CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – By Sunday morning, less than two days after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the signs were already stapled to telephone poles in this liberal college town. “VOTE!” they read, above an Uncle Sam-style image of the iconic feminist jurist.
Not that voters here needed a reminder of the stakes in this election.
North Carolina, where the changing demography reflects America as much as the urban-rural divisions mirror its polarization, was already a crucial bellwether. The state is critical to President Donald Trump’s re-election, particularly as he has slipped in the industrial Midwest and come under more pressure to retain the rest of his 2016 map.
With competitive races for president, Senate and governor and control of the state Legislature up for grabs, voters are being deluged by advertisements: More money has been spent on television commercials here than in any other state.
And now, Ginsburg’s death has made North Carolina even more important this year. If Trump and Senate Republicans try to hastily push through a new justice before or immediately after the election, it could doom three senators in states where they were already trailing, and where Joe Biden appears well-positioned: Maine, Colorado and Arizona.
That makes North Carolina not just a bellwether but a linchpin, with Sen. Thom Tillis holding perhaps the deciding seat in who controls the Senate. The White House, the Senate and the Supreme Court, then, could hang in the balance here.
“We have more of an ability to shape the future of the state, nation and world than anybody else,” said Josh Stein, the state’s Democratic attorney general who is also on the ballot and has used that line to rally supporters at drive-in church services and other COVID-era gatherings.
It is not just Democrats who see the looming Supreme Court battle as an opportunity to rouse their supporters.
“No one believes we can keep a Senate majority unless we win North Carolina,” Tillis said Saturday at a rally with Trump in Fayetteville, N.C., shortly before the president took the podium and announced his plans to pick a female justice this week.
After nearly facing a primary from the right over his seemingly less-than-total support for Trump — he initially opposed using Pentagon funds for the border wall, and sponsored a bill protecting Robert Mueller, the former special counsel — Tillis is seizing on the Supreme Court opening to reach for the president’s coattails. At the event Saturday, he said that he would support whomever the president selects to replace Ginsburg.
“The president has the responsibility and the authority to nominate a justice,” said Tillis, before citing the list of potential Supreme Court justices Trump released this month. “I’m going to vote for their confirmation,” he said.
Tillis is calculating that the president will win North Carolina again, and that the court fight will somehow polarize the electorate further, in a way that benefits the Republicans — and him.
The first-term senator may have little choice: Twelve percent of Republican voters in North Carolina indicated in a New York Times-Siena College poll last week that they were undecided in the Senate race, about twice the share of Democrats who were uncertain about Tillis’ lesser-known Democratic rival, Cal Cunningham.
Without those Republican voters, Tillis, who has trailed Cunningham in most surveys, will face an almost certain defeat.
Some Republicans in North Carolina and in Washington believe that the court fight, and the elevation of issues like abortion rights, will help Tillis, by making the campaign more of a red-versus-blue tribal clash.
“Our Senate races are usually tied to the presidential race,” said Art Pope, an influential North Carolina Republican donor, pointing to hard-fought Republican Senate victories in 2004 and 2016, and a Democratic one in 2008, that mirrored the state’s presidential results.
But other Republican officials believe the political impact of the court battle remains to be seen, and will depend in part on how the two parties handle the process.
Cunningham is happy to flay Tillis, but has little appetite to elevate the national stakes. “I’m aware that the eyes of the world are on us,” he said, before quickly adding, “I’ve got to make it about North Carolina — it is about North Carolina.”