WILMINGTON—To end a day spent grinding on the campaign trail, Vice President Mike Pence disembarked Air Force Two in Wilmington for an airport rally Tuesday evening, just one week before Election Day.
He crisscrossed the Carolinas, with stops earlier in the day in Greensboro, N.C., and in Greenville, S.C., to make his pitch for re-electing President Donald Trump, and also to lend a hand to state Republican office seekers who are in big-time races of their own.
Related: ‘Swamp creatures’: Lara Trump bashes Democrats as first family continues focus on New Hanover
Trump campaign staff, working to boost their odds in one pivotal zone of a battleground state, built strong ties in New Hanover County in recent months. Results in New Hanover mirrored state-level outcomes over the last two presidential elections. When N.C. sided with Barack Obama in his 2008 run, John McCain led in New Hanover County by just under 1,400 votes — a 1.4% lead. Obama won the state with a 14,000-vote margin. Republicans on Tuesday made what could be their final push in a county that both sides view as must-win.
“It’s conversations at the highest levels of the campaign, there’s no question,” Will Knecht, head of the New Hanover County GOP, said at the rally. “They know they don’t win without this county.”
Though Pence was the headliner, Republicans set to appear elsewhere on the ballot benefitted from the vice president’s high-profile stop at the Wilmington International Airport.
U.S. Rep. David Rouzer — who, by 36,000 votes in 2018, defended his House seat from now-board-of-commissioners candidate Kyle Horton — drew on past themes from his anti-Democrat playbook. He told the crowd the two options on the ballot in 2020 are “mob rule and economic devastation” on one side and “the rule of law and prosperity” on the other.
He spent much of his time in the spotlight hyping up his incumbent compatriot U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who is in the midst of the nation’s most expensive senate contest.
“There are four real key contested races around the country, and North Carolina’s one of them,” Rouzer said. “But it could all come down to this one race to determine whether or not the U.S. Senate stays in Republican hands.”
Tillis focused on pro-law enforcement messaging, leading the crowd of hundreds of Trump supporters in a “back the blue” chant (plus, he said he was wearing a shirt with a “thin blue lines” pattern). He also attacked his Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham for being cagey in discussing his reported infidelity.
“He ran a campaign on truth and honor,” Tillis said. “I don’t know if y’all have read the news reports lately, but it seems like to me he hasn’t been truthful and he definitely hasn’t been honorable.”
Air Force Two taxied toward the crowd with the speakers set to the theme from “Top Gun,” described by a person close to the Trump campaign as a “fire song.” Unlike the Trump ILM rally in September, which fell under the umbrella of Wilmington’s World War II Heritage City designation, the campaign played an active role in facilitating the Pence rally. Trump’s previous visit was handled by the White House.
Though attendees turned out in hundreds to support the vice president, their level of enthusiasm, while supportive, did not match the fanfare Trump brought last month.
Attendees were temperature-checked as they approached the Secret Service security checkpoint. Staff provided masks, but did not attempt to enforce wearing them. In the rally enclosure, folding chairs in close proximity faced the stage, which was backdropped by MAGA decor and a large video screen.
“They basically just notify us that they’re going to be arriving,” deputy airport director Gary Broughton said. “It’s not really put in the form of a question. Our staff, basically the day of, is distanced from what’s going on. Everything is coordinated by Homeland Security and the White House staff.”
After descent from the plane and a procession toward the high-energy crowd, the vice president ran up to the podium.
“Come November 3, let’s show America that North Carolina is Trump country,” Pence said. “This is my third rally of the day. You might be the most enthusiastic. I don’t know, it’s a really close call.”
Pence’s speech echoed rhetoric from mainstream rightwing messaging and campaign content. He lauded the president and bashed Biden; he decried “defunding the police” and doubled down on his commitment to law enforcement. He accused Biden of being cozy with China, while Trump “put China on notice.” He rejoiced in Trump’s appointment of a third Supreme Court justice, whose nomination was approved the night earlier, and harped on the Democrats for being ambiguous on court-packing.
“I tried to get an answer out of Kamala Harris during our debate,” Pence said on the court-packing question. “Didn’t have any luck.”
On healthcare, Pence sought to pair Biden with the image of his far-left colleagues.
“He wants to take us from the failed policies of Obamacare, and he wants to import Bernie Sanders’ socialized medicine,” Pence said. “Basically they’re going to take the socialized medicine out of the middle of Bernie-care, and drop it right in the middle of Obamacare.”
He also dryly poked at his “60 Minutes” interview alongside Trump: “It was ‘60 Minutes.’” He also said he longs for the chance to partake in dethroning Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
“I was there 10 years ago the last time we retired her, and I intend to be around when we retire Nancy Pelosi again,” he said.
Pence will be in Michigan and Wisconsin on Wednesday, then Iowa and Nevada on Thursday, making for a jam-packed week of last-minute campaigning. His heavy lifting on the trail comes a few days after national media reported at least five of his aides tested positive for Covid-19. While Pence was deemed in close contact with at least one of the individuals, a statement sent to national media said because the vice president was considered “essential personnel,” he would continue on with his prior-scheduled campaign engagements. Media reports also say Pence trimmed his routines following the outbreak; prior to the Covid-19 disclosures, he would do multiple interviews with regional media in the markets he visited, and linger post-rallies to greet supporters. He did neither while in Wilmington.
Recent campaign finance reports showed Biden holds a sizable lead on Trump in cash reserves as of Oct. 27. When politicians make use of government resources like Air Force Two in campaign activities, they are required to provide some degree of refund back to the taxpayer.
In lieu of a budget surplus, the campaign needs door-knocking and other ground game operations to pay off. A person close to the campaign said they think Democrats are playing catchup in the door-to-door realm, and until recent weeks have largely strayed from it, due to public health concerns.
For candidates at the local level, a high-profile affair like a Pence rally can boost name recognition and community presence, even if the crowd was most likely already firm in opinion. Charlie Miller and Warren Kennedy, two candidates for the state House, sat in the front rows among the reserved seats.
“It’s exciting,” county GOP chair Knecht said . “It really puts pressure on you, but you love the pressure because you need to deliver.”
More than 90,000 people have already voted in New Hanover County. Statewide, registered Democrats are driving turnout numbers with a 40% majority, followed by Republican (31%) and unaffiliated voters (29%). Turnout among registered Republicans inched out ahead of unaffiliated voters Friday, Oct. 23, after unaffiliated voters initially turned out in higher numbers.
In New Hanover County, unaffiliated turnout is leading the way (38%), followed by Republicans (31%) and Democrats (30%).
Early voting is still underway through Saturday, Oct. 31.
View more pictures from the rally below. Click to enlarge and scroll. Photos by Johanna F. Still:
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