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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Collaboration with Trump campaign was a cornerstone of local Republicans’ strategy

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s visits to Wilmington were examples of how local Republicans could use the clout and resources of national campaigns to bolster electoral hopes in New Hanover County. (Port City Daily/Johanna Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY—During the height of election season, the Republican Party conducted centralized operations out of a rented office building on Market St. The New Hanover County GOP headquarters provided office space for N.C.-based officials working for Trump Victory, the joint committee maintained by the president’s campaign and the RNC. U.S. Congressman David Rouzer, too, stationed his campaign office at the building, which sits next to the YMCA and a law firm.

The collective space, costing around $3,000 per month, fostered information sharing between the different campaigns that allowed local candidates to tap into the pulse of the national campaign. 

“We were able to share volunteers and coordinate efforts, and when there was a major event, there we were across the room from each other,” said Will Knecht, chairman of the New Hanover County Republican Party. 

Knecht said local candidates could be assembled quickly upon the announcement of high-level campaign events. Rallies that showcased the president or a member of his family were seen a prime opportunity for name-boosting and connecting with voters.

“The presidential campaign was the big wave, so to speak, and everybody else was able to ride on that wave in terms of volunteers, in terms of energy and turnout,” Rouzer said in an interview. 

Rouzer, who won a fourth term in November, said things ran smoothly. There were financial resources from up top that trickled down and lifted everyone, and cohesiveness among the volunteer corps at the county level, he said.

“This presidential campaign committee was probably one of the best organized, and they had the advantage of having a lot of money, too — not more money than the Democrats, but plenty of money to put behind the data collection and the organizational efforts,” Rouzer said.

Trump Victory made $1.1 million in expenditures to the N.C. Republican Party during the election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Knecht said the N.C. GOP plays a role too in the county’s joint operation.

The Trump campaign made its interest in New Hanover County clear with a series of visits from the president and his surrogates. The surge kicked off in early September when the president arrived via Air Force One, in what was billed as an official White House event to declare Wilmington as the nation’s first World War II Heritage City. 

President Donald Trump’s visit to Wilmington offered local Republicans the chance to use the clout and resources of big-ticket campaigns to bolster electoral hopes in New Hanover County. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

“I was considered a surrogate for President Trump,” Rouzer said. “It was well-known in the White House and well-known in the campaign that I was a major Trump supporter.” 

Rouzer said he was invited to fly on Air Force One with the president and his entourage on the day of the Heritage City designation. When the plane landed at the Wilmington International Airport, the group was received by other notable Republicans in the North Carolina scene, including U.S. Senator Thom Tillis.

On the tarmac at the airport, Knecht traversed the crowd in a blazer, introducing voters to an array of Republicans gathered at ILM. Hometown candidates could mingle in the background, or roam the tarmac to shake hands and pass out business cards. Mark Robinson, who would go on to defeat Yvonne Holley in the N.C. Lieutenant Governor race, travelled to Wilmington for the event. 

The president’s trip to ILM was one of the first of his airport rallies, which became a campaign staple in following weeks. Trump said last week he will likely campaign for Georgia Senate Republicans at airport rallies before the January special election. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

Joe Biden won a majority of the votes in New Hanover County, causing local Republican leaders to assess what led to a failure in the presidential race. At the same time, Knecht said the party “won races that people didn’t expect us to,” a reference to holding the majority on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, flipping the state senate seat by way of Michael Lee’s victory over incumbent Harper Peterson, and going two-for-three in state house races. Democrats, in turn, made gains on the Board of Education, breaking the Republican majority in a body that was previously a stronghold for the GOP.

“I’m excited about the base that we have,” Knecht said. “We need to learn from what went well. We need to stop doing some of the things that didn’t do so well for us and look forward, building on the strength.” 

An early example of Republicans pooling resources this cycle was an October event hosted at the Market St. headquarters. Trump campaign staffers helped organize the affair under signature “Make America Great Again” branding, and introduced Rouzer, who headlined a speech to a crowd of New Hanover County voters. A spokesperson for Trump Victory N.C. declined to be interviewed for this article.

U.S. Representative David Rouzer speaks at a Trump rally last week. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
U.S. Representative David Rouzer speaks at a Trump rally held at the New Hanover County GOP headquarters. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

North Carolina sided with Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 — with a less-than-100,000-vote margin both times. Donald Trump won the state’s 15 electoral college votes in both 2016 and 2020 — by around 170,000 and 70,000 votes, respectively. North Carolina’s newfound reputation as a battleground state has led to a flooding of resources from both parties during election seasons. 

“I would also point out in 2012 that North Carolina was not viewed as the purple state that it’s viewed as now,” Rouzer said. “North Carolina is considered a swing state, so you have the president and all the surrogates coming into town for both official business and also campaign specific work.”

Ivanka Trump talks to a small audience at a campaign event in Downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Johanna Still)

The Trump campaign’s presence was later reinforced by visits from Ivanka and Lara Trump, and another airport rally, this one headlined by Vice President Mike Pence and featuring Tillis — who broke ranks with the president to oppose the idea of a continuous border wall, then voted alongside the president’s interests in favor of a 2019 national emergency declaration that would have procured funding for the project. He was a staunch Trump surrogate during election season.

Thom Tillis, while he was in the midst of a contentious campaign against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, introduces Mike Pence at an October airport rally. (Port City Daily/Johanna Still)

READ MORE: With polarization seemingly reaching all-time highs, New Hanover, N.C. still purple

“There’s just a lot of things that are so much easier, quite frankly, when you’re a battleground state, and you’ve got a big national campaign with multiple surrogates coming into the state all the time,” Rouzer said. “You get the benefit, rather, of the money that’s put behind the get-out-the-vote effort for the president. You can ride that wave, so to speak.”

As of two weeks ago, Rouzer was still declining to refer to Joe Biden as the president-elect, telling McClatchy, “No, I don’t consider him to be President-elect until every legal vote is counted and every illegal ballot is tossed …”

By Monday, he had softened on it.

“At this point in time, it looks likely that Vice President Biden will be the selection of the electors as of December 14 when they meet to vote,” Rouzer said. 

But he left room to say he thinks it could be possible for a Supreme Court case regarding the election to materialize during the next two weeks.

Though Trump fell nationally to Biden in the presidential race, Knecht and Rouzer credit the campaign’s focus on New Hanover County, in part, for other GOP wins in November. Reflecting on the election, Knect said he thinks Biden’s win “is not anything but a rejection of the personality of Donald Trump.” 

The conservative movement apart from Trump, he thinks, gained momentum in recent years. Though the Trump chapter concludes in January, Knecht said the president left a mark on the party — a grassroots, every-man attitude, paired with painting the Democrats as the party of the elites — that will reverberate and stick around.

“If Vice President Biden is our next president, and it looks as if he will be, we will have to move past the Trump era,” he said. “But the keys, and what the president has meant for the Republican Party, cannot be lost.”

READ MORE: Trump visits Wilmington, double-voting, supporters and protestors

Matt DiGioia stands by his SUV as Congressman David Rouzer speaks. He said he added the Trump decorations and slogans to his car about 10 days ago. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Matt DiGioia stands by his SUV as Congressman David Rouzer speaks in October. He said he added the Trump decorations and slogans to his car about 10 days before the rally. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

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