With the last North Carolina GOP party chair under indictment for bribery and conspiracy, the party’s next leader will have to find a way to reassure high-dollar donors.

Reeling from a bribery scandal that resulted in the indictment of its chairman and a major donor, the North Carolina Republican Party meets in Concord this weekend to choose among three men who want to lead the state GOP through a banner election next year with the national convention in Charlotte, and major elections for governor and US Senate.

During a debate at Covenant of Grace Church in Winston-Salem on Monday, the three candidates directly addressed how they plan on courting major donors to open a cash sluice adequate to finance races up and down the ballot, including what one predicted will be the most expensive Senate race in the country. The Forsyth County Republican Party, which hosted the debate, declined Triad City Beat‘s request to attend, but streamed the event on Facebook Live.

“What’s happened in the scandals of late is that people have lost confidence in the party,” said Jim Womack, who currently serves as the chair of the Lee County Republican Party. “That’s why you don’t have donors at the lowest levels of the party. That’s why you don’t have the business class trusting us with their money and their investments, and the big-money donors sitting on the sidelines because they don’t believe in our brand. They don’t believe that their money’s going to be well spent. In fact, they might even end up in a federal indictment.”

Womack, who worked as director of health information services for the NC Department of Health and Human Services and then joined a private company that supplied the state’s health information system, touted his sales ability.

“Our value proposition to the business class of the party — the second tier — is that we’re the party of limited government and lower regulations,” Womack said. “And we’ve got to convince them that when they’re investing in our candidates and our party that they’re going to get value out of that investment. And we can do that: We’ll build a pipeline, and we’ll go to the business class, especially in the districts and down at the county level.”

Michael Whatley, a partner with the national energy lobbying firm HBW Resources and former chief of staff to Sen. Elizabeth Dole, said he’s already cultivating potential donors.

“We do have the donor class,” he said. “And it’s very important that we do have folks who are able to contribute high dollars, whether that’s $25,000 or $50,000 or whatever to the party to support their ideas of economic freedom and where they want to go as a class — extremely important that we keep those guys on board. I’ve had a number of discussions with folks there. They have said that they will re-engage with the party if I’m chair.”

John Lewis, who currently serves as general counsel for the state party, was the only candidate who didn’t reference the indictments during the debate. As a party insider who helped strategize the 2014 election as a member of the central committee, Lewis has campaigned on an appeal for continuity. He didn’t mention the current chairman during the debate on Monday, but in an April 1 Facebook post announcing the launch of his campaign, Lewis wrote, “No one person can replace our party’s senior statesman, Robin Hayes. He has been a great friend and mentor to me over the years.”

On Monday, Lewis simply said, “We are fortunate that the big donors haven’t abandoned the North Carolina Republican Party.”

Noting that North Carolina, along with Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, is a must-win state for Donald Trump, and that the national spotlight will be on Charlotte in August 2020, Whatley said if elected chair, his first act will be to go to the executive committee meeting on June 10 “and demand that we conduct an audit and that we’re going to operate ethically moving forward.”

The candidates spoke at length about different fundraising strategies.

Whatley said the state party needs to implement an online small-donation program similar to the lucrative efforts pioneered by Trump and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election.

“There’s no excuse for us as a party to not have that in place right now,” Whatley said.

Whatley and Womack both said they would work to bring high-profile guests to the state — Womack named President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence — for fundraisers to benefit the state party.

And he suggested two ideas for “strategic partnering.”

“We are going to work on a NASCAR partnership because that’s mutually beneficial both for NASCAR and the Republican Party,” he said. “It’s a party that most of the race teams identify with.

“Another area is in the wine tasting,” he added. “I mean, Eric Trump is big into vineyards and wine tasting. Why don’t we work with the Trump campaign with some of the wine-tasting tours here, which are big-dollar fundraisers…. I think it would be great to have the Trump family come down here and raise some money, and we get a cut of that.”

Beyond funneling money to support candidates and campaigns, the party chair hopefuls talked about different ways they want to spend the funds.

Lewis said he would hire a full-time coordinator for judicial candidates. He described the position as “someone that can coordinate between all of the egos of the consultants of the campaigns” and farm candidates out across the state so they aren’t holding competing fundraisers in the same markets.

“These candidates don’t raise as much as say a US Senate race, so every dollar they get matters,” Lewis said. Alluding to the Democrat-dominated court’s ability to act as final arbiter on controversial legislation, Lewis added, “So we have to make sure that we win these judicial seats. And that is one of the biggest things that I want to spend money on next year so that we can protect the courts and start bringing them back to our side.”

Womack suggested that the state party could help its county-level counterparts open well-appointed headquarters in the state’s most populous counties to strengthen voter engagement.

“We have the largest Republican headquarters in the state in Lee County, in little ol’ Lee County,” Womack said. “8,000 square feet, and almost every room is occupied. We got a bar. We got a dancefloor. We got a barbershop. We got a prayer room. Folks, we got it all. And we’re right in the middle of downtown Sanford. A year-round presence, we keep the headquarters open. We got Democrats coming in there and they’re converting to our party.

“Look, that’s what I want to do statewide,” Womack said, adding that he could help county-level parties find local property owners to donate space or to lease at discounted rate.

In the only attack of the debate, Lewis assailed the idea as unrealistic.

“I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that we’re gonna pay for headquarters in all metropolitan areas,” he said. “I’m not gonna say that that’s the goal to do it. Because, realistically folks, we’ve had great fundraisers over the last 15, 20 years around the state. And they never could come close to raising money that would be required to run headquarters and permanent presences in Mecklenburg County, in Forsyth County, Buncombe County, New Hanover County. Telling you that’s what I’m gonna do is just not truthful.”

Whatley said he wants to build a TV studio in the party headquarters in Raleigh.

“We need to be able to have videos that we will create, content that we will create and also commercials that we will do for the General Assembly and other candidates,” he said, “and to be able to get that messaging out in a visual way, not just in terms of writing and social media.”

Whatley and Womack presented the biggest contrasts in media strategy, with Whatley emphasizing a more traditional approach.

“The key is what are the overall messages that we as a party need to deliver to voters over the 18 months that we’re gonna have coming out of this election for chair?” Whatley asked. “And how many times do we have to drive those messages home for ’em? That is going to be able to utilize traditional media, press releases, interviews with reporters, planting stories, doing radio shows, being on TV when that’s warranted.”

He also said that he anticipates the Trump campaign sending out weekly talking points, and that the state party would synthesize those with talking points from the gubernatorial nominee and legislative caucuses into a unified “package.”

Womack said the state party needs to utilize virtually every social-media platform, specifically mentioning Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

“Our president, Donald J. Trump, changed the way media operates,” Womack said. “He drives the news cycle now, and he does it through Twitter. He reinvented communications, and God bless him for doing that because he showed us that there’s a better way of doing it. We don’t just have to take a back seat to the news media. We’ve got the ability now to create our own channels of communications. And that’s something that the Republican Party of North Carolina just hasn’t taken advantage of.”

Urban counties like Forsyth and Guilford have steadily become more favorable toward Democrats with each presidential election, but the three candidates for state GOP chair gamely proposed ideas for reaching voters of color.

“We have a great message,” Whatley said. “President Trump has done a fantastic job unleashing the economy. We have record low unemployment among Hispanics. We have record low unemployment for African Americans.”

Womack said the state party is missing an opportunity by not buying radio advertising that targets African-American voters.

“We haven’t been buying black urban radio,” he said. “And let me tell you something: In urban radio you can reach a lot of folks, and we just haven’t been doing the ad buys and hitting them with hard-hitting messages which really convey where we are and the values that those folks align with.”

He said he’s also a fan of pamphlets.

“There’s a pamphlet I’ve got here with me tonight called ‘Make Black America Great Again,’” Womack said. “It’s from the Black Americans to Elect the President. Those pamphlets are really good, very effective at trying to communicate Republican values, the party that black Americans used to belong to many years ago. The same sort of thing with the Latin crowd. We’ve got Latin fliers printed in Spanish that will help Latin voters understand what our values are.”

Lewis said the party should identify “stakeholders” in urban communities to try to get a sympathetic hearing.

“We sit down and talk with them and find out what’s important with them,” he said. “When they start talking to us about what’s important with them, we then explain how that fits into the Republican mold. We get them to buy into the Republican brand. We get them to buy into what we’re doing. And we lead them down the path of realization that they realize that they’re Republicans.”

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