North Carolina’s Republican members of Congress have tried to strike a balance between supporting their party’s presumptive nominee and distancing themselves from the contentious debate he has stirred up.
Nearly all have backed Donald Trump, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers became the first woman in Congress to endorse Trump, who returned the favor by endorsing her last weekend in her primary election and recording a robo-call to voters on her behalf.
That didn’t keep her from losing by nearly 30 percentage points to Raleigh Republican Rep. George Holding in a matchup of incumbents forced by a redrawing of congressional district maps.
The News & Observer asked the 12 Republicans representing the state in Congress about Trump. At least 11 have publicly backed the billionaire. Rep. Walter Jones of Farmville had not responded to the inquiry by press time.
Some offered their backing with reservations.
Rep. Mark Walker sees some of Trump’s comments as “morally reprehensible.”
“We’re not at a place here where we’re jumping for joy that Trump is saying all the right things or leading in a way that we’re the most proud of right now,” the freshman congressman from Greensboro said Thursday, fresh off a 56-percentage-point drubbing of his primary opponent. “Until he’s willing to do that, I’m not going to sell out just for sake of jumping on the bandwagon.”
Walker said that while he’s offended by some Trump remarks, he finds likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton still more offensive – and that he will support the Republican nominee.
Some lawmakers who couldn’t be reached for comment, including Reps. Patrick McHenry of Denver and Mark Meadows of Cashiers, have made public statements elsewhere expressing support for Trump while distancing themselves from some of his comments.
McHenry, a member of House Republican leadership who is seeking a seventh term, told the Charlotte Observer last month that he would back Trump while questioning whether Trump will be sufficiently strongly opposed to abortion and supportive of Israel.
Meadows, a leader of House conservatives, endorsed Ted Cruz during the Republican primary contest but told WLOS this week he would support the party’s nominee even after Trump suggested a judge’s Mexican heritage kept him from being impartial. Meadows said he’s “not supporting that, whether you call it racism or a poor choice of words. Standing by that is not something that I would do or condone.”
A lawmaker who praised Trump, first-term Rep. David Rouzer of McGee’s Crossroads in Johnston County, did so mainly by contrasting him with the presumptive Democratic nominee.
“There are two choices here: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and this is an election that we’ve got to get right,” Rouzer said. “I know for a fact the type of nominee that Hillary Clinton is going to nominate to the Supreme Court. I know for a fact that Obamacare is here to stay if Hillary Clinton is elected president. I know for a fact that all the rules and regulations that are crippling the American economy are here to stay if Hillary Clinton is elected president.”
He said Trump would repeal regulations and nominate justices who would “help preserve the republic for future generations.”
Similarly, Rep. Richard Hudson pointed to Clinton in explaining his support for Trump. “Hillary Clinton is unacceptable and would be a terrible Commander in Chief,” Hudson, a Concord resident in his second term, said in a emailed statement.
All three North Carolina Democrats in Congress – Reps. G.K. Butterfield, David Price and Alma Adams – have endorsed Clinton.
Butterfield said electing Trump would “put our country on a very dangerous path.”
“Trump has absolutely no knowledge of how government works,” the Wilson Democrat said. “He’s a very skilled businessman, and he knows how to build hotels and how to entertain, but he has no clue how to govern a country.”
Little impact on race
Ellmers, of Dunn, has been the most ardent Trump supporter among North Carolina’s members of Congress.
“We appreciate the fact that he (Trump) did a robo-call for us, which was amazing,” Ellmers said after Tuesday’s primary results came in. “I think the world of him. I think he’s going to make a great president, and I look forward to supporting him from here on out.”
Holding has told McClatchy he wants Trump to win. He had not responded at press time to this week’s inquiry.
A host of factors contributed to Ellmers’ sound defeat. A majority of her redrawn district included areas currently represented by Holding. Several conservative groups actively worked against her. It’s not clear Trump’s late endorsement mattered.
“There’s no impact (from Trump endorsing Ellmers) – that’s apparent to me,” said David Rohde, professor of political science at Duke University. “That was a district that was disadvantaged to her. She had been challenged well before the redistricting took place, and the redistricting did her in.”
“Trump’s endorsement didn’t seem to help her very much,” said John Hood, a Trump critic and president of the John William Pope Foundation, which makes grants to charities and conservative causes. “I don’t think it sunk her, because she already faced tremendous difficulties that had nothing to do with Trump. It had to do with the district being redrawn.”
Ellmers wasn’t the only Trump supporter who struggled Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte eked out a victory of less than one percentage point in a race headed for a recount. Pittenger had claimed a Trump endorsement just before the election, although the Trump campaign wouldn’t confirm he actually had one.
By endorsing Trump, Ellmers and Pittenger tried to convince voters that they were not tightly bound to Washington, D.C., insiders.
“This is sort of a wake-up call for Pittenger,” said David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College. “I don’t know if he anticipated as difficult of a primary race. … While I don’t think it will be difficult for him in the fall (in a district with heavy Republican support), he shouldn’t assume a Trump endorsement will seal a victory.”
Pittenger said he would serve as one of Trump’s delegates at the party’s Cleveland convention in July. Though he admits Trump “has a lot to learn” on foreign affairs, Pittenger is confident Trump is making positive strides by speaking with experts.
“I’ve seen him reach out to people like James Baker and Henry Kissinger,” Pittenger said, naming two former secretaries of state. “I believe he does have an interest and desire to be more reflective and thoughtful on foreign policy issues, which is a real concern and interest to me.”
Support the nominee
Rep. Virginia Foxx said she would support Trump but is unfamiliar with him because he hasn’t been in political life.
“I’ve always said from the beginning of the presidential race that I would support the nominee of the party whoever that nominee is, because the nominee represents the will of the Republican electorate, and I think in his case, much of the independent electorate,” said Foxx, a Banner Elk resident running for her seventh term in the House.
North Carolina’s U.S. senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both called on Republicans at the party’s state convention to back Trump. Tillis said anyone who doesn’t is a “RINO,” a Republican In Name Only.
Burr’s campaign responded to The News & Observer by pointing to past statements. Tillis didn’t respond.