Elections

Trump reboots NC campaign amid controversies that worry state Republicans

dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

With less than 100 days until the election, Donald Trump has rebooted his North Carolina campaign, even as fresh controversies erode his support in other battleground states and cause some Republicans here to worry that he might hurt the prospects for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and other state GOP candidates.

The Trump campaign named a new North Carolina state director and communications team this week, long after Democrat Hillary Clinton had a state staff up and running.

Meanwhile, Democrats and their allies have launched new campaigns – including online ads – to link Trump to Republican lawmakers, particularly Burr.

Trump has been under fire for his criticisms of Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan whose son, an Army captain, was killed in Iraq. And Trump’s initial refusal to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan and veteran Sen. John McCain reportedly made national GOP Chairman Reince Priebus “apoplectic.”

“He behaves like an idiot, and his judgment – it’s just despicable,” said former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, a Republican who is strongly supporting Burr and N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory in their re-election bids. “(Trump’s comments about the Khans) violates Politics 101 – leave that poor couple alone. It’s not just bad politics, it’s bad humanity.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, a GOP national convention delegate, said Trump could hurt other Republican candidates if he doesn’t temper his tone.

“Right now, I think it’s being viewed as Trump being Trump and it’s just affecting his campaign,” Ridenhour said. “If the missteps continue, then, yes, it could affect the Republican brand and down-ballot candidates.”

Neither Burr nor McCrory were at Thursday’s rally for GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence in Raleigh. Their Democratic opponents, Deborah Ross and Roy Cooper, attended a Wednesday event in Greensboro headlined by Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine.

Trump is expected to return to North Carolina later this month for a fundraiser at his golf club in Lake Norman. And this week, some top Trump surrogates – daughter-in-law Lara Trump, national spokeswoman Katrina Pierson and TV personality Omarosa Manigault – are in the Charlotte area for rallies at the golf club Thursday and Saturday and at a Charlotte church Sunday.

‘Atypical’ campaign

Trump’s campaign named Jason Simmons its new state director, replacing Earl Phillip of Charlotte. Phillip, who’s African-American, said he’s become deputy chair of Trump’s National Diversity Coalition.

Polls show a tight race in North Carolina, a key battleground. An average of recent polls by Real Clear Politics shows Clinton with a half-point lead in the state, well within the margin of error.

But on the ground, Trump appears to be far behind Clinton in the state.

Her campaign and its allies have spent or committed over $20 million on TV ads. The campaign has dozens of field workers. At Wednesday’s Kaine rally, Clinton staffers and volunteers worked the crowd gathering email addresses and contact information. By contrast, many fewer Trump campaign volunteers were at Thursday’s Pence rally.

“The Trump campaign for the nomination was atypical in every way,” said John Hood, president of the Pope Foundation. “One of the ways … was a relative lack of organization at the ground level. That practice has continued into the general election.”

North Carolina Republican Chairman Robin Hayes welcomed the Trump campaign’s decision to get more serious about its ground game in a state that no Republican since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 has lost and still carried the White House.

Asked whether the latest controversies were making it harder for him and other North Carolina Republicans, Hayes said he remains “fully supportive” of the party’s nominee and still thinks Trump, with his business background, “has tremendous potential to put the country back on the right track.”

But Hayes acknowledged that, as state GOP chairman, he feels like a baseball catcher with a big mitt who is never sure what the pitcher, in this case Trump, will throw next.

“Fairly frequently, he will make a comment that will alienate a Republican somewhere and that makes national news,” Hayes said. “We just try to catch the ball, or at least keep the ball in front of us … so that the (Democratic) runners won’t advance.”

Candidates linked to Trump

Meanwhile, American Bridge, a Democratic-allied super PAC, released a new 30-second digital ad Thursday that seeks to tie Burr and five other GOP Senate candidates to Trump. And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did the same in a new digital video.

Paul Shumaker, a political consultant for Burr, said Thursday that North Carolina has “a rich and extensive history of ticket-splitting” and that Democrats are trying to distract voters from the record of their Senate candidate, Ross.

“At the end of the day, the U.S. Senate race will be decided not on the individual choices for president,” he said. “It will be decided on the records of the two (Senate) candidates.”

Shumaker said that, every four years, each presidential candidate presents “a unique set of challenges for each of the political parties.”

Currently, he acknowledged, “Trump’s propensity (for controversy) is making that list a little longer.”

Burr and McCrory, like many Republican office holders, have said they support their party’s nominee, if not fully embracing Trump. Burr has distanced himself from Trump’s criticism of the Khans.

If there’s a politician who remains gung-ho about Trump, it’s North Carolina Sen. Ronald Rabin, who has backed the anti-establishment candidate from the beginning. The Harnett County Republican said he’s not concerned about Clinton’s rising poll numbers or about many Republicans’ heartburn over Trump’s unscripted comments.

“There’s no need to panic. It’s a long way to November,” Rabin said. “We just need to keep putting the case out there. … He’s the best chance we have. I don’t see an established candidate who can handle it.”

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