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What Are North Carolina Voters Prioritizing For The 2020 Election?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

North Carolina could be crucial in these elections. President Trump almost certainly has to win the state to win reelection, and a close Senate contest there could change which party controls the U.S. Senate. As part of a series we've been doing to try to check in with voters, we're joined now by Steve Harrison, politics and government reporter at WFAE in Charlotte. Steve, thanks so much for being with us.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So what do you hear about the race at the top of the ticket?

HARRISON: So the polls give Joe Biden a slight lead, but it's 1 or 3 points, which basically means it's anyone's guess. And here's one thing that makes North Carolina really interesting. The urban areas like Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh are becoming more blue. And these urban areas are becoming more Democratic because lifelong Republicans in these wealthy neighborhoods are really turned off by President Trump.

But North Carolina is one of the country's fastest-growing states. And there are so many transplants here, people from the Midwest and lots and lots from the Northeast, like Claire Olsen of Charlotte, who is a retired food service worker. She voted for Trump in 2016, but not this time.

CLAIRE OLSEN: I'll give the guy a chance. I'm originally from New York. I've been down here 20 years. I'm well aware of Trump, you know, his - the way he's been over the years, because coming from New York, he's always in the paper. And I was willing to give him a try. And when he started right off the bat doing things that he did, I didn't think it was necessary.

SIMON: And, of course, President Trump won the state narrowly in 2016, largely because of the support of rural voters. Has that base stayed with him?

HARRISON: So it has. You had urban counties go more for Democrats, but that was offset elsewhere. Robeson County is two hours east of Charlotte, and it's a minority-majority rural county, a mix of whites, Blacks, Native Americans and a growing Hispanic population. Democrats always win here. But then Trump pulled off a shocker in 2016 and got 51% of the vote.

This is Tom Taylor, a county commissioner there who is a registered Democrat. He voted for Trump in 2016 and is going to do so again.

TOM TAYLOR: I go around, and the first thing that pops up - president - we're voting for Trump. I hadn't even seen no Biden signs until a couple weeks ago. But that's just the way the younger people's looking. They're voting Trump.

SIMON: And, of course, Steve, there's this high-stakes Senate race between Thom Tillis, the incumbent Republican who tested positive for COVID a few weeks ago, and the Democratic nominee, Cal Cunningham, who's enduring a sexting scandal. What does that contest look like?

HARRISON: This race could very well decide who controls the Senate. And for almost this entire race, Cunningham has held a small but steady lead. But then three weeks ago, Cunningham apologized for an extramarital affair, and Tillis and Republican super PACs are making this their closing argument, saying Cunningham is untrustworthy. Cunningham is trying to hold on to his lead and isn't talking to the press much at all.

A lot of Democrats I talked to say, yeah, they're really disappointed, but they show no indication of not voting for him, like Marie Edwards from Charlotte.

MARIE EDWARDS: I wish he didn't do what he did. You know, we are all human. I mean, his political views still resonate with me. I don't know. But health care and the things that Thom Tillis is doing right now - I can't support that.

HARRISON: So, you know, after Bill Clinton and then President Trump, it's unclear whether a sex scandal or sexting scandal really resonates anymore.

SIMON: Steve, what are voters telling you concerns them most - economy, law and order, pandemic, social justice?

HARRISON: So in talking to people, I hear a lot about the coronavirus. North Carolina has not been impacted as hard by the pandemic as some states like Georgia. But when you talk to Democrats, they still talk about the pandemic as kind of the last straw for them. And Republicans bring it up, too. They aren't saying the president did a good job of handling it, but their view is that this virus was coming, and there wasn't much anyone could do differently to slow it down or stop it.

SIMON: What about the final push we're seeing by both the Biden and Trump campaigns? Do they seem to be turning out high numbers of voters, as we've seen in other states?

HARRISON: Yeah, both campaigns are. And for the president, North Carolina is absolutely essential. He is going to make his ninth visit to the state this year today in Robeson County. And overall, there's been a massive push in mail voting and early voting here.

A big wild card is that about 20% of the early and mail voters this year didn't cast ballots in 2016. We don't know how they voted, but many of them are young, members of Generation Z or millennials.

And when you're watching from home on election night, we'll probably know the winner in North Carolina pretty quickly because when the polls close at 7:30, the state will post the results from early votes instantly. Then it'll just be a few more hours for the Election Day votes to be tallied up.

SIMON: And that could be very telling nationally. Steve Harrison, WFAE, thanks so much.

HARRISON: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.