Standing in the funnel cake line at the N.C. State Fair, Dallas Woodhouse places an order for his colleague working the Republican Party booth. He gets the cake and turns around.
His son has vanished.
“Cooper! Cooper! Cooper!” Woodhouse shouts.
Cooper is 9 and has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
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“This happens all the time,” says Jackson, Cooper’s older brother.
Woodhouse leaves and 10 minutes later, he returns with a smirk on his face and Cooper by his side.
“He went to the Republican booth,” Woodhouse says. “He’s a smart kid.”
A bit more than a decade ago, Woodhouse was a custodian at the fairgrounds, with a kid on the way and uncertain job prospects. Today, he is one of the most prominent and divisive figures in North Carolina politics.
He’s familiar for his bombastic television persona, often showcased in shouting matches with his brother, a political opposite.
Woodhouse works as executive director of the state’s Republican Party. He has led a series of pro-GOP groups in North Carolina, promoting conservative beliefs with sometimes unorthodox marketing strategies.
In 2014, Woodhouse stood on the sidelines of a “Moral Monday” protest. He recruited a young woman to wear a sun costume. He wanted to convey to protesters that sunny days had arrived for the state’s economy under GOP leadership, so he handed out Sunkist sodas and yellow, sun-shaped stress balls with the message, “Jobs up, unemployment down.”
Woodhouse went on MSNBC during the 2016 presidential election to explain why the state should not have early voting on Sundays. He then pulled out a pair of handcuffs mid-interview to blast Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
“We don’t have a suppression vote problem in North Carolina,” he told MSNBC. “The Democrats have a depression problem. And you know why? It’s very simple: Their candidate, if elected, could have these (handcuffs) on Inauguration Day.”
Last year, in response to a request to be interviewed by Elon University student media about how Republicans planned to persuade college students, he replied, “Before I do the interview, I want you to visit a large grocery store and take three to five photos of the selection of different Oreo cookies.”
At the end of the interview, he explained. “Democrats, you can only have one kind of Oreo. You have to have the health care they say,” he said.
“Republicans give you your choice. You pick it.”
Perry Woods, a Democratic consultant in North Carolina, called Woodhouse a “cartoon character with lots of over-the-top exaggeration.”
State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who helped hire Woodhouse as the party’s executive director, praises his quirks.
“Sometimes you can get your point across with a smile better than you can with a fist,” Lewis said.
Behind the scenes, Woodhouse is a jack of all trades. Supporters and critics alike say he is effective at his job.
He writes news releases, coordinates voter outreach efforts, calls candidates, attends fundraisers and updates party leaders on developing news, among many other duties.
“The best way to describe him would be conservative handyman,” said Phil Berger Jr., an N.C. Court of Appeals judge. Woodhouse recruited Berger, son of Senate leader Phil Berger, to run for the court.
Trees and a creek were the only things separating a preschool from the Woodhouse residence. When the leaves would fall off the trees in the playground, Dallas could see his home.
He was quick to take advantage of the situation.
On the playground, he’d yell, “Daddy, I want to come home. I want to watch ‘Price is Right.’ ”
“It’s probably one of the reasons I’m so loud to this day,” Dallas joked.
His father, Wilson, worked from home for his publishing business and would lift Dallas over the fence to rescue him from preschool. The two spent a lot of time together, often driving an hour to Mount Olive to pick up newspapers.
Joyce, Dallas’ mom, decided it was time to stop paying for preschool since Dallas usually spent only a couple of hours there before his dad arrived.
“He was a dropout of child care,” Joyce said.
Dallas was the youngest of three children, so he received some preferential treatment, though he insists he wasn’t spoiled.
“He was completely aggravating and annoying,” said Brad, Dallas’s older brother. “Complaints to my father went like this: ‘Well, he’s the baby.’ I mean, this was when he was 2, 5, 7, 10, 11. ‘Well, he’s the baby.’ That excused him being loud, annoying and opinionated.”
At school, Dallas struggled with homework and focusing on assignments. He didn’t see much value in schoolwork, so he poured his energy into activities he was more passionate about, such as acting and singing.
To this day, he boasts about winning two national championships as a member of Broughton High School’s “Carolina Spirit” show choir.
Pivot to politics
Woodhouse’s parents introduced him to politics at an early age with trips to the polls on Election Day.
