‘A must-win’: Trump loves talking about NC victories. Can he get one more in 2020?

Two months before the 2016 presidential election, GOP strategist Doug Heye dropped by the Forsyth County party headquarters expecting to find campaign literature and signs promoting Donald Trump.

Heye, a North Carolina native who once ran the national party’s communications apparatus, was shocked to find that the office had no material for workers to use when they make phone calls to voters, and no visible signs bearing the name of the Republican presidential nominee.

“We don’t hear from the campaign. There’s no organization. We can’t get what we need,” he recalled an organizer saying.

That’s not the case this time, Heye said of the state Trump ultimately carried by 173,315 votes or 3.67 points in his surprise 2016 win — the greatest margin since George W. Bush’s victory in 2004. Trump’s campaign is more organized now, he said, and campaign officials say they are modeling their 2020 strategy off their success in two special elections this year that Trump can’t stop talking about.

That means building upon the limited infrastructure that existed in 2016. The Trump campaign says it hasn’t left North Carolina since then, and are building up a fortress in the swing state where Republicans will hold their nominating convention next year.

Republican National Committee Communications Director Rick Gorka told McClatchy that the national party, working hand in hand with the president’s campaign, has held 130 Trump Victory Leadership Initiative trainings that have produced more than 1,400 Fellows in North Carolina this election cycle.

“The volunteer army we continue to build and the permanent ground game that extends from cycle to cycle is what made us successful in North Carolina in 2016, in 2018, and is what will help set us apart from a fractured Democrat Party with minimal infrastructure in 2020,” Gorka said.

Trump Victory now uses a smartphone app to conduct tutorials in non-traditional locations like homes, businesses, coffee shops and neighborhood parks — in addition to an undisclosed number of campaign offices the GOP says it’s opening in North Carolina.

David Bergestein, the director of battleground state communications at the Democratic National Committee, also said the DNC is working with North Carolina Democrats to fund a field director, voter protection director and other general election readiness staff in the state.

While the state’s 15 electoral votes are critical to Trump’s effort, its election outcomes are also seen as an indicator of national trends.

“It’s a must-win,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, who represents far-western North Carolina and is one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress.

Heye said: “I expect Trump to win Carolina, and if he doesn’t, well, then he’s going to lose handily.”

Democrats, who broke Republican state legislative supermajorities in 2018 with urban and suburban victories, have reason for optimism in a state they’ve carried just once in a presidential election since 1976. Trump’s approval in the state has fallen by 21 points since January 2017, according to Morning Consult, which tracks the president’s approval by state each month

Recent polling from East Carolina University and Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling shows Trump in a tight race with as many as five of the Democratic presidential contenders — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

Morgan Jackson, a veteran Democratic strategist in the state, said a loss in North Carolina would indicate that other states Trump won in 2016, including Pennsylvania, had slipped away, as well. Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008, but lost the state during his successful re-election bid in 2012.

“We’ve seen a Democrat can win the White House without winning North Carolina,” Jackson said. “It is mathematically impossible for Trump to get re-elected if he doesn’t win North Carolina.”

‘We won both of them’

The president repeatedly points to Republican victories in two special congressional elections in September as evidence of his popularity in North Carolina. Trump campaigned in the Tar Heel State for Republicans Greg Murphy and Dan Bishop, making an election eve trip to Fayetteville to boost Bishop. He faced a tough general election against Democrat Dan McCready.

Trump can’t stop talking about the triumphs — or his role in them.

He mentioned them in a Fox News interview earlier this month, at a Cabinet meeting, on Twitter and at a police chiefs conference in Chicago on Monday. Asked about the impact of impeachment during a recent South Lawn session, Trump turned the focus to his campaigning in North Carolina.

“I really believe that (the Democrats) are going to pay a tremendous price at the polls. So, I think you got your first glimpse of what’s going to happen, and the big key is that I have to campaign there,” Trump said. “But if you look at what happened in North Carolina — two races — we won both of them, and we won them easily. And one was almost tied and the other one was a big, big lead, and that one turned and the tie became a landslide.”

