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Examining The Republican Vote In Rural North Carolina

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

North Carolina was one of the most closely fought states in this year's election. The departing President Trump did win the state narrowly, but rural counties gave Republicans even more votes than they did in 2016. Steve Harrison from member station WFAE has more.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Robeson County is one of the poorest places in North Carolina.

BILLY BROOKS: As far as our textiles and industry and stuff, we at the bottom of the totem pole.

HARRISON: That's Billy Brooks, who owns a used furniture store in Lumberton, the county seat. To attract attention, the front of his store is adorned with statues of a dancing Elvis and Ronald McDonald sitting on a wheelchair. Brooks voted for President Trump and says he doesn't know anyone who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden.

BROOKS: I'd say probably 75% of what you got here is working-class people. These people get up and go to work every day, the ones who (ph) still got jobs.

HARRISON: Those working-class people in Robeson County are roughly 30% white, 25% Black and 40% Native American. Democrats have long believed that demographics is destiny, but in this mostly rural county, that's going in reverse. In 1976, Robeson gave Jimmy Carter his highest vote share of any North Carolina county with 80%. In 2008 and 2012, it went heavily for Obama. Then Trump barely won in a shocker four years ago. Earlier this month, he took nearly 60% of the vote.

Phillip Stephens, the chair of the Robeson County Republican Party, thinks the county will keep electing conservatives.

PHILLIP STEPHENS: We elected the first Republicans here to state office in 2010, 10 years ago. Every reporter would say, oh, that's just a one-off, an aberration.

HARRISON: Stephens is eating at the Lumberton Chick-fil-A just off Interstate 95. The highway is now arguably the city's main street, while its downtown is almost completely empty. He's with two members of the Lumbee Native American Tribe. Ben Chavis, who voted for Obama and then Trump twice, says today's Democratic Party doesn't understand how hard people like him worked growing up.

BEN CHAVIS: When I was a kid, we all had our field of our choice - a tobacco field, a cornfield or cotton field.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRISON: The men are not bothered by Trump's comments, like his taunting of Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas. They say that was funny. Biden was nominated in part to appeal to men like them, but despite Biden's working-class background, Chavis identifies with Trump, who inherited millions from his father.

CHAVIS: Trump would come to visit me in the tobacco fields, I believe. I can't see Biden coming here to the swamp.

HARRISON: And Trump did campaign at the county fairgrounds here. That's where he pledged to give the Lumbee Tribe federal recognition, something Biden had already pledged to do. But Black voters in Robeson are still mostly loyal to the Democratic Party, like Michael Mitchell, an African American barber in his late 40s.

MICHAEL MITCHELL: I won't speak bad on the county that I'm from. I'm an old country boy from the dirt roads of Fairmont - grew up cropping tobacco at 7, 8 years old, being woken up at 5:30 in the morning to go work with a farmer I didn't know for 12 hours a day, five or six days a week.

HARRISON: Mitchell says most of his customers backed Biden, but some admired the president's push to reopen during the pandemic.

MITCHELL: A lot of people locally, from my opinion, I think they followed him more for religious reasons, pro-life - our churches should be open, and people should be free to worship.

HARRISON: Democratic political consultant Thomas Mills grew up an hour away in rural Anson County. He doesn't hold much hope that Democrats can turn things around in rural areas. Their best shot, he says, is that after Trump leaves, Republican enthusiasm wanes.

THOMAS MILLS: I mean, I think you're going to see a lot of white rural voters stay with the Republican Party. I don't think what you're going to see is a surge in turnout like you saw this year. I mean, that was a Trump phenomenon.

HARRISON: But with President Trump showing signs he may run again, that phenomenon may last for years.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Harrison in Lumberton.

(SOUNDBITE OF AL MCCAIN'S "EL SECRETO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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