His father often voted Democrat, but his political views were hard to categorize. He once supported then-Sen. Jesse Helms, the conservative who infuriated Democrats with his racially charged campaign tactics.
Joyce was secretary to Democratic Gov. Terry Sanford and had her wedding reception with Wilson in the Executive Mansion. She is a registered Democrat who describes herself as a single-issue voter concerned about mental health.
Woodhouse formed strong political beliefs while working as a television reporter in the late 1990s. He said he witnessed corruption under Democratic control, which motivated him to get into politics.
He spent six years working for NBC-17, but when his contract expired in 2001, the station did not renew it. Uncertainty lay ahead. He was also experiencing a lot of changes in his personal life. His father died of diabetes in 1999 at the age of 65.
A few months later, Woodhouse met his future wife, Christine, and the couple got married in April 2001.
Woodhouse went on to work for the state and federal departments of agriculture and an unsuccessful congressional campaign. He also did some custodial work at the state fairgrounds to help make ends meet.
“I needed the money,” Woodhouse said. “I needed some work. It took me awhile to get my footing.”
He said the experience taught him all work is valuable and that nobody is above that line of work.
Woodhouse searched for a steady job for months before finding one in 2006 with Americans for Prosperity, a political organization funded by Charles and David Koch. The Koch brothers founded AFP in 2004. Today, it is their primary political advocacy group for advancing conservative causes.
‘Oh God, it’s Mom’
Standing in front of a crowd of Tea Party conservatives infuriated with President Barack Obama’s health care proposal, Woodhouse chants: “Hands off my health care! Hands off my health care!”
It’s a chilly 2009 afternoon in Washington, D.C., where a contentious debate is taking place. Americans for Prosperity has bused people from North Carolina to the nation’s capital to protest. The protesters march outside of Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s office and sign a petition expressing their frustrations.
Hours later, Woodhouse stands near the U.S. Capitol bragging to his brother about the size of his crowd. Dallas claims there were 10,000 people in attendance, while Brad says the crowd was closer to 400. The real number looks to be somewhere in the middle, though it appears much closer to Brad’s estimate.
Those are scenes from the documentary, “Woodhouse Divided.” Bryan Miller, one of Dallas’ longtime friends, produced it to showcase the sibling rivalry. Brad worked as communications director for the Democratic National Committee at the time.
A year after the documentary premiered, Dallas and Brad went on C-SPAN to promote it. Little did they know their mother would make a surprise call into the program, scolding them about their constant fighting.
“Oh God, it’s Mom,” Dallas said, recognizing his mother’s voice.
It took awhile for it to register with Brad. After a few seconds of stunned silence, he put his hands to his face in embarrassment.
Joyce told them she was glad they spent Thanksgiving with their in-laws that year so she didn’t have to put up with them.
“I’m hoping you’ll have some of this out of your system when you come here for Christmas,” she said.
When the Woodhouse brothers debate, political attacks tend to turn personal.
During the 2016 election, Dallas encouraged GOP appointees to county elections boards to limit the number of early-voting hours and close polling sites on Sundays. Brad viewed this as an effort to discourage African-Americans from voting.
“@DallasWoodhouse this is blatantly racist and completely disgusting. You should be ashamed of yourself,” Brad tweeted.
“I don’t believe my brother’s racist, per se,” Brad later said. “But I think those are deplorable policies, and I was disappointed he was involved in them.”
Six days of early voting is more than enough, Dallas said.
“It is a perfectly reasonable position and nothing racist about it,” Dallas said.
Dallas got into a heated phone call with Brad after his brother’s initial tweet. They then refused to talk to each other for months before their mother helped heal the damage.
‘I hope we are always divided’
A diehard N.C. State fan, Woodhouse grew up during the basketball team’s dramatic 1983 championship victory. On family road trips, he’d sit in the back of the van listening to radio broadcasts of old games.
Today, he’s a football season ticket holder who occasionally travels for road games. He drove to Wake Forest last week, watching his team suffer a heartbreaking 30-24 defeat.
“There’s something good about being a State fan and doing politics,” Woodhouse said. “It teaches you how to lose. Sometimes, it ain’t your day.”
Woodhouse embraces the competition of politics, too.
“Partisan politics is a part of what we do, it is a part of what makes America great,” Woodhouse says during the documentary. “I don’t want less partisan politics. I want more of it.”
In 2014, Woodhouse ran Carolina Rising, a conservative political nonprofit that spent nearly all of the $5 million it raised running ads to help Thom Tillis defeat Hagan for Senate. Though designated as a social welfare group, Democrats said Carolina Rising was electioneering and should have identified its donors. But the Federal Election Commission dismissed their complaint after Republican members voted not to pursue it.
“There ought to be more political ads and more money in the political system,” Woodhouse says in the documentary. “Let’s have a robust debate. ... I hope we are always divided when it comes to some of these big things.”
Woods, the Democratic operative, says Dallas is part of a broader problem with the political climate.
“He doesn’t believe half of what he says, and the other half, he is just wrong about,” Woods said.
“His job is to help elect Republicans, and that has been his sole focus.”
“I try to be ethical and honest,” Woodhouse said. “I don’t always get it right. When we make mistakes, I try to take responsibility for it. I have always tried to attack the sin, not the sinner – attack the policy that someone was wrong on or the policies they have, not them personally.”
‘Lapse in judgment’
Woodhouse pleaded guilty to driving while impaired when he was 23 on his way home from a wedding, which he says still haunts him.
“That was a severe lapse in judgment and not something I was proud of at the time,” Woodhouse said.
Drinking was more of a habit for Woodhouse than an addiction, he said. He said he went through long stretches of not drinking anything. But after leaving Americans for Prosperity in 2013, he was often alone, and he drank more frequently.
During Tillis’ victory party in 2014, Woodhouse had too much to drink before an appearance on live television.
Wearing sunglasses and a red Tillis hat, he bragged about pouring millions of dollars into the campaign through Carolina Rising. He slurred his speech and stumbled a bit as he walked. The interview spread quickly on the internet.
He said he hasn’t had a drink since.
“It’s still the darkest moment in my life,” he said. “I just decided right then and there that that was never going to happen again or anything like it. Part of it was professional; part of it was this is just not what you want to be doing. You worry about any kind of image you leave for your kids.”
After the Election Night video made headlines, Woodhouse reached out to people who had overcome drinking problems.
But many of his closest friends and family members still haven’t heard him discuss his problem.
Coming to terms with what happened that night has been more difficult than quitting, he said.
“Everything can be fun till it’s not, and it sure as hell wasn’t fun. People say certain things bring out your personality. I’ve got enough of my personality out. It doesn’t need to be brought out.”
Woodhouse still has ongoing health issues. Type I diabetes, just like his father. He also had gallbladder surgery after the 2016 election. He’s lost 80 pounds since then but insists he feels fine now.
‘He cares about us’
When Woodhouse was named executive director of the NCGOP in October 2015, the party’s office on Hillsborough Street was dilapidated, staffers worried about getting paid and there was very little money left in the bank.
Fighting among factions of the party culminated in April 2016 when the NCGOP executive committee removed the party’s chairman, Hasan Harnett, and replaced him with former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord.
Since then, Hayes and Woodhouse have worked to steer the ship back on course.
In 2016, Republicans had mixed success. They saw North Carolina vote for Trump, re-elect Sen. Richard Burr and maintain GOP control of the General Assembly. But Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost, and Democrats took control of the state Supreme Court.
The NCGOP is developing a Power 2020 plan to strengthen voter outreach efforts, gather better data from the Republican National Committee and build county-level party websites and social media accounts.
Hayes said Woodhouse has a fairly autonomous day-to-day role but works closely with him to coordinate long-term party strategies.
Emily Weeks, the party’s press secretary, secured a full-time job last year. When she learned she needed open-heart surgery, she feared being replaced by the time she returned and worried she’d disappoint Woodhouse. But Weeks said he told her: “Listen, I just want to make sure that you’re healthy and you’re going to be OK. Do not worry about work. Your job will be here when you get back.”
Woodhouse was the first person to visit her in the hospital on Christmas Eve.
“The little things like that mean a lot,” Weeks said. “He cares about us. We’re much more than his employees.”
Job: Executive director, N.C. Republican Party
Education: Campbell University, bachelor’s degree in mass communications. N.C. State University, master of arts degree with a concentration in American history, government and communications.
Family: Wife Christine; sons Jackson and Cooper; mother Joyce; brother Brad; sister Joy.