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GOP Defectors Won't Necessarily Leave Republican Candidates In NC

Rusty Jacobs
Former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr officially switched his political affiliation from Republican to Unaffiliated after the NCGOP censured Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr for his vote to convict Donald Trump at the ex-president's impeachment trial on a charge of inciting insurrection.

Bob Orr traces his Republican roots back to his great-grandfather, a farmer in western North Carolina conscripted into the Confederate Army.

"(He) refused to fight, went over the mountains with 80 other guys to east Tennessee and joined the Union Army," Orr recalled while enjoying a spring-like day on his front porch in Raleigh. "And, of course, (he) came back after the Civil War as a Lincoln Republican."

In 1988, Orr became the first Republican elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Then he became one of the first Republicans elected to the state Supreme Court in the 20th century.

"I never had to apologize for my commitment and work on behalf of the Republican Party," he said.

But Orr could not stomach Donald Trump.

"The way he addressed other people, political opponents, international leaders," Orr explained, "was just irresponsible and disrespectful."

Orr, who campaigned for John Kasich during the 2016 presidential primary, wanted to fight from within his party to make sure Trump did not win reelection in 2020. Once that goal was accomplished, Orr said it became clear it was time to leave the GOP.

He reregistered unaffiliated after the North Carolina Republican Party censured Richard Burr, the state's third-term U.S. senator who voted to convict former President Trump at his impeachment trial on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

"The Republican Party, to my mind, has abdicated the field of responsible governance," Orr said.

With the end of the Trump presidency, there has been an uptick in the number of registered voters in North Carolina leaving the Republican Party.

Since November, more than 22,000 formerly registered Republican voters switched to either Democrat, Libertarian or, in most cases, unaffiliated, compared to around 5,300 during the same period four years ago.

For registered Democrats, the number was 13,000 voters switching affiliations since November, compared to more than 8,900 following the presidential election in 2016.

Overall, Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated registrations in North Carolina have declined since November, according to state elections board data. Those numbers take into account not just affiliation switches but other routine list maintenance, like removals for deaths, ineligibility due to moving or prolonged inactivity.

Democratic registrations still represent the largest share of voter rolls statewide with more than 2.4 million, followed by unaffiliated at more than 2.3 million and Republicans with more than 2.1 million.

Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer said it is worth noting 60% of former Republican voters who've recently reregistered as unaffiliated reside in suburban areas.

"That's kind of the heart of North Carolina Republican party politics," Bitzer said.

Page Lemel's rift with the North Carolina GOP started forming almost 10 years ago, she said, when state Republicans backed a ban on same-sex marriages.

"I didn't understand how a party of limited government would want to legislate morality," the Brevard resident said.

Still, she stuck with the party through the years, while serving on the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners starting in 2012. That changed last December when she and two other board members left the GOP in unison and reregistered as unaffiliated.

Lemel, who runs a summer camp for girls in the western part of the state, said Trump had a lot to do with her final break from the GOP.

"His denigration of people, the stoking of anger, the inflammatory comments," she said.

But not every recent Republican Party defector is anti-Trump.

Durham resident Mark Granata, 62, recently changed his voter registration from Republican to unaffiliated. He called it a protest vote against the GOP for doing more to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
Durham resident Mark Granata, 62, recently changed his voter registration from Republican to unaffiliated. He called it a protest vote against the GOP for doing more to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election.

"I'm not a big union person; I'm a free-market capitalist," said Mark Granata. The 62-year-old Durham resident joined the Republican Party when he was a student at Bradley University in Illinois.

"I remember Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan coming to downtown Peoria doing a political rally," Granata said recently on a cool but sunny morning outside his home on a cul-de-sac in the Bull City.

Granata and his wife recently switched to unaffiliated — what he calls a "protest vote" against the GOP establishment.

"I would have liked to have seen the Republican leadership have a little bit more backbone," Granata explained, referring to efforts to challenge the 2020 presidential election results.

"I will never believe that this was a fair election," he vowed.

Granata said he remains unmoved despite no evidence of widespread fraud and the failure of virtually every court claim challenging the results. He still supports Trump.

"Absolutely," he said, "and if he ran again in 2024 and he was the nominee, I'd vote for him again."

North Carolina Republican Party officials did not return several requests for comment for this story. But all the defections hardly mean less support statewide for GOP candidates. Bitzer said many former Republicans, like Granata, are likely to still vote for GOP candidates.

Indeed, Granata said, there's a 99% chance he will vote for Republican candidates in the future and, maybe, he added, an occasional Libertarian.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.