As Donald Trump keeps winning primaries and delegates, prominent Republicans in the Carolinas who had put their hopes on one or more of his rivals are now torn.
They would still prefer somebody else at the top of the ticket but see little chance that Trump can be denied the GOP presidential nomination.
And while they shudder at the prospect of another Clinton presidency, they’re afraid Trump would lose big to the Democratic nominee in November – and possibly take down GOP candidates for Senate and governor with him.
These former backers of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and other vanquished candidates are left with a less-than-enthusiastic pledge that, as loyal Republicans, they will go along with whoever the delegates in Cleveland nominate in July.
Or as former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, who sees Trump as inevitable, put it: “I will ultimately support our nominee. And I’m hoping I’ll take my finger off my nose at some point.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich remain in the Republican race and are trying to keep Trump from winning the necessary 1,237 delegates by beating him in upcoming primaries – especially Indiana’s on Tuesday.
But even those who would celebrate if Trump’s last two challengers could pull it off see little chance that they will.
“For the chattering class – the political people – the reality (of Trump’s nomination) is sinking in,” said one North Carolina conservative political activist who asked not to be identified. “That doesn’t mean we’re happy about it.”
To be sure, Trump’s victory in the North Carolina primary in March and his national momentum now have prompted some to jump on his bandwagon.
U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., of Harnett County, who is fighting to win a tough congressional primary in June, not only endorsed Trump but wrote a brief tribute to him in Time magazine’s issue on “The 100 Most Influential People.”
“Frankly, the U.S. is in desperate need of a leader like Trump who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo,” Ellmers wrote.
Also a Trump backer now: Neal Harrington. He had been N.C. finance director for Ben Carson, who dropped out of the GOP presidential race and threw his support to Trump. “I’m so sick of the establishment,” Harrington said. “Trump gives me hope that something can be changed.”
But for every public endorsement of Trump in the state, there are equally vocal denunciations of the businessman-turned-politician.
“I think Donald Trump will be a train wreck for America,” said Felix Sabates, a major Republican donor whose business interests include car dealerships, a NASCAR racing team and the Charlotte Hornets. “I have no respect for him. The guy’s a bully and an egomaniac, and he’s trying to intimidate the Republican Party.”
Sabates, of Charlotte, said he’s contributed money to the campaign of every GOP presidential nominee since Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. But not this year – unless the GOP can somehow see its way to a contested convention and nominate House Speaker Paul Ryan or Kasich.
“I’m not giving Donald Trump one dime … and I won’t vote for him, either,” said Sabates, a former Rubio supporter who added that he couldn’t vote for Republican Cruz or Democrat Hillary Clinton, either. “I will vote – it’s my duty – but I will not vote for president.”
N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, a Davie County Republican who co-chaired Rubio’s campaign in the state and is also running for Congress, had little to say about Trump other than “we’ll see” if he gets enough delegates to be nominated.
Brock’s default, which echoes other Republicans in the Carolinas, is to stress the importance of beating the Democrats: “ Republicans will galvanize come November and do everything in our power to keep (the Democrats from winning).”
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who was one of many Republican officeholders to publicly back Rubio, will not make another endorsement before the GOP convention, said Jordan Shaw, Tillis’ state director.
“He’s going to support the Republican nominee,” Shaw said. “Whoever our nominee is would be a better president than Hillary Clinton.”
That support-the-nominee position is also what N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. – both up for re-election – have said for months.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed Rubio before her state’s primary, which Trump won easily. Then, in mid-March, she told reporters she was hoping Cruz would win the nomination.
And if he doesn’t? “I’ve always said that I would support the Republican nominee,” Haley said at that March news conference. “Ask me when the time comes again. But, as of now, I strongly believe I’ll support the Republican nominee.”
For GOP officeholders and candidates, pledging to endorse the eventual nominee often translates into lukewarm support and distance once the fall campaign begins, said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury.
“Unless there’s a true conversion to Trump conservatism,” Bitzer said, “it means there’s a tacit acknowledgment that he is their party’s nominee, but that they will go their separate way when it comes to campaign strategy.”
Hope for a ‘better’ Trump
The question now, Bitzer said, Vinroot and others, is: If he does get the nomination, will Trump alter a say-anything style that has so alienated big voting groups – women, Hispanics, young people – that down-ballot Republicans worry that the GOP brand and their own chances have been tarnished?
In poll findings released last week, the GOP-leaning N.C. Civitas found that Trump has a 65 percent unfavorable rating among likely N.C. voters. Clinton’s unfavorable number – 52 percent – is high, too, but she was way ahead of Trump in the poll’s head-to-head matchup, 49 percent to 37 percent.
Vinroot, the N.C. GOP’s candidate for governor in 2000, said he’s been “trying to find some redeeming value” in Trump.
It did give him pause, Vinroot said, when two voters whose views he respects – his own grown daughter and son – informed him they were for Trump because they liked his authenticity.
“I hope he has the capacity to get better,” said Vinroot, struggling to find a way to look on the bright side of a Trump run. “I can’t see him as president. On the other hand, I don’t want to see Hillary Clinton. She has an artificial quality. There’s nothing artificial about (Trump). He is what he is.”