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.