Hundreds of North Carolina conservatives gathered under an expansive tobacco warehouse roof Friday evening to share their enthusiasm for candidates they say represent their values.
A long line of political candidates and government officials stood in front of a huge American flag, just beneath a sign emblazoned with tobacco leaves that said “Welcome Tobacco Farmers.” U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis started a wave in the crowd.
The rally was billed as the year’s largest gathering of North Carolina Republican candidates, and featured an appearance by GOP vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence. Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell kicked off the event with a warning to the audience: “America is in trouble.”
The solution to that trouble, Bizzell said, is electing Republican candidates who will “do what we the people want.”
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“We the people want Republican leaders who are willing to stand alone in a public square and stand for what is moral and right,” Bizzell said to cheers, adding that Republican voters should support those who stand up for the military, veterans and the Constitution, including the Second Amendment; protect seniors’ Social Security and health care; and unite the party.
People from across the state who attended the rally agreed.
“We need people who will stand up for the Constitution,” said Efton Safer, an 83-year-old retired Air Force veteran with 21 years of service. “We need someone who will support a strong military … believe in the right to life and the Second Amendment. We need a stronger economy and less taxation … And we need to get rid of Obamacare.”
But energy was high in the warehouse, with loud cheers, flags waving, signs and T-shirts promoting an array of candidates, and cameras flashing for selfies under signs that said “do not litter, keep tobacco clean.”
Candidates like Gov. Pat McCrory, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and state Sen. Buck Newton, who is running for attorney general, mentioned the recently overturned voter ID requirement during their speeches.
“Bring your voter ID whether the courts say it’s right or not,” McCrory encouraged.
“You need an attorney general who will fight to keep your elections fair and clean … make sure your vote will count every single time and it won’t be stolen by somebody else who is not allowed to vote,” Newton said.
Matt Holloman, a Johnston County native who lives near Pine Level, had never been to a political rally before Friday but showed up more than an hour before the doors of the Central Marketing Tobacco Warehouse on Wal Pat Road opened.
Holloman, standing next to cutouts of Pence and Trump, said his enthusiasm for the rally was mostly for presidential candidate Trump.
“Trump is the real reason,” he said. “He says what he’s going to do and he’s not all talk. He’s not a career politician … I want people who will give me their word and mean it.”
James Evans and his wife recently moved to Johnston County from Argentina and said they value the conservative point of view.
“We need leaders who will help people, especially young people, have a vision of what this country was built on — the Constitution,” James Evans said. “Trump could have done better but he’s a better option than the alternative.”
While Evans and his wife said they were steadfast in their support of Republican candidates, they said they knew others who were more disillusioned.
“We’ve heard from people who are not going to vote because they can’t vote for either (Clinton or Trump),” Evans said. “It’s really sad but that’s the way it’s turned out.”
Janet Adams, who lives in Dunn but is originally from Benson, said she’s putting her faith in anti-establishment candidate Trump, who she hopes will buck a trend of saying one thing and doing another.
“He speaks what we need to hear — not what we want to hear,” Adams said. “He’s being straight with us and we need that.”
Adams wants candidates who will help average, struggling Americans who she and other attendees said are suffering under rising health-care costs and high taxes.
“My husband has a small construction business and we pay so much for health care,” she said. “It’s so hard for people. I’ve known some couples who have split up over hardship. We have to bring back family values … everything starts at home.”
Holloman agreed with Adams and said Americans had been burdened by federal changes to health care.
“We have to get rid of Obamacare,” Holloman said. “It’s hurting jobs. People can’t afford to go to the doctor.”
Lynda Sutton, a kindergarten teacher who lives in Kenly, was at the rally with her daughter Reagen and her husband, Todd. She said she hopes Republican candidates will be elected at the state level who will look out for teachers like her.
“I hope we’ll have people who will keep increasing teacher salaries,” she said. “And I think people have to put their trust in their faith to decide who they vote for.”
On stage, Bizzell praised House Bill 2, the law passed in March that limits discrimination protections for LGBT people and requires people in government facilities to use the bathroom matching their birth certificate. He called it “basic bathroom rights.”
“Little boys have always gone to the men’s room and little girls have always gone to the ladies’ room,” Bizzell said to cheers, adding that people want leaders who will put public safety first. “How did we get to this point?”
Several candidates mentioned Hurricane Matthew, which devastated eastern parts of the state earlier this month, but none of the comments resonated with the crowd as much as McCrory’s.
He blasted Democratic opponent Roy Cooper for comments, made before Hurricane Matthew, about spending money in the state’s rainy day fund. Cooper has since said he favors a strong rainy day fund.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it rained … and now we’re using that money to help,” he said. “Help those who can’t help themselves and encourage those who can.”
Many of the candidates who spoke at the rally said they love the county that hosted the rally. And they have good reason to: Johnston County has historically chosen Republican candidates overwhelmingly over Democrats.
Tillis said at this time two years ago, people thought he was “a dead man walking” in his bid to represent the state in Congress. But he said he came to the same rally in Johnston and “found support here.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said four years ago, he was sitting at his election party down 10,000 votes and “ready to concede the election.” But then Johnston came in.
“One county was outstanding out of 100,” he said. “We said there was no way Johnston County could make up the difference; they had never done it before. Then we came in at plus 19,000.”