Disillusioned NC Republicans Call for a Future Without Trump

Disillusioned NC Republicans Call for a Future Without Trump

Page Lemel, a Transylvania County commissioner, is a lifelong Republican. But she left the GOP in December and plans to vote for Biden because she can't support President Donald Trump. (Image for Cardinal & Pine by Grant Baldwin)

By Billy Ball

August 13, 2020

Longtime Tar Heel Republicans, and several nationally-prominent conservatives, face off against the RNC with their own anti-Trump convention. 

Page Lemel misses her father everyday, but she missed him especially in December. 

“God, I could have used his advice,” she says. 

Lemel, who’d once stuffed envelopes for Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign, was at the time drafting a letter to disassociate herself from the party she’d belonged to her entire life. 

She knew many people, including old friends, were going to be angry with her. Many of them were friends of her father, the late state lawmaker Bill Ives, who was the first Republican to win Transylvania County office in the 20th century when elected to the county commission in 1972.

Those days, conservative Southern “Dixiecrats” were jumping ship for the GOP. Today, some of them, like Ives’ daughter Lemel, are fleeing the same party. 

Lemel’s December letter, co-authored by Transylvania commissioners David Guice and Mike Hawkins, doesn’t mention President Donald Trump, but his shadow looms large.  

“Elected officials must strive to conduct all public and private actions with honor and integrity,” they wrote. “Elected officials must value objective truth and in turn be truthful in their own statements and interactions.”

What would Lemel’s father think? Ives served six years in the NC General Assembly from 1992 to 1998 as a Republican, but he bristled at being pigeonholed. Indeed, he partnered with Democrats on affordable housing and environmental-conservation projects, spearheading the recognition of rugged Gorges State Park in Transylvania County in 1999.  

However, Ives died in 2011, a year before Lemel ran for county office, and long before the notion of a Trump presidency crossed over from parody to primetime.  

Lemel’s gone her own way, emerging as a leader on public education in her Appalachian county, which has retrofitted its old manufacturing economy around tourism. Lemel took over her father’s private, all-girls camp in Brevard. And she, like her father, isn’t one to be pigeonholed.

“Sacrificing humanity and morality to get a conservative judge is not moral,” she says. “Gerrymandering a district so you get a conservative elected is not moral.”

“I was really beaten up,” adds Lemel. “Because I didn’t want to wear red and cheer for an idiot.”

RELATED: Here are 5 Ways to Ensure Your Ballot Is Counted.

This is an undeniably risky political move. When Transylvania swung to the Republicans in the 1970s, it swung hard. An old manufacturing base along the Eastern Continental Divide, the county hasn’t tilted toward a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter. 

Lemel’s party change isn’t just symbolic: She says she’ll vote for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden this fall. She’s also voting for Democrat Moe Davis in NC’s 11th Congressional District. But she’s also a supporter of state house Republicans like Sen. Chuck Edwards and Josh Dobson, a GOP legislator now running for state labor commissioner.

People, she says, trump party. 

“I’m voting as I always have done. For the best person.”

Stepping away from the party 

Lemel is the poster child for the disenchanted conservative in the age of Trump, a “silent majority” that propelled President Trump in 2016 and that some theorize might drag him down in 2020. She is precisely the sort that organizers with the Convention on Founding Principles—led by prominent NC conservatives Charles Jeter and Bob Orr—are hoping to attract from Aug. 24-27.

Jeter is a former NC lawmaker from Charlotte, the son of a Reagan appointee who once helmed the budget committee for the GOP in the NC House of Representatives. Orr is a former associate justice on the NC Supreme Court, an attorney, and the founder of the NC Institute for Constitutional Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit thinktank. 

Both are lifelong Republicans, but neither seem concerned about ruffling GOP feathers anymore. 

“For three and a half years, the nation and the Republican Party have suffered under the failed leadership, corrupt dealings, and incessant lies of Donald J. Trump,” Jeter wrote in June in a mass mailer announcing their convention. “Rather than maintain their principles, other Republican leaders sold their integrity for personal benefit and became his enablers.”

In an interview with Cardinal & Pine, Orr said he hopes that, if anything, their convention will feel like a lighthouse, a signal to other conservatives troubled by Trump’s alleged misdeeds who wonder if there is still a place for them in the party.