Murphy won the 3rd Congressional District in Eastern North Carolina by 24 points in a race that he was expected to win handily ⁠— and where Republicans fought among themselves in a primary runoff. Trump won the district by a near identical margin in 2016.

The win was larger than an RRH poll taken a week prior predicted it would be. The survey gave Murphy an 11-point edge over Democratic opponent and former Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas.

In the 9th Congressional District, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville, Bishop squeaked out a victory against McCready in a closely watched race. Though Trump often exaggerates how far behind Bishop was during the competition, Meadows and other Republicans said early vote totals suggested the Republican might lose the seat before Bishop began airing pro-Trump ads and the president visited.

McCready won the early vote by nearly 8,500 votes.

But buoyed by a strong Election Day performance, Bishop won overall by 2 percentage points or less than 5,000 votes.

“Trump came and motivated the base when it needed to be motivated,” said Heye, who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 and said he is unlikely to do so in 2020.

On Monday, a three-judge panel in North Carolina ruled that the state’s current congressional map violates several provisions of the state constitution and cannot be used in 2020, a decision that could have dramatic effects on the makeup on districts like the 3rd and 9th but won’t affect a statewide race like the presidential election.

The Trump campaign says the Republican victories are an indication of the strength of the president’s re-election team.

“The recent special elections in North Carolina were a test for our field efforts and our get-out-the-vote efforts, and our team did exceptionally well. And of course President Trump’s rally the day before election day made all the difference in NC-9. When President Trump is at the top of the ticket again in 2020, our voters will be energized and our machine will be in high gear,” said Trump 2020 Communications Director Tim Murtaugh.

Unsolicited, the president again brought up the special elections on Monday at the law enforcement event in Chicago, giving himself a pat on the back for the Republicans’ success.

“We just won two in the great state of North Carolina. Two House seats. And they were won by big margins. And I helped. I was very happy about that. The only problem is they don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

What it means for 2020

The victory in the 9th district, which Trump carried by 11.6 percentage points in 2016, also contains warnings for the incumbent president. Bishop, a sitting state senator running for the vacant seat, underperformed Trump by 3 percentage points in suburban Union County and 5 percentage points in 9th district’s portion of Mecklenburg County, according to an analysis by Catawba College political science chair Michael Bitzer.

That type of slippage could cost Trump his 2016 edge in the state.

“An urban-suburban district with the remnants of rural areas attached to it. That’s a warning sign that I would read,” Bitzer said. “That has been trending nationally for some time and it’s starting to play out in North Carolina.”

Bergestein, the DNC spokesman, said, “Trump is facing incredibly stiff headwinds in North Carolina” and that it’s “because his agenda is out of step with voters.”

“Democrats are taking nothing for granted. We’re making historic early investments in North Carolina and across the battlegrounds to ensure that our eventual nominee has the infrastructure we need to win in 2020,” he said.

Jackson cautioned that, between now and November 2020, and any number of factors — including how the Democratic-controlled House’s impeachment inquiry plays out — could move enough voters to shift the outcome of the election in any direction.

McCready outspent Bishop and devoted nearly two years to running for the seat. The election came after the state’s board of elections discovered voter fraud carried out by the previous Republican nominee’s campaign in the district. And Bishop still won.

Trump is likely to have a cash advantage over any Democratic rival. Plus, as he likes to point out, there is the power of his visits. Trump visited the state 12 times, making 15 stops, in the final four-plus months of the 2016 campaign.

“Based on the numbers that came out, if I were a Democrat, I would not be celebrating it,” Meadows said.

Gorka, the RNC official, said: “Never underestimate Democrats’ ability to take comfort in moral victories. Meanwhile we just win and move on to the next race.”

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Francesca Chambers has covered the White House for more than five years across two presidencies. In 2016, she was embedded with the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. She is a Kansas City native.
Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.