Patrick O’Brien says he’ll be “first in line” to vote for President Donald Trump again in November. Speaking under a sweltering summer sun, the retired police officer offers multiple reasons why the president deserves to be reelected.
But when asked about Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s first-term senator who will also be on the ballot this fall, Mr. O’Brien pauses and strokes his gray goatee. He then asks, “He’s a Republican, right?”
It’s a common reaction across Nash County, a rural area known for its sweet potatoes, where some streets have more churches than houses. Many voters don’t have a strong opinion about Senator Tillis or his Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. Instead, the vast majority say they’ll vote based almost entirely on their opinions of President Trump.
Split-ticket voting has become increasingly rare as the country has become more polarized along partisan lines. In 2016, all 34 Senate races were won by the same party that won the presidential race in those states. And while presidential candidates often have “coattails,” helping elect down-ballot politicians on the strength of their own popularity, the reverse can also be true.
With President Trump, the effect may cut both ways: He inspires passionate levels of support among his party’s base, while also repelling many swing voters – a dynamic that has thrust Republican senators like Mr. Tillis into an exceedingly delicate balancing act.
As the president’s approval ratings continue to slide overall – former Vice President Joe Biden now holds a commanding lead among independents, and a widening majority of Americans say they disapprove of Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic – Republicans in close races aren’t disavowing the president. But they aren’t exactly hugging him close, either.
“Tillis is in the same boat as some other [Republican] senators who are in trouble,” says David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, and director of The Meredith Poll. “They are all trying to walk this tightrope – and it’s a challenging tightrope to walk.”
At North Carolina’s GOP convention in early July – a Facebook livestream event featuring politicians and party activists – Mr. Tillis sang the president’s praises, showed a clip of himself on stage with Mr. Trump at a rally, and spoke about the importance of getting the president reelected.
Just days later, in two separate COVID-19-related telephone town halls with thousands of voters on the line, Mr. Tillis never mentioned the president. He emphasized multiple times the importance of wearing face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – a matter on which Mr. Trump for months took a prominently different stance – and called the politicization of the issue “frustrating.”
In Mr. Tillis’s first television ad of the general election, the senator is shown walking around a North Carolina trailer park, talking about his “humble” upbringing. There is no mention of Mr. Trump.
Mr. McLennan wonders what Mr. Tillis will do if or when Mr. Trump comes to campaign in North Carolina in person. “Maybe in rural places Tillis will show up, but if the president shows up in Raleigh or Charlotte, maybe Tillis will have something else to do that day, like wash his hair,” he says, with a chuckle.
He adds, “Six months ago, Thom Tillis never would have imagined how hard this reelection was going to be.”
Senate majority up for grabs
For Democrats to retake the majority in the Senate they need a net gain of four seats. Of the 23 Republican senators on the ballot this fall, five have their races rated as “toss ups” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report: Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Montana Sen. Steve Daines, and Senator Tillis, who was moved to that column in March. One Democrat, Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, has his race categorized as “lean Republican.” All the other Democratic seats up this cycle are considered “lean” or “likely” Democratic.
In part thanks to President Trump’s polarizing effect, Democrats have been posting eye-popping fundraising numbers in several states. Mr. Cunningham raised more than $7 million in the second quarter of 2020, a record for North Carolina.
One of North Carolina’s youngest state senators in the early 2000s, Mr. Cunningham left politics for a while, volunteering for the U.S. Army reserves and working at local law firms. His first television ad, titled “Oath,” features photographs of him in an army uniform projected onto the side of a barn, while he talks to the camera about fighting corruption in Washington.
“Even though Tillis tries to paint his opponent as this ultra-liberal firebrand, that’s not what North Carolinians think of Cal Cunningham,” says Mr. McLennan. Mr. Cunningham wants to expand Medicaid and protect the Affordable Care Act, for example, but does not endorse Medicare for All. He opposes offshore drilling, but does not support the Green New Deal.
Before COVID-19 effectively shut down in-person campaigning, he was diligently reaching out to voters across the state, says Valerie Steel, chair of the Nash County Democrats. “Cal Cunningham is doing the footwork,” she says.
But while Mr. Cunningham may benefit from a more centrist profile than his party as a whole, that’s not necessarily the case for Republicans like Senator Tillis.
For many Republicans, the political fortunes of former GOP colleagues who criticized Mr. Trump and went on to lose their own elections loom as “cautionary tales,” as Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel has put it. Just last week, Jeff Sessions lost the primary for the Alabama Senate seat he had held for two decades before being appointed U.S. Attorney General by Mr. Trump. After that relationship soured, Mr. Trump wound up backing Mr. Sessions’ opponent, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.
Mr. Tillis has had some back-and-forth with the president. In February 2019, after Mr. Trump declared a national emergency to move forward with his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Mr. Tillis penned an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing the president’s move. But he later reversed his position.
“People thought he wasn’t supporting the president at first,” says Nashville Mayor Brenda Brown. “But then he turned, so he won back favor with the people.”
More recently, as the Trump campaign tussled with North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over how to hold the Republican National Convention safely during the pandemic, Mr. Tillis was largely supportive of the governor. In March, Mr. Tillis wrote to Mr. Trump in support of Governor Cooper’s disaster declaration, and he had good things to say about the governor’s cautious approach to reopening the state. The convention, scheduled to take place next month, wound up being moved to Florida.
Politicians who try to take a nuanced approach often wind up pleasing no one, says James Gailliard, the Democratic state representative for southern Nash County.
“The thing about North Carolinians that I’ve learned is that they can forgive you if they disagree with you, if you can explain your decision and stick with it,” says Representative Gailliard, adding that he has had to defend tough votes himself. “We don’t respond well to candidates who don’t pick a side.”
Sue Leggett, a Nash County Commissioner and first-generation farm owner, says she has appreciated Mr. Tillis’s focus on the nitty gritty aspects of immigration policy. But she wonders whether that kind of attention to local issues is worth much anymore. Indeed, if it means breaking with the president, she says, it could hurt more than it helps.
“It puts them in a precarious situation,” says Ms. Leggett, at her farm office in Nashville. “They are called a moderate or weak on a subject, when they may just be a real common-sense person.”
That’s not to say Mr. Tillis has a centrist record. During his time in the U.S. Senate, he has voted in line with President Trump more than 93% of the time. And on the two issues that Nash County conservatives say matter most to them, abortion and guns, Mr. Tillis delivers: he has a 0% score from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.
Before he defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014, Mr. Tillis served as Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, where he helped the state House pass a law requiring ultrasounds on women seeking abortions. (The law was later struck down by the courts.)
“I feel positive Trump will win [Nash County] and I feel almost positive Tillis will win, just because we are so pro-life, we are so pro-Second Amendment,” says Mayor Brown.
A state in transition
North Carolina’s status as a swing state is relatively recent. Over the past 40 years, the state has only gone for a Democratic presidential candidate once, narrowly voting for Barack Obama in 2008. In 2012 and 2016, the state swung back to the GOP – but by some of the smallest margins in the country.
Mr. Trump’s “suburban slump” has been particularly evident in North Carolina, where he has gone from a 24-point lead among suburban voters in 2016 to a 21-point deficit in 2020.
“This state is really transitioning in ways that many people don’t realize,” says Michael Bitzer, chair of political science at Catawba College and creator of Old North State Politics blog.
That transition seems to be fueling Mr. Cunningham’s modest lead in the Tar Heel state, which has some of the fastest growing suburbs in the country. A recent Fox News poll found Mr. Cunningham holding a 16-point lead among suburban voters.
Nash County offers an example of another, less-noticed warning sign for the Trump and Tillis campaigns: softening support among working-class white voters, particularly women.
In 2016, Mr. Trump won white voters without a college degree by 37 points nationally and by 44 points in North Carolina. Two recent Fox News polls, however, show that Mr. Trump’s lead among this demographic has shrunk to a 9 point advantage nationally and a 15 point lead in North Carolina.
More diverse than the country as a whole, Nash County is 41% Black, with a median household income almost $12,000 less than the national average. In 2014, Mr. Tillis won the area by less than 2 percentage points. In 2016, Mr. Trump won the county by 84 votes.
Kim Taylor, a hairdresser and single mother, says she’s voted a straight Republican ticket her entire life – including in 2016. But she’s become so discouraged about the direction of the country that she doubts she’ll even vote at all this November.
“People thought that Trump would make them matter, and that he would make America great again,” says Ms. Taylor, leaning on her cart in a Walmart aisle as customers bustle pass. “I haven’t seen anyone come around who could give a better life to me, my kids, and my grandkids. I’ve just lost faith.”
Others suggest they’ll vote for Mr. Trump – and Mr. Tillis – begrudgingly. “I think Trump is a scumbag,” says Karen, who works on her father’s sweet potato farm and declines to give her last name because “talking politics around here is bad for business.”
“All I see is everyone around here posting on Facebook about how bad Trump is,” she says, while shopping at the Piggly Wiggly. “But in the end, I’m a conservative,” she shrugs.
Some here believe that support for the president has actually grown.
“From what I’ve seen, rural North Carolina has really rallied around President Trump, more than any other president that I can remember,” says Ms. Leggett, who has lived in the area for almost her entire life. “And I think that support is going to trickle down for Senator Tillis.”
And it’s far from clear that Mr. Biden has Nash County in the bag. While he captured the Democratic nomination in large part due to overwhelming support among Southern Black voters, enthusiasm among many African-American residents here seems lackluster. One Black woman leaving the Piggly Wiggly simply says she “stays out of politics,” and another says she “didn’t vote in 2016, and doesn’t plan to in 2020.”
James, who installs hardwood floors for a living and declines to give his last name, offers some of the strongest support. “I will vote in November, and you know it won’t be for Trump. So yeah, I guess it’ll be Biden,” he says, snacking on a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in front of a gas station in Spring Hope.
“I mean, it’s gotta get better, right?” he adds. “We all need to come together.”