The GOP’s North Carolina Problem


The GOP’s North Carolina Problem

An internal power struggle is prompting concerns in a critical state for presidential, Senate, and governor races.

Zach C. Cohen

April 11, 2016, 8 p.m.

The chair­man of the North Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an Party is on the verge of get­ting fired. Donors are hold­ing on to their check­books. Party list­servs are filled with dis­cus­sion of its own dys­func­tion. And Re­pub­lic­an strategists in Wash­ing­ton are won­der­ing if the in­fra­struc­ture in a battle­ground state will be up to the task come Novem­ber.

Since GOP Chair­man Has­an Har­nett’s elec­tion in June over es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans’ pre­ferred pick, it has been out­right war­fare between Har­nett and the state party’s Cent­ral Com­mit­tee, headed by Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Dal­las Wood­house.

The in­tern­al power struggle is un­fold­ing as the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor, Pat Mc­Crory, and sen­at­or, Richard Burr, face com­pet­it­ive reelec­tions, and with North Car­o­lina a po­ten­tial swing state in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

“Any­thing out­side the or­gan­iz­a­tion­al mis­sion is a dis­trac­tion, such as the witch hunts and wild goose chases re­hashed,” Har­nett, the em­battled lead­er, said of the party. “And this will ul­ti­mately cost the pres­id­ency, the gov­ernor­ship, our ma­jor­it­ies in the le­gis­lature, and will put our en­tire [del­eg­a­tion] at the [Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee] in jeop­ardy.”

Har­nett has of­ten squabbled over the party’s pri­or­it­ies with party lead­er­ship, which cen­sured him when he tried to lower the price of con­ven­tion tick­ets to meet a cam­paign prom­ise.

The fric­tion even­tu­ally sparked a blaze last week when the party ac­cused Har­nett of il­leg­al be­ha­vi­or—al­legedly at­tempt­ing to hack in­to the party web­site to di­vert funds—and cir­cu­lated a pe­ti­tion for his re­mov­al.

Har­nett’s al­leged “scheme, if fully im­ple­men­ted, would vi­ol­ate a wide range of state, fed­er­al and elec­tions laws,” the party said in a press re­lease.

The con­flict ini­tially broke in­to the pub­lic eye when the party shut down Har­nett’s work email ad­dress last month, caus­ing Har­nett to ask Wood­house in a leaked email, “is it be­cause I am not white enough for you?” ac­cord­ing to con­ser­vat­ive blog The Daily Hay­maker.

With so many com­pet­it­ive statewide races there this cycle, the strife has na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans tak­ing no­tice.

“It can give na­tion­al or­gan­iz­a­tions qualms about work­ing with the NCGOP if they’re mired in an in­tra­party battle,” said one na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive. “It shows they are more fo­cused on that than they are on win­ning a race.”

Re­pub­lic­an strategists said a hobbled state party, while a very pub­lic prob­lem, is not dev­ast­at­ing to their can­did­ates in Novem­ber. Party eld­ers noted that as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, the vet­er­an Wood­house con­trols the day-to-day op­er­a­tions and that those are still un­der­way as planned.

“Are there … some stor­ies that are float­ing out there that I’m con­cerned with? Yeah,” said former state GOP ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Scott Laster. “But … the people who are giv­ing up their nights and their week­ends to help can­did­ates—I’m com­pletely con­fid­ent in their abil­it­ies.”

A state party plays key roles in any elec­tion, in­clud­ing or­gan­iz­ing vo­lun­teers for re­gis­tra­tion drives and door knock­ing, so­li­cit­ing con­tri­bu­tions from donors, send­ing out mail­ers, and sup­port­ing can­did­ates in the me­dia. It also serves as a crit­ic­al part­ner of the na­tion­al party com­mit­tees, which dis­trib­ute sig­ni­fic­ant funds to help pay for loc­al op­er­a­tions and TV ads.

In con­ver­sa­tions with over a half-dozen Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives, none said the cur­rent in­fight­ing is op­tim­al for that mis­sion. The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment, and the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation de­clined to com­ment.

There is plenty of re­cent his­tory of cam­paigns and party com­mit­tees hav­ing to work around a state party. After the Nevada GOP was over­taken by dys­func­tion and Ron Paul sup­port­ers in 2012, the RNC and Mitt Rom­ney’s cam­paign cre­ated a shad­ow party, while the NR­SC in­stead funneled cash to the state through the Washoe County GOP.

On the Demo­crat­ic side in North Car­o­lina last cycle, then-Sen. Kay Hagan’s 2014 cam­paign worked with the Wake County Demo­crat­ic Party to set up a joint fun­drais­ing com­mit­tee and get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tions rather than work through the state party.

“Un­less you have to, it doesn’t really make sense to do it,” said one Demo­crat­ic strategist from the state, not­ing the com­plic­ated tech­nic­al and or­gan­iz­a­tion­al nav­ig­a­tion re­quired to work out­side the party ap­par­at­us. “… It’s a solu­tion be­cause they needed a solu­tion, but it’s still not op­tim­al.”

Three Re­pub­lic­an strategists raised the specter of donors’ re­sponses to the on­go­ing con­flict. Polit­ic­al parties in North Car­o­lina can make un­lim­ited con­tri­bu­tions to can­did­ates, while PACs and in­di­vidu­als can donate only $5,000 per cycle. If donors don’t trust the state party, that could mar­gin­ally lim­it its con­tri­bu­tions to can­did­ates.

On the air­waves, can­did­ates are charged the low­est unit rate com­pared with parties and su­per PACs. So can­did­ate fun­drais­ing is pivotal in an already pricey state that will fea­ture an over­lap of com­pet­it­ive races in the fall.

State parties also en­joy a dis­count on post­age and can dis­trib­ute dir­ect mail­ers for pen­nies on the dol­lar on be­half of can­did­ates. That makes even a min­im­al part­ner­ship between the na­tion­al party, can­did­ates, and the state party prefer­able to none at all.

The North Car­o­lina GOP will hold its con­ven­tion in early May, but the Cent­ral Com­mit­tee hopes to have Har­nett ous­ted at a party meet­ing on April 30. There is no guar­an­tee any out­come will bring an end to the party’s civil war.

“It’s very sense­less,” said Lee Green, chair­man of the Dis­trict/County Chair­man’s As­so­ci­ation at the state party.