Rob Christensen

NC pols to national candidates: Don’t stand so close to me

Jim Graham
Jim Graham

When Walter Mondale made his lone appearance in North Carolina during the 1984 fall presidential campaign, the highest-ranking Democrat to greet him was Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham. Graham felt obligated to be there because Mondale was visiting the Asheville farmers market.

All the other Tar Heel Democrats found excuses to be scarce. That also had been true when Hubert Humphrey campaigned here in 1968, and George McGovern in 1972.

Even as late as 2000, a political buddy of Mike Easley begged the Democratic nominee for governor not to go on the tarmac to greet Vice President Al Gore, for fear that their encounter would become a Republican TV ad.

Easley did — and it did.

Now Republicans may face the same quandary, as evidenced by the primary night taunts by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Roy Cooper of the “Trump-McCrory administration.”

The question now is whether Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, will show up at campaign rallies with New York businessman Donald Trump if he is the Republican presidential nominee. Will they even attend what could be a raucous GOP convention in Cleveland?

Tuesday’s primaries made it more likely that Trump will be the GOP nominee and that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic choice.

Here are 10 takeaways from those primaries.

1. Never has establishment politics seemed so impotent, or endorsements so meaningless. A who’s who of GOP leaders lined up to back Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, including U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, Raleigh businessman Art Pope, former party chairmen Tom Fetzer and Robin Hayes and at least a dozen state lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Mike Hager and House Speaker Pro Tem Skip Stam. Rubio finished fourth in the state’s GOP presidential primary, with 7.7 percent of the vote. Wonder why endorsements mean so little? A majority (56 percent) of Tar Heel Republicans who voted Tuesday felt betrayed by their party, according to network exit polls.

2. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had few endorsements. But he had the conservative churches. According to network exit polls, six of 10 Republican voters in North Carolina on Tuesday described themselves as evangelicals. Thanks to the church network, Cruz also had the only real field operation in the GOP primary. Which is why he lost to Trump by a margin of only 40.2 percent to 36.8 percent. (According to exit polls, Trump was stronger among early voters, but Cruz had more momentum on election day.)

3. So why did Trump win? A large majority of GOP voters (seven in 10) were very worried about the country’s economic future. And there was strong support for a political outsider. Trump won 65 percent of the outsider vote, according to exit polls.

4. The Trump vote was not necessarily a conservative vote. Those who described themselves as very conservative tended to vote for Cruz (50 percent) rather than Trump (34 percent). Those who preferred experience over outsider status tended to vote for Cruz.

5. Clinton had a powerful win in North Carolina, crushing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by a margin of 54.6 percent to 40.8 percent. This must have been a rewarding experience after she lost the state in 2008 to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

6. But Clinton has a youth problem. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Democratic voters ages 18-29 in North Carolina supported Sanders, according to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. That youth vote actually allowed Sanders to draw more votes than either Trump or Cruz in North Carolina.

7. Clinton won North Carolina by doing well among blacks (eight of 10), women (six of 10), people who value political experience (eight of 10) and people who want President Obama’s policies continued (three-fourths).

8. McCrory can take satisfaction in winning a larger percentage of his primary vote (82 percent) than did Cooper (69 percent). His campaign noted that during the past 20 years the candidate with the larger primary percentage has won the general election. Republicans hope that same formula does not apply to Senate races, where Democrat Deborah Ross (62.3 percent) received a larger percentage than did Burr (61.4 percent.)

9. Burr also might be concerned about another trend. North Carolina is one of 18 states that have never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate and a Republican senator, according to Eric Ostermeier, who writes the Smart Politics blog. This could be a particularly dangerous moment for Burr, because polls suggest that he does not have a strong identity and that his election could be affected by national politics.

10. Clinton can thank, indirectly, Democratic former Gov. Jim Hunt for her big delegate lead. Not only has Clinton won a majority of the primaries, but she has garnered most of the support of the so-called super delegates – the elected officials and party leaders. The super delegates were created in 1981-82 by a national party commission headed by Hunt as a way to make sure seasoned party leaders have some influence over the selection of the Democratic nominee.

A personal note: I’m going on a six-month leave to finish a book about North Carolina’s Scott family. My column will return in September.