The best political strategist in Robeson County might be this high school senior

By Barry Yeoman

When the Robeson County Republican Party held its annual convention in March, one of the star speakers was not yet old enough to vote. Cutler Bryant, a 17-year-old senior at Purnell Swett High School, walked up to the lectern in a gray polo shirt and jeans, and delivered a searing and occasionally humorous critique of American public education.

“The Democrats want you to believe that critical race theory and indoctrination isn’t taking place in our schools,” Bryant, chair of the Robeson County Federation of Teenage Republicans, told the party faithful, who had gathered at an Italian restaurant in Lumberton. “But we know the truth, and teenagers especially know the truth, because many of us have experienced it.” He reeled off anecdotes from California and elsewhere, and then brought the issue home. Bryant’s own seventh-grade teacher, he said, had told him “that the reason Republicans didn’t like Barack Obama was because he was Black.”

That conversation, at Pembroke Middle School, came shortly after the 2016 election, Bryant explained. When the subject turned to current events, “I mentioned that Donald Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to win Robeson County since 1972. 

“And she replied, ‘Well, there’s a lot of stupid people in Robeson County.’

“And as politely as I could, I replied, ‘Yes, ma’am, and you’re one of them.'”

Bryant looked up from his speech. The GOP audience was laughing, as he had intended. “For the record,” he deadpanned, “I do not condone calling teachers stupid.”

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Afterward, the raves rolled in. “The best speech of the whole night,” said former Lumbee Tribal Council member Jarrod Lowery, a candidate for state House. “He had their attention the whole time—just knocked it out of the park.”

“That was the first time I’ve heard him speak in a podium in front of people,” said assistant district attorney Leah Britt Lanier, a candidate for District Court judge. “We’re just continuously floored by him, because to be only 17, you would think that he’s 35, 40 and had been in politics for years.”

Cutler Bryant, 17, is chair of the Robeson County Federation of Teenage Republicans.
Photo by Les High

Robeson’s Republicans had reason to be ebullient that night. The county, once a Democratic stronghold, had garnered national attention for its dramatic shift toward the GOP, fueled in large part by the Lumbee vote. The county voted for Democratic President Obama in 2008 and 2012, followed by Republican President Trump in 2016 and 2020. State and local races followed a similar pattern. In January, the Republican National Committee opened a community center in Pembroke to solidify its Lumbee base.

Stoking the momentum in Robeson is a fresh-faced cadre of activists— “a young group who are actually politically active, that I think will continue to change the county,” said Lowery. They organize relentlessly, from Easter Egg hunts to gas-station sign waves (“Pain at the Pump? Vote Red”), in the service of wooing and energizing GOP voters.

Among them, Bryant brings a skill set not often associated with teens. He analyzes precinct numbers for candidates. He introduces them to potential supporters. He designs their campaign literature. When I visited the community center, a staffer referred me to him as an unofficial party spokesman, and he offered me a crisp analysis of why Trump’s “America First” policy doctrine helped fuel the Lumbees’ rightward shift. Now Bryant is developing a data-driven strategy to convince local Democratic officials that they are doomed politically unless they re-register as Republican. 

“He is the future of the party,” said Britt Lanier. “The complete future.”

‘I would write out sample ballots’

His parents describe his childhood in prophetic terms. 

“I’m going to give you an example that’s going to probably blow your mind, because it still blows mine,” said his father, Brice Bryant. When his son was about five, according to Brice, he insisted for weeks — not just to his parents, but also to his great-grandparents and to other children — that he saw their church on fire. “And we kept saying, ‘No, honey,'” said Brice, a real estate agent who now lives in Myrtle Beach. “And Grandma would also say, ‘No, honey. You mean the Spirit of God fire?’ He said, ‘No, no. The church is on fire!'” 

“He kept warning us,” added his mother Torri Bryant, who lives in Pembroke and works for a faith-based home-health company. One Wednesday, the church’s lights began to flicker. Brice and the pastor went outside to investigate, and discovered flames had engulfed an adjacent building. Brice ran back inside, sounding the call to evacuate. “The church is on fire!” he recalled shouting. 

“All the kids looked at Cutler,” Torri said. “And Cutler was like, ‘See, I seen fire.'”

He could smell the rain coming, said Torri, and could see clouds that weren’t in the sky. Local pastors who also farmed, she said, would call and ask for her son’s forecasts. 

“He’s hearing the voice of God but not knowing,” said Brice. 

Cutler Bryant, 17, places yard signs for Republican candidates near Pembroke, on April 26, 2022. Photo by Les High

Bryant’s parents used to lead a non-denominational Bible study at UNC Pembroke. They brought their son along, and he befriended the college students. “They would make comments to Torri and I: ‘This doesn’t seem like a 10-year-old,'” said Brice. 

“He would challenge them,” said Torri.

“He would know more about the Bible than these kids,” said Brice.

During those campus meetings, neither adult talked about politics. Torri had never voted at that point. Brice, who worked for CSX railroad, followed his union’s lead and supported Obama. But their son’s faith led him to Republican politics, which squared with his traditional beliefs on abortion, assisted suicide and gender identity. He found himself drawn to Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and Seventh-day Adventist who ran for president in 2016.

After Carson’s campaign lost traction, the 11-year-old shifted his loyalty to Trump. (His parents joined him.) “He’s not an embodiment of Christianity,” Bryant said. “But God still used him, because God can use anybody, any vessel.”

Back then, Bryant was too young to campaign. “But I was very vocal about my support for Trump at school,” he said. “People at our church, like the student ministry they had, would all say, ‘Cutler, who do I vote for?’ I would write out sample ballots for them.”

Bryant attended a Donald Trump rally in 2016 in Fayetteville.
Contributed photo

In August 2016, Bryant went with his mother and grandmother to a Trump rally at Crown Arena in Fayetteville. They were given VIP tickets by a friend, he said, and the future president autographed a Trump-Pence canvas he had painted. A Fayetteville Observer photographer captured an image of him waiting in line that day. He wore yellow plastic sunglasses molded into a mask the shape of the candidate’s flamboyant hair. 

Contrasting visions of leadership

Just before he turned 14, Bryant went to a High School Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the conservative student organization Turning Point USA. A polarizing group even within the movement, Turning Point USA is best known for publishing a “Professor Watchlist” that purports to expose “radical behavior” in the classroom. It also funnels money to simpatico student-government candidates in what founder Charlie Kirk has called a “rather undercover, underground operation.”

During the kickoff speech, Nikki Haley, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, asked the students, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to quote-unquote own the libs.” Hands flew into the air, and the attendees broke into applause. 

Then Haley, who is also South Carolina’s former governor, offered a diplomatic rebuke. “I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good. But step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this. Are you persuading anyone?” she said. “This kind of speech isn’t leadership. It’s the exact opposite.”

Later, Bryant listened as the other students interrupted then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to chant “lock her up” — an echo of earlier calls at Trump rallies to prosecute Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. (Bryant said he didn’t chant.) Sessions laughed and repeated the phrase.

Those two moments, for Bryant, provided contrasting