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The Republicans are close to losing the suburbs, and Trump is worried

Dan McCready, Democrat candidate for North Carolina's 9th District. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

With a possible recession and trade war with China looming, even Republican strongholds are no longer guaranteed to plump for Trump, says BONNIE GREER.

North Carolina, the state where Donald Trump has arguably received his most urgent wake-up call regarding 2020, is known as the Tar Heel State.

That name may have come from the fact that it was a supplier of naval stores during the colonial era. The great pine trees, native to the eastern part of the state, produced tar, pitch and turpentine, used to coat wooden ships and prevent damage from a vessel’s greatest adversary: shipworms. This tar eventually wound up on the heels of the men who harvested it, making them ‘tar heels’, and eventually giving that name to the entire state.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is world-renowned, and is the oldest university in the United States.

It was in North Carolina that the first successful flight was made. This happened in 1903 at Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk. And the successful pilots were the Wright Brothers of Ohio, a fact that does not bother North Carolinians at all.

The state is one half of the Carolinas, the other part being South Carolina, and they are bordered by Virginia to the north, Tennessee to the west, Georgia to the south east and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The original province of Carolina was founded in the 17th century and named after Charles I of England. His son, Charles II, later issued a new charter for it.

It is easy to imagine the region back in those days and much later, wrapped up in England and a notion of England: the gentility of the landed gentry and the aristocracy.

It is easy, too, to imagine the wives of plantation owners caught up in the craze for Shakespeare that swept the United States in the early and mid-19th century. North Carolina upper crust ladies were meant to hold a notion of white womanhood, an idea strategic to what North Carolina was before the Civil War: a slave power.

This idea of fragility was so prevalent that a call went out to southern women to step forward and nurse during the ‘War of Northern Aggression’:

Fold away all your bright-tinted dresses

Turn the key on your jewels today,

And the wealth of your tendril-like tresses

Braid back, in a serious way.

No more trifling in the boudoir or bower,

But come with your soul in your faces

To meet the stern needs of the hour.

North Carolina was the last state to join the Confederacy and one of the main states to push back against Reconstruction – the post-war re-integration of the South back into the Union after the war.

The state, along with other former members of the Confederacy, defied the enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution which gave former slaves – whose labour had been the backbone of the state’s economy – citizenship and the right to vote. The Ku Klux Klan became one of the state’s after-dark activities of choice.

Yet North Carolina was also one of the great seed-beds of the civil rights and racial equality movement. In 1957, several African Americans demanded service at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor, in the city of Durham, and occupied the section reserved for white patrons, starting a sit-in. At Greensboro, in 1960, a series of sit-ins helped to catalyse a wider campaign that spread to more than 55 cities in 13 US states within three months.

North Carolina had always been largely a Democratic Party state, but more accurately a ‘Dixiecrat’ one – a wing of the party dedicated to segregation. To bypass the party’s mechanisms at the state and local levels – in other words, to blindside the South – the Democrats created the category of ‘superdelegates’ – who are able to chose which presidential candidate to vote for themselves, at the Democratic National Convention, rather than be beholden to state primaries or caucuses. The aim was to take control of the process somewhat away from the state machine, so that African American Democrats could escape the selection process and be free delegates on the floor of the convention.

Now, it is considered more of a swing state. George W Bush carried it by double digits in 2000 and 2004; Barack Obama narrowly beat John McCain 49.7% to 49.4% in 2008, becoming the first Democratic nominee to win the state in 32 years; it returned to the Republicans in 2012, with Mitt Romney defeating Obama 50.3% to 48.3%.

So this was a state that Donald Trump had to win in 2016 and he did: 2,362,631 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 2,189,316: 49.83% to 46.17%. And it is important to remember: Americans do not directly elect their president. Since most presidents usually win the popular vote, too, no one has to actually remember this fact – it is the electoral college – comprising the number of votes allotted to each state – that determines who wins the White House.

So even though Clinton won the majority of votes, she did not win the states. Trump did. The fact is this: He simply needs one more vote in the electoral college than his opponent and he has a second term.

This was the basis of his 2016 electoral strategy and will be the basis of his 2020 strategy. And it is the reason why the recent special election in North Carolina has to be setting off alarm bells. Big time.

The election was held earlier this month to fill a vacancy in the state’s 9th congressional district in the House of Representatives, following allegations of fraud in the original vote last November.

This month’s race saw Democrat Dan McCready, a former Marine and Harvard MBA who calls himself a centrist, take on Republican state senator, Dan Bishop, who is best known as the sponsor of North Carolina’s so-called ‘Bathroom Bill’, which banned transgender people from using public toilets in accordance with their chosen gender. The legislation was later overruled in a decision
affirmed by the Supreme Court, but the very fact that it even existed tells you all you need to know about the stakes at hand.

North Carolina’s 9th congressional district flows eastward from the prosperous suburbs of Charlotte out to the rural areas bordering South Carolina. It was won by Trump with an 11-point lead in 2016. It has been Republican since 1963. The fact that it was even in play is the point.

In the special election campaign, the Republicans conjured up the spectre of Nancy Pelosi and the person they consider her successor, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as the reason to flee the Democrats. (It was at a Trump rally earlier this year in Greenville, North Carolina, that the crowd yelled “Send her back” about the Democrat congresswoman Ilhan Omar).

The Republicans won this month’s vote: Bishop took 96,081 votes or 50.7% of the tally, to McGready’s’ 92,144, or 48.7%. A win is a win. But this was a marquee race and the Democrats did much better than they should have done.

In recent years, North Carolina has been ‘ruby red’ – pretty much a Republican stronghold. But this election shows that the suburbs are leaning Democratic, and the rural areas Republican. And if the US economy heads for recession in 2020, and the China trade war continues to bite farmers, even a state like North Carolina might not be in the bag.

So if the Republicans lose the suburbs, Trump is in big trouble. Because the cities and their suburbs are where the majority of the population live.

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