“People are coming out of the woodwork who are either still registered Republicans or became disgruntled and changed their affiliation,” says Orr. “You really felt like you were on the plane by yourself, but I think with this effort what we’re seeing is people saying, ‘Wow, there’s a group of people like me.’” 

Calls for a new GOP prototype 

In their view, the Republican Party blurs the line between victims and enablers of Trump, a man accused of corruption in his personal and professional life, a president who might—based on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report—be credibly accused of obstruction of justice 10 times over, as well as someone accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women.

Cardinal & Pine reached out to representatives for Trump’s campaign in NC to discuss Jeter and Orr’s convention, but received no response.     

Originally conceived to be a counterpart to Trump’s Republican National Convention in Charlotte, the coronavirus has made Orr and Jeter’s event, like the RNC, go remote. The virtual event will have speakers from NC and across the country, including former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, an ex-CIA counterterrorism analyst and Mormon missionary who, for at least one moment, led the presidential polling in his native Utah in 2016. McMullin’s moment in 2016 was large enough to fetch a nickname from Trump, who dubbed him “McMuffin.”

Orr and Jeter are also partnering with Stand Up Republic, the national coalition of anti-Trump conservatives McMullin leads with Mindy Finn, a veteran of the Mitt Romney and George W. Bush campaigns. 

In addition to McMullin, speakers include former Trump spokesman Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and former CIA and NSA Director 

Michael Hayden, who served under both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. 

Organizers say they’re expecting thousands to watch online, but there will be up to 500 official delegates voting on a platform and key positions. 

And while organizers will not formally endorse any candidates, delegates will hold a straw poll on the presidential race. Orr and McMullin both told Cardinal & Pine in recent days they plan to vote for Biden. 

“Principled and former Republicans aren’t going to have a candidate that perfectly fits their values and policy positions,” McMullin says. “It just won’t exist. But I think some people are thinking that if they’re not going to have someone who represents them well, at least in Joe Biden they have a candidate who is honorable and decent and loyal to the country.”

McMullin said he’s often asked to specify where he—a classic, limited government conservative—disagrees with Trump on policy. McMullin breaks with Trump on federal spending, noting the US government’s run trillion-dollar deficits under Trump, and on immigration and trade. Sometimes they agree too, on issues like economic regulation and strengthening the military. But that misses the point.

“There are even more important and more fundamental issues,” says McMullin. “Those are ideas like the inherent equality and liberty of all Americans, the accountability of the government, the freedom of the press, the Constitutional order and the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. They’ve been forgotten by the party.”

Lifelong Republicans Turning Away 

Orr says Biden is not a candidate he would have ever considered before Trump.

“I cast my first presidential vote for Richard Nixon in 1968,” he says. “I hung with him in 1972. I voted for every single Republican nominee until 2016.”

Orr, an RNC delegate in 2016, made headlines when he walked out of the Cleveland convention after criticizing Trump in a local TV interview mid-convention. His credentials for the convention were suspended pending a meeting with NC’s then-GOP leadership, Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse and party Chairman Robin Hayes. Hayes has since been implicated in a public corruption case and is facing federal sentencing next week.

“I said, ‘Forget it,’” Orr recalls. “‘Keep your credentials. I’m going back to NC.’”

Today, Orr is as outspoken a Trump critic as ever, calling the president a “cancer” on the GOP.

“If Trump’s elected, I think there will be a wholesale exodus from the Republican Party and I think there will be a third party,” Orr says. “Hopefully he will be so soundly defeated that he and his enablers will slink off into the dustbin of history.”

Jeter’s defection was noisy, too. 

In an op-ed for Cardinal & Pine in May, the former state legislator wrote that social conservatives should be confounded by a president accused of rampant sexual misconduct and infidelity. 

“I am not a Never-Trumper or an Always-Trumper,” Jeter wrote. “I just don’t understand how the party that I love has been hijacked by a huckster who cares more about personal power than he ever will about America.”

‘NC is a Critical State.”

It is obvious why McMullin’s national organization linked up for a North Carolina convention. 

“NC is a critical state,” he says. “It will likely decide the direction of our country. And it’s important for us to articulate an alternative vision.”

