President Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot in Eastern North Carolina’s special election for Congress, but the president’s presence looms large in the Republican-leaning 3rd Congressional District.
Trump carried the district by more than 23 points in 2016 and has endorsed Republican nominee Greg Murphy, a urologist and state representative who has pledged his support for the president. At Trump’s July 17 rally in Greenville — the same rally where chants of “send her back” were aimed at a Democratic congresswoman — he called Murphy to the stage.
“This is Trump country,” Murphy told the crowd. “And I promise if elected your congressman, I will be a congressman that has our president’s back.”
Murphy is the strong favorite in the Sept. 10 election to replace the late Rep. Walter Jones, who died on Feb. 10 after winning in 2018. Democratic nominee Allen Thomas, the former mayor of Greenville and former executive director of NC Global TransPark in Kinston, is Murphy’s top competitor. Libertarian Tim Harris and Constitution Party candidate Greg Holt are also on the ballot.
In-person early voting begins Aug. 21 and runs through Sept. 6.
National observers will be watching to see if Murphy can match the president’s overwhelming victory.
Trump won 15 of the 17 counties that, in part or whole, make up the sprawling district that stretches across much of the eastern part of the state and includes about two-thirds of the state’s coast. Clinton won Pitt County, home of East Carolina University, and narrowly took Pasquotank County, home of Elizabeth City State University.
Democrats flipped 41 seats in the U.S. House in 2018, a strength that was previewed in state and federal special elections throughout 2017 and 2018. In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, the parties have been closer to parity.
“The Democrats are running ahead of Clinton but not by the same margins they were in 2017-18,” said Kyle Kondik, communications director for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. ”People who follow elections are interested in the results, but it doesn’t seem like the outcome is very much in doubt.”
It is rare in the current polarized political environment to have districts so tilted toward one party pick a representative from the opposite party.
Only one Democrat — Collin Peterson in western Minnesota — represents a House district that is considered more Republican than the 3rd district, Kondik said. No Republican holds a House seat in which Clinton received more than 50 percent of the vote.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a slam dunk,” said Gary Weaver, chairman of the Pitt County Republican Party. “But it’s a very strong Republican-leaning district. Even a lot of the unaffiliated (and) Democrats tend to vote Republican.”
The Sept. 10 general election will end an eight-month race that started with more than two dozen candidates among four political parties — and will have included three election days.
Murphy defeated Kinston pediatrician Joan Perry in a July run-off that attracted lots of national interest and split Republican elected officials largely along gender lines.
And that might have been the last of the 3rd district on the national scene, particularly since the race in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, also on Sept. 10, is expected to be much closer and a better harbinger of 2020.
Trump’s rally, his first 2020 campaign event in the state, brought the national spotlight back to Greenville and Eastern North Carolina. When Trump criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar, a liberal Muslim who came to the U.S. as a child refugee from Somalia and became a citizen as a teen, some in the crowd chanted “send her back.”
Trump also drew criticism from some Christians for his profanity at the rally. In the days after the event, Thomas wrote the president a letter, calling on him to follow the guide of past presidents and national leaders.
“Of those leaders I do not recall a one, who felt the need to belittle others’ features or origins to attempt to raise their own personal stature. I do not recall a one, who professed Jesus Christ to be their lord and savior, who then on a regular basis state ‘G.. Damn’ taking the Lord’s name in vain, in a venue full of Eastern North Carolina Christians,” Thomas wrote in a letter he shared with The News & Observer this week.
Thomas said he has not heard back from Trump.
The rally attracted national attention, often casting Eastern North Carolina and Greenville in a negative light. Weaver said much of the crowd came from outside Pitt County and outside the 3rd district.
“Regardless of what I think of her, she is a U.S. citizen. ‘Send her back to Somalia. Send her back to Minnesota.’ — Donald Trump didn’t say that,” said Weaver, who said he attended the rally but did not chant.
Carl Mischka, the GOP chairman in the 3rd district, said the criticism of Eastern North Carolina was unfair. He said the chant involved about one-third of the crowd and lasted 12 seconds in an event that stretched more than two hours.
But he said there’s “no way someone who is a devoted Muslim as active as they are, perhaps radical, there’s no way they can swear to preserve my and your way of life” as members of Congress swear to do.
Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, another frequent Trump target, are Muslim.
“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution,” Omar said in an April appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” “I am as American as everyone else is.”
Thomas said the chant is not reflective of the people he knows in the district.
“It became a national story and really hurt a lot of people in the east. He seemed to be endorsing that type of narrative, which is not who we are in Eastern North Carolina,” Thomas said. “We’re the first to help people in times of trouble. It shouldn’t take a hurricane to pull people together, to raise ourselves to a higher ideal.”
The Murphy campaign declined to talk for this story. On his campaign website, Murphy lists supporting Trump as one of the tenets of his “We The People” platform.
“President Trump is one of the few Presidents in recent memory who is attempting to do exactly what he said he was going to do on the campaign trail,” it reads. “I will support the Trump agenda because it is the people’s agenda, especially Eastern North Carolina that voted so overwhelming in his favor.”
The final push
Jones was first elected to the seat in 1994. His father, Walter B. Jones, Sr., represented much of the district as a Democrat in the U.S. House from 1966 until his death in 1992. The younger Jones often bucked his own party, including Trump, and had built a personal reputation throughout the district.
He ran unopposed in his final election bid, and Republican officials cautioned against reading too much into how the results of this special election compare to Trump’s victory in 2016 — and what it might portend for 2020.
“Apples to oranges,” Weaver said. “It’s two different people you’re talking about.”
Still Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son and a popular surrogate for Republican candidates, will hold a fundraiser in New Bern on Aug. 28 in support of Murphy, who also has the backing of the House Freedom Caucus.
The timing of the election — shortly after school starts in an off-year when there have already been two elections for Republicans in the district — could also have an effect on turnout, something both parties are trying to amp up.
“It will not be 23 points. But I would suggest five to eight points,” Mischka said — a reflection, he added, not of the partisan breakdown or Trump’s support in the district but logistics of an odd election date. “An awful lot of people are working very hard to make sure it (turnout) exceeds the primary and the runoff.”
In the April primary, 68,781 voters cast ballots — 14.5% of registered voters. In the July runoff, which only included the Murphy-Perry race, 36,041 voters cast ballots — 11.5% of voters who were eligible to participate in that runoff, according to the state elections board.
Others, however, are watching the margin and possible impacts on 2020. Trump won the presidency in part by running up the score in red districts like this one.
“The context matters. If Murphy matches or exceeds Trump, that’s really positive,” Kondik said. If there is a big drop-off, “it could be a bad sign because in order to repeat his victories in many of these states, Trump does need to do extremely well in rural and small city areas.”