Despite the victory of outsider Donald Trump in the GOP presidential primary, there were few signs of a political prairie fire Tuesday as North Carolina voters generally cast their ballots for well-established candidates.
Trump, with his promise to build a wall along the Mexican border and to negotiate tougher trade deals, won the Republican primary in a state that has seen two powerful changes in recent decades – one of the largest losses of industrial jobs in the country and one of the nation’s fastest growing Latino populations.
North Carolina has lost 359,000 manufacturing jobs since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, devastating the economies in areas such as Hickory and Concord where Trump held rallies in recent days. In an unrelated development, the state’s Latino population has grown from 76,726 in 1990 to 828,000 in 2010 or about 9.7 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center – a change unsettling to some voters.
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(Voters, however, told the network exit polls that the economy, government spending, and terrorism rated higher than immigration in their concerns.)
Combined with the second place finish by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who also campaigned against Washington, the powerful Trump-Cruz vote signaled a deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the country among many Republican voters.
Trump carried North Carolina despite being ignored by the state’s entire GOP political leadership, which either endorsed his presidential rivals or stayed neutral. But while state GOP leaders may not have wanted him to be their nominee, they avidly courted Trump and his message before he became a candidate, inviting him to speak to their state conventions in 2012 and 2015.
In the Democratic presidential primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also sought to tap into worker frustration about trade and padlocked plant gates. But unlike many midwestern states, much of the pick-up-truck vote in North Carolina is Republican, not Democrat.
Sanders also ran into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Southern Firewall, where her strong support in the black community has enabled her to sweep the Southern Democratic primaries.
There was no sign of a voter pitchfork revolt down the ballot, where incumbents and established, well-financed candidates dominated.
On the Republican side, despite grumblings from conservatives, Gov. Pat McCrory was easily re-nominated against what turned out to be token opposition. What was key here is that no Republican of stature – or a businessman who could self-finance – decided to challenge North Carolina’s first GOP governor in 20 years. That freed McCrory to spend his time campaigning for a $2 billion bond issue which also passed – again a sign of no generalized voter revolt.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr easily glided to re-nomination as well, despite a Tea Party challenge from the right from Cary physician Greg Brannon, among others.
There was no sign of pitch forks among among Democrats, either. The two favored candidates – Attorney General Roy Cooper and former state Rep. Deborah Ross – won their party’s nominations for governor and the U.S. Senate, respectively.
In both cases, Cooper and Ross were the better known candidates, the best financed, had the most endorsements, and were the most seasoned. This primary underscores that such fundamentals matter, especially for races that were overshadowed by a presidential contest.
There may have also been a reluctance by the Democrats – once the ruling party in North Carolina, but now the underdog – to engage in a rough and tumble primary that could harm its efforts to defeat two Republican incumbents, Burr and McCrory.
With the growing possibility of the provocative and polarizing Trump heading the GOP ticket in the fall, both Burr and McCrory are likely to face more difficult re-election campaigns than they had initially anticipated.