Still, McMullin is reluctant to tell delegates who to vote for, urging them to “vote their conscience” instead. 

“But the future of the republic truly does depend on the outcome of this election,” he adds. “It’s often hyperbole, but in this case I think it’s true.”

I don’t think the republic survives as we know it if Trump is re-elected.

Evan McMullin, former presidential candidate

While state races have favored a mix of Republicans and Democrats, North Carolina has overwhelmingly supported Republican presidential candidates in recent decades, with Barack Obama being the lone exception in 2008. However, the state is, without question, a swing state in 2020. 

North Carolina is increasingly becoming home to a younger and more diverse population, one that tends to skew to the left in its urban centers in Raleigh and Charlotte. And while the state has been dominated by Republican lawmakers in the last decade, it’s also been one of the most unapologetically gerrymandered, with elections that yielded outcomes considerably more conservative than the actual voting might have dictated. 

In other words, North Carolina has always been more progressive at the state level than the outcomes of its elections would indicate. 

This week, most polls give Biden a slight edge, although his lead usually falls within the poll’s margin of error. The numbers give some idea of the challenge President Trump faces in 2020. A relatively modest number of “undecided” voters could hold an outsized power in determining the outcomes in states such as NC. Indeed, most polls indicate 4-5% of voters in NC would consider themselves “undecided.”  

But whether or not events like Jeter and Orr’s anti-Trump convention make a difference or not this fall is up for debate.

Michael Bitzer, a professor of history and politics at Catawba College in Salisbury, says it’s hard to say whether rankled conservatives like those expected at Orr and Jeter’s convention are significant enough in number. Not everyone is as outspoken as Jeter, Orr, and Lemel. 

“The thing that has always impressed me is the loyalty of the Republican base to Donald Trump,” says Bitzer. “Now he certainly has his detractors, some of them who you’ve mentioned and who are quite vocal.”

But Bitzer says there might still be a disconnect between the so-called “elites” of the Republican Party, people like Orr and Jeter, and more blue-collar voters. 

“Is that remaining 10-15% enough to potentially swing an election?” Bitzer asked. “Possibly. Is it enough if they all decide to vote for Joe Biden? Could that make it even better for the Biden camp? Maybe. There are so many unknowns going into November that I’m hesitant to make any predictions.”

Bitzer adds that Trump should still be concerned about signs of party fracturing, but the larger concern should be erosion of Trump’s support in the historically more conservative suburbs of Raleigh or Charlotte, NC’s two largest cities. Although the Republican candidate won in a special 9th District election in 2019, Bitzer noted Democrats were close to stealing a seat long considered a safe bet for Republicans.  

Yet 2020 might ultimately be a referendum on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, just as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were pummeled in their elections for the handling of an Iranian hostage crisis and an early 1990s economic recession, respectively. 

“The American voter tends to want some kind of decisive action,” says Bitzer. “If they don’t see it, they’ll say, ‘Let’s give it to somebody else and see if they can do something.’”

That’s what Orr is hoping for. 

“Reject Trump,” he says. “If [Republican voters] want to support Biden, great. If they want to support the Libertarian, fine. But just don’t vote for Trump. We can’t have four more years of this.”

Pushing for Change

Even at the beginning of impeachment proceedings, Democrats in Congress knew that they weren’t likely to get the support of two-thirds of the Republican Senate, the amount needed to convict.

But still, Lemel said she was hoping for something, some sign. The facts were hardly in dispute. The president as much as acknowledged that he intended to withhold Ukrainian aid to force the Eastern European nation into investigating oft-debunked allegations of Biden family corruption in the country. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney voted to convict, but the others, moderates such as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, aligned behind the president. 

Everyone expected this, Lemel says, but she still hoped for something else. 

“Where were you and Susan Collins during the impeachment process?” Lemel says she wants to ask Murkowski. “This is on all of us. No one has been willing to stand up.”

To her, none of the GOP perks of having Trump in office—the windfall of white, right-leaning judges, the US Supreme Court seats held by Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, the tax reforms—are worth it. 

The Republican Party might have won in 2016, and they might win again in 2020, Lemel says. 

But it will cost them people like Lemel. 

For that, she says, she thinks her father would have been proud of her. 

“My dad taught me that you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “He would have been so disappointed in people not being willing to stand up.”


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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