley, a businessman from Gastonia. In his first speech as chairman, Whatley called for a “reset” within the party. “This election cycle is absolutely critical,” he told state delegates. “We have to re-elect Donald Trump. We have to hold the U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina.” Whatley has significant political experience under the Bush administration, including being a member of Bush’s Florida Recount Team in 2000 (a fact some may find ironic given the scandal around Mark Harris’ ballot manipulation.) Whatley also served as former U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole’s chief of staff. During the 2016 election he was organizing Donald Trump rallies across the state.
It will take more than one fresh face to undo the damage of these scandals, and the party recognizes it. Although they will have no issue keeping hardline Republican voters on their side, many unaffiliated voters will not easily forget the corruption and racial gerrymandering that many members of the party engaged in. The GOP’s rebranding efforts will be put to the test this September, when the special election for North Carolina’s 9th congressional district will be held. Republican State Sen. Dan Bishop will take on Democrat Dan McCready in what is expected to be the country’s most closely watched special election.
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