Establishment vs Grassroots: Candidates for NCGOP Chairmanship Rumble in Raleigh

RALEIGH – While the current NCGOP Chairman Robin Hayes is under federal indictment, and a district chair is temporarily standing in his place, three candidates are vying for the chair position to be elected at the NCGOP convention in June. Those three candidates — Lee County GOP Chairman Jim Womack, Politico and energy lobbyist Michael Whatley, and current NCGOP General Counsel John Lewis — participated in a debate Monday evening put on by the Wake County GOP.

The ‘Rumble,’ as it was billed, drew over 100 people out to hear about the respective candidates’ approach to the chair position and what they want to do for the party. They answered questions about fundraising, state level relationships with county GOP infrastructure, and how to repair the damage done to the Republican Party in urban and suburban area.

Arguably, Womack stole the show with his dynamism and fighting spirit geared toward reforming how the party operates.

“We’ve had an absentee chairman, someone who ran the party from a remote location and turned everything over to an executive director. That’s not the way I would be your leader. […] The party desperately needs someone who’s a servant-leader; someone who understands where things get done in the party. It doesn’t get done in Raleigh — you can lose an election in Raleigh, but you can’t win’em. Where you win the election is down at the grassroots level of the party. […]

“We have to stop operating this party like a club; it is a business and it will be run like a business if you elect me chairman.”

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Lewis played to his experience and resume in being in leadership positions from the precinct level, all the way up to a statewide level, within the Party. In so doing, though, he tied himself to a lot of the problems extant over the last several year with party leadership.

“I have severed this party as a precinct chairman, county chairman, as a district chairman. I have served this party as assistant legal counsel and I currently serve as your general counsel. I have served you and the State of North Carolina as a member of the N.C. State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. I am the only candidate running here that has experience at the precinct, county, district, and statewide level that can lead this party.”

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Michael Whatley was also there, and touted his connection to the Trump campaign to win North Carolina and emphasized (redundantly) that we need a ‘Reset in Raleigh’ and better communications and metrics employed across the state and county organizations.

“I’m running for chairman because we need a reset in Raleigh. We need party leadership that is focused on honesty, transparency, communications, and metrics. We need to build our party infrastructure, both digitally, and in communications, to be able to compete with the tens of millions of dollars Democrats are already raising to spend here in North Carolina.” 

But the real rumble took place when the elephant in the room was brought out: Chairman Robin Hayes’ federal indictment for bribery, and whether he should have resigned. (Hayes has not resigned, but instead delegated his authority to a district chair until the convention elects a new chairman).

Though Whatley was first to asnwer the question, he essentially dodged it with talk of ‘a process.’ Lewis, who is intimately involved with the top levels of the party leadership, gave quite the unpalatable answer and then proceeded to admit that the complications with Hayes’ hypoethical resignation arose from a poorly constructed Plan of Organization…that he wrote.

“No, Chairman Hayes was not wrong for not resigning. You don’t want to hear this, but I’m going to explain my answer here in a minute. No, the Central Committee was not wrong for not removing him.”

Lewis justified his answer by explaining the party lacked sufficient contingency planning, and thus its hands were tied lest the party be left without a chairman at all. The chair’s authority was delegated to a district chair because former Vice Chair Michelle Nix resigned to engage in a failed bid for congress, and party rules had no real alternatives.

“Our Plan of Organization never anticipated [this] scenario, and I can tell you that because I was the one that wrote the major overhaul of the state plan in 2017. It never dawned on anyone where we’d have a situation where the party chairman’s indicted and no vice chairman in place. […]

“One sentence in a 40 page document has allowed us to continue to operate and get things done as a party.”

So, essentially Lewis admitted to being a contributing factor to the party’s poor planning leading to the current undesirable situation. He cautioned multiple times that his answer is not what people want to here and he was right.

At this point Womack smelled blood in the water, and went in for the kill.

Now we’re ready to rumble. You heard two answers; you heard one that didn’t answer the question because he doesn’t know an answer to the question. Number two, you heard a guy that is part of the problem.

We have been dysfunctional in this party for years. […] We have a tyrannical style of leadership in this party, and my opponent just admitted that he was part of the rewrite that created the situation we have right now. He admitted, that he wrote the document, and the [chair now] refuses to resign and we’re at an impasse. [John Lewis] helped create the situation that we’re in.

“I ran against [Mr. Hayes] two years ago because he wasn’t properly leading the party. […] You can’t operate it with centralized, authoritarian-type rule. The central committee is being ignored right now. They’ve been ignored since Mr. Hayes took over. […]

Folks, the plan of organization is broken. It needs a complete bottom-up, top-down review. [We need to] completely rewrite that thing and do it over the next year, where it’s full transparency and everyone has the possibility of input into that Plan of Organization, and we create one that runs like a business, not like a club, not like power-centric type of club.

Mr. Hayes SHOULD have resigned because he’s under federal indictment, could likely go to jail, and he’s damaging our brand every day he stays in office. […]”

Womack received the most raucous applause of the evening with his impassioned response to this question and his opponents’ answers. You can watch the climax of the debate here.

In summary, that’s largely how the debate went – Womack delivered a passionate message of getting the party back by tearing down the country club ethos of the party leadership, bringing common business and battle planning sense to empower the state and local parties, and returning influence over the party to the true Republican values embodied by the grassroots conservatives.

It was very much the ‘Establishment vs Grassroots’ rumble that has been boiling in the Republican Party here in North Carolina and around the country for years. On this night, when the final bell rang, Jim Womack was standing taller than the rest.

The election of the new chair and vice chair of the NCGOP is on June 8 at the NCGOP State Convention in Concord.

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