By Sarah Nagem
A standing-room-only crowd gathered inside a small storefront in the town of Pembroke on Friday in a scene that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.
The guests were there to celebrate the Republican National Committee’s new office on Main Street, a headquarters aimed at wooing Native American voters in Robeson County.
Robeson, one of the most diverse counties in America and home to the Lumbee tribe, was for decades a Democratic stronghold in national and state elections. But many people in this rural swath of southeastern North Carolina have shifted to the right politically, handing President Donald Trump more than 58% of the vote in 2020.
Now, Republican leaders want to keep the momentum going.
“We’re excited that this county went red in 2020, but we don’t want it to be a one-off election,” Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, said during the event. “We want this to be a Republican county going forward.”
The RNC has spent millions of dollars opening community centers to engage minority voters. The Pembroke location is the 21st in the country but the first in North Carolina – and the first aimed at Native American voters.
Many of the Lumbee tribe’s 60,000 members live in Robeson, making up more than 37% of the county’s population. Deeply religious and fiscally and socially conservative, some Lumbees say the GOP now better represents their values – and their century-long fight for full federal recognition.
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Trump held a rally in Robeson County ahead of the 2020 election, and former Vice President Mike Pence stopped in Pembroke in 2019 to eat at Fuller’s BBQ. That kind of attention – and physical presence – go a long way with the Lumbee people, said Jarrod Lowery, a member of the tribe and a candidate for a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives.
“For Native people across the country, that’s the only thing we want,” Lowery said Friday. “We want you to feel like you genuinely care about our issues, the things that are important to us.”
Barack Obama won easily in Robeson County in 2008 and 2012. So did other Democrats, including candidates for everything from the U.S. Senate to state superintendent of schools.
Republican Pat McCrory got less than 28% of the vote in Robeson during his unsuccessful bid for governor in 2008. Eight years later, he got nearly 53%.
Trump narrowly won Robeson in 2016, when other Republicans also saw success. Danny Britt Jr., a Republican attorney from Lumberton, won a seat in the state senate that Democrats had held for years.
By 2020, a red wave seemed to have washed over the county. Robeson voters picked down-ballot Republican candidates for nearly every race.
Dan McCready, a Democrat who lost a special election in 2019 to Republican Dan Bishop for the District 9 seat in the U.S. House, was one of the last Democrats to show interest in Robeson County, according to Lowery.
“A lot of Democrats have taken the Lumbee vote for granted,” McCready, who carried Robeson County in the election, told Politico in 2020. “Now, just like white rural voters are leaving the Democratic Party, many Lumbee voters are doing so, too. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
In a statement to the Border Belt Independent, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Democratic Party said Democrats are "committed to honoring, upholding, and strengthening our obligations to native communities and are fighting tooth and nail to win all 100 counties in North Carolina, including Robeson County."
"The North Carolina Democratic Party continues to carry out year-round organizing and has made heavy investments in Robeson County in an effort to make direct outreach to the Lumbee Tribe," said spokeswoman Ellie Dougherty. "As the 2022 midterms ramp up, so are Democrats’ efforts to reach voters in every corner of our state.”
At least one Democrat is surely still counting on Robeson – Charles Graham, a member of the Lumbee tribe and a state legislator who is now running for Congress.
Graham launched his campaign last fall with a video recalling the 1958 Battle at Hayes Pond. During the encounter, Native Americans in Robeson County successfully pushed back the Ku Klux Klan.
The video, with a message about human dignity, got millions of views on YouTube. Graham quickly apologized after some critics pointed out his 2016 vote for the so-called bathroom bill, which said people had to use restrooms in state buildings that corresponded to their assigned gender at birth.
“Five years ago I failed to uphold my own value when I voted for HB2, and it was a mistake,” Graham said in a statement.
'Maximize the vote'
Like much of rural North Carolina, Robeson’s population is shrinking. The county lost more than 17,500 people – the largest numeric decline of the state’s 100 counties – between 2010 and 2020, according to Carolina Demography.
The county is now home to about 117,000 people, the latest Census shows.
There may be fewer voters to win over, but Republicans say places like Robeson County are crucial as the state becomes more urban.
“We have to maximize the vote in areas that share our values to the greatest extent to win these statewide elections,” said Congressman David Rouzer, a Wilmington Republican whose district could soon include Robeson.
Bishop, a Charlotte Republican, currently represents Robeson. But the county would shift to Rouzer’s district under new maps approved by the General Assembly.
The congressional and legislative maps face legal challenges, however, and could ultimately be changed.
However the maps are drawn, Robeson has already shown its power, Whatley said.
Republican Paul Newby won a seat as a chief justice on the N.C. Supreme Court by 401 votes in 2020. In Robeson, he won by 625 votes.
Through voters’ support of Trump – and therefore other Republicans on the ballot – “the votes in Robeson County delivered that chief justice slot” for the GOP, Whatley said.
Trump’s popularity in Robeson did not come without controversy, however.
A Black Lives Matter march at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in June 2020 became violent. A group of counter-protesters, most of them Native Americans, threw rocks and bottles during the event. A pickup truck flew a large Trump sign.
UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings was criticized for attending Trump’s rally in Robeson County 10 days before the 2020 election. Some students of the university, which has a large minority enrollment, said they worried the university would be tied to Trump’s re-election campaign.
Cummings, who is a Lumbee, released a statement saying he attended the rally to support full federal recognition for the tribe.
The Lumbee tribe is recognized by the state of North Carolina but has only partial federal recognition. Full recognition would bring millions of dollars in federal money for the tribe to spend on education, health care and other services.
Trump and Democrat Joe Biden both pledged their support for full recognition.
The U.S. House passed the Federal Recognition Act last fall after the bill was introduced by two Democrats and two Republicans from North Carolina. The bill is now in the Senate.
“Let’s face it, Lumbee people have been mistreated, have suffered under unfairness – unspeakable – for hundreds of years,” Bishop, one of the sponsors of the House bill, said Friday. “And it continues to this day.”
'Blue Dog Democrats'
Robeson County is one of the poorest in the state and has one of the highest violent-crime rates. Most schools lag behind on performance standards, and the region hasn’t fully recovered from the economic loss of tobacco.
Johnson Britt, a Democrat and former district attorney in Robeson County, sees what’s happening in Robeson County as the disappearance of “Blue Dog Democrats.”
More-centrist voters who traditionally voted Democratic are switching to the GOP, he said, and they’re not just Native Americans.
In eastern Robeson County, Britt said, some white people are angry their community hasn’t seen the kind of development that has occurred in Lumberton and Pembroke.
“(Trump) somehow connected with the people who believe that they’ve been forgotten, they’ve been neglected by the government,” Britt said during an interview with the Border Belt Independent last summer. “He was going to change all that.”
Britt, who is white and now works as a defense attorney, said he was approached about running for political office as a Republican.
“I thought, ‘I can’t do that,’” he said. “If you poke me, I’m going to bleed blue.”
But Lowery said Democrats’ agenda simply doesn’t resonate like it used to.
“The fact that Democrats went away from supporting American workers to being a little more globalist … I think that was the first tide of going away,” he said.
Many Lumbees supported Trump’s decision to get rid of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Lowery said.
Bishop said economic issues will likely be a deciding factor for many Robeson County voters. Inflation is forcing families to spend more on groceries, he said, and drivers are paying more to fill up their gas tanks.
“That makes such an immense impact on people who are working people trying to make ends meet,” he said.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Monday, Jan. 31, to include a statement from the North Carolina Democratic Party.
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem