GASTON COUNTY, North Carolina — “Forgive our mess,” Mary Anne Huggins said as she led me through the Gaston County Republican Party headquarters on a recent Wednesday morning. “We never throw anything away — we’re conservative.”
A gallery of candidate yard signs was tacked neatly on a fresh raspberry-red paint job — Trump, McCrory, McHenry, Bumgardner. Official photos of George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle hung side by side on one wall; a portrait of Liddy Dole graced another. “At some point after moving in, we lost a Ronald Reagan picture,” Huggins said. Gaston County, as the decor showed, has long been what she called “a down-home, conservative-value county.”
“You’ve got Union County, Mecklenburg and Gaston,” Huggins said, ticking off the names of counties encompassing or abutting Charlotte, the state’s largest city. Mecklenburg, home to Charlotte, had started to go in “another direction,” she said, making Gaston’s role as conservative firewall even more important. “We are holding our conservative values — you notice that right next door is a church. We are very God conscious, family values.”
Gaston County is made up of cities and towns filled with modest homes and businesses. Most of its roughly 200,000 residents are white, and more than half of people aged 25 and over have attended at least some college. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the suburban county easily, 62 percent to President Obama’s 37 percent, the same margin that John McCain beat Obama by in 2008. But this year, according to data gathered from August to early October by the polling firm Morning Consult,1 Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been running neck and neck in Gaston County, with each supported by about 40 percent of voters.
Huggins was reluctant to talk about the Republican nominee or the dissent rippling through the party — she wouldn’t say for whom she’d voted in the primary, either. “That’s over,” Huggins said. People who came through the office doors for yard signs and to volunteer didn’t seem to care too much about national party infighting.
“We’re here to win a campaign in a positive way — Gaston County is positive,” Huggins said.
I left the office a while later with a barbecue recommendation, my handshake rejected for a hug. Three days later, a county-level Republican office in North Carolina just like the one where Huggins works was firebombed.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory called the crime “an attack on democracy,” and Clinton tweeted that it was “horrific and unacceptable.” But that such a visceral and politically motivated act was perpetrated in North Carolina seemed sadly less than surprising. For some months, the state has shown itself to be perhaps the most active and controversial practitioner of democracy in 2016’s America.
The state’s streak of in-the-news-ness started in March, when McCrory signed into law a bill that would overturn a Charlotte city ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice in public buildings. In May, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state while a stream of prominent corporations and organizations pulled their North Carolina business. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear a case arguing that the state’s redrawing of congressional districts relied too heavily on racial considerations. In July, a federal appeals court ruled that its voter ID bill was unconstitutional and sought to suppress the black vote “with almost surgical precision.” In September, a black man named Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by police in Charlotte, sparking a days-long protest against the city government in which one protester, Justin Carr, was killed.
2016 is a year that has challenged political norms and traditional coalitions, something that is evident in Gaston County. The faultlines in America, this election has shown, are between white and nonwhite and increasingly between those with a college education and those without it. Although in the past Republicans performed well with college-educated whites, the kind of Gaston voter Huggins might be used to targeting, Trump consistently loses the group. As the leanings of some demographic groups change, so do areas, and the transition is slowly revealing itself in Gaston County as traditional conservatives, socially liberal Republicans and the underdog Democrats grapple with the implications of 2016.
With all that’s roiling in North Carolina, it remains to be seen whether Republicans can hold onto their preeminence at the state level in the year of Trump and a fractious national party. The GOP came to power in historic fashion starting with the 2010 election — it took over the legislature for the first time in over a century, and McCrory became the first Republican governor in 20 years. McCrory, who is seeking re-election, is currently down in a tight race, and the state’s U.S. Senate race is close as well. All the while, North Carolina seems to be tilting more and more into Clinton’s column.
The GOP’s troubles this year have been exacerbated by its loss of strength among white, college-educated voters like 31-year-old Audrey Whitlock of Gastonia, the county seat, a Republican who won’t be casting ballots for Republicans this year.
“At first, Trump seemed like fun,” she said. “He was hitting some hard points that both sides needed [to].” But she had gradually grown to distrust him, especially because of his debate performances. “He doesn’t really say anything,” Whitlock said.
Whitlock and her husband are voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson — they couldn’t stand the idea of going all the way over to Clinton. But Whitlock’s views on cultural issues weren’t the traditional down-home conservative kind. When conversation turned to talk of the bathroom bill, she characterized it largely as a distraction. “We’re heading to a place where the U.S. needs to be socially liberal and fiscally responsible,” she said.
The Clinton campaign sees opportunities among Whitlock’s demographic cohort in North Carolina. Democrats have been tapping into this group’s dissatisfaction with the state’s socially conservative politics since the summer, according to reports. And the election could prove an opportunity for the state party to reclaim some of its lost political capital. Still, the slog is difficult in places like Gaston County, with the sort of Republican-level organizing that enables raspberry-red paint jobs, bustling offices and Liddy Dole portraiture. Partisan lines may be changing, but it’s not happening overnight.
Up close, turning a red state blue involves unbridled optimism in the face of sure failure. On a warm October evening, Andy Millard, the Democrats’ candidate in North Carolina’s 10th Congressional District, was a happy embodiment of such optimism as he prepared to canvass a Gastonia neighborhood; the race for the seven-county district, rated solidly Republican by the Cook Political Report, will in all likelihood remain in the hands of Rep. Patrick McHenry, who has held the seat since 2005. Still, Millard, a 59-year-old former principal and financial adviser who has never held elected office, was brimming with all-in cheer.
“Cortés landed in Mexico with his army, the first order he gave was: ‘Burn the ships. We’re not going back,’” Millard said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing here. We’re not going back — I sold my business earlier this year, and I have a non-compete.”
The task at hand was contact with undecided voters, and a motley crew — Millard’s field director LJ Brooks, 29, an alumnus of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign; a bespectacled, white-haired man; three nerdily raucous college boys; and Millard’s adult son — joined the candidate. As the crew huddled to hear Brooks’s pep talk, Millard, dressed that night in a campaign windbreaker and collared shirt, stepped back and snapped iPhone photos of the group.
About an hour before sunset, they started walking, the neighborhood a suburban suppertime symphony of barking dogs. Millard was out to court the kinds of voters who might be offended by Trump’s uncouthness, like the stroller-pushing mother with whom he stopped to chat.
The small victories of voter contact energized Millard. “I no longer recognize the Congress that I fell in love with in ninth-grade civics,” he said more than a couple of times to explain why he was running. He went on: “I’m not egotistical enough to think that I can change the world by myself. I’m only one guy, but I would say, ‘I’m your guy, I can help.’” Coming from a seasoned pol, the lines might have sounded hackneyed, but in the fading October sunlight of 2016, Millard seemed like a character straight out of a Capra movie, plopped down in a cul-de-sac.
As the light faded, Millard sprinted up the steps of another house to squeeze in a “hello” to a woman who the crew had reported was getting dinner on and was less than enthusiastic about talking. Every house counted in Millard’s red-to-blue crusade, but he came back quickly from this one.
“I’m sorry but no” had been her answer, he said. It was on to the next house, the pace picking up as the night crickets began their warm up.
A 20-minute drive from Gaston County and Millard’s civics class reverence for the possibilities of American democracy, Braxton Winston, 33, sat in the backyard of The Thomas Street Tavern in Charlotte nursing a beer and talking about the weeks since the shooting of Keith Scott Lamont. Winston attracted attention during the demonstrations that followed for his livestreams of the street scene between police and protesters.
“What happened in Charlotte wasn’t violence — it was the Constitution coming alive,” Winston said. A world apart from the placid pace of suburban Gaston, the protests against police violence in Charlotte — and many other cities across the U.S. — have helped shape the narrative outlines of the election: the need for law and order vs. the need for a searching look at the inherent biases built into American life.
Winston said that he and the other protesters had been frightened by the police presence during the protests, unsure of what might happen. But, he said, “it was like that fear collectively turned to power because we knew we were right.” It was his job now, he said, to be a leader of the movement, a leader outside the traditional political schema. Millard’s response to the country’s problems was to run for office; Winston’s was to organize.
As the election has wound down to its final weeks, discussion about fundamental principles of American democracy has grown more pitched, with pillars we once took for granted, like the peaceful acceptance of the results of a presidential election, shaken by a major party’s nominee. Many of our lives are filled with more convenience and comfort than ever before — America is more likely to be heard singing in 12-car-deep Chick-fil-A drive-thru lines these days than at the cobbler’s table or behind the plow — yet there is great angst about our 240-year-old republic. It might be that Americans fear the institutions we built, governmental and societal, have grown too large, too out of their lane of ordained responsibility. We wonder: “Are analysts reading our text messages through the cloud? Are newsmen swilling martinis poolside with politicians, colluding over what they think the best course for the plebs might be?” Only 32 percent of Americans say they trust the media; 19 percent say they trust the federal government to do what is right. 2016’s “rigged” paranoia might be some side effect of this niggling sense that we are not quite in control, our institutions grown too sprawling to be accountable to us. All of a sudden, the comfort has a terrifying tinge to it.
Winston has largely stopped going to his job as a camera operator in recent weeks. He said his primary task was to focus on organizing the movement in Charlotte. He wanted to keep people alive to the city’s problems long after the news stories of protests had ended.
“Every republic has failed before America because of the lack of the civic virtue,” Winston said. “Civic virtue gets zapped by the institutions that are created to keep the citizens in line.” The result, Winston said, was a system that advances just a few. “It makes certain people comfortable; it makes certain people feel safe and secure,” he said.
His was the same quest as Andy Millard’s and Mary Anne Huggins’s — to mobilize a citizenry — it was just less sedate, a bit more urgent in its telling. “This country is not based on parties and political ideals,” Winston said. “We live under a moral code that is supposed to join all of us — it doesn’t mean we all think the same, but we have the same interests, we have different ways to get there.”
There was one sure thing about the business of perfecting our democracy, Winston said. None of us will live to see the ninth-grade civics class dream of America; we’re only a couple of hundred years into this project for the ages.