At one time, the Republican Party likely viewed its establishment as an asset. These party stalwarts, many in powerful government posts, could corral the GOP’s wide base on a platform of national defense and limited government.
Then came Trump.
When Donald Trump the real estate mogul became Donald Trump the Republican presidential candidate, the party found the word “establishment” had lost its luster. Principles of small government and tight spending were still popular, but “establishment” was a word from another era, maybe something too much like following marching orders.
“I don’t care about establishment; it’s all gone downhill,” Efland Wilkins said after casting a vote for Trump on Tuesday at a Cleveland community precinct. “It’s time for this country to rise back up.”
Wilkins said his stance on immigration and his support of the military drew him to Trump.
Steve Carroll, who also voted in Cleveland, said he originally supported Ben Carson for the GOP nomination. When Carson dropped out and endorsed Trump, that was good enough for him, he said.
When national party leaders, including 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, called on Republicans to vote for anyone but Trump, that rankled him, Carroll added.
“It made me a little resentful, the attacks on Donald Trump,” he said.
In the scheme of things, Johnston County hasn’t been Republican all that long. But by a slim margin on Tuesday, GOP voters here heeded the establishment’s call, favoring Ted Cruz by fewer than 700 votes. Statewide, Trump took the race by 40,000.
Johnston County GOP chairman Patrick Harris said the local party doesn’t endorse candidates in primaries. And it did not condone calls by Romney and other establishment Republicans to abandon Trump.
“I’m not sure why Romney said what he said, but picking our people as a party is not the way we do business,” Harris said. “We believe in the American process, respect all the candidates and are just here to support Republicans.”
If Johnston County is any indication, the Republican establishment’s “us against Trump” divisiveness isn’t lost on independent voters.
Scott Eric of Clayton, who has no party affiliation, voted Republican on Tuesday but said he was put off by the discord in the party. He voted for Trump, persuaded by his views on immigration and his pledge to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
“I like the fact he’s not a standard politician,” Eric said. “The GOP right now is a big mess.”
In voting for Trump, Clayton resident Ray McCain said he wanted a perspective from outside the political realm.
“I’m not in favor of career politicians,” McCain said. “That’s the problem with government right now. I figured Donald Trump was the lesser of all evils. He says what everyone is thinking, but won’t say.”
Because he lacks a filter, McCain said, Trump often cones across as brash. Cruz supporters call it bluster.
Trump’s “got to be stopped,” said one Cruz voter who would identify herself only as a 69-year-old who works full time. “He’s inciting fear and appealing to a type without self-control. He doesn’t represent me. He’s just being a bully. He has no facts, no plan.”
Ann and Dan Kastner of Clayton cast votes for John Kasich, calling him the only sane candidate in the race.
Democratic voter Michael Reville of Clayton said the grass really is greener on his side of the political fence. He said his heart was with candidate Bernie Sanders, but he cast his vote for Hillary Clinton amid worries that Sanders wouldn’t be able to win in November.
“The Democrats don’t have a problem,” Reville said. “Ideally whoever finishes second, that’s who would be the vice presidential candidate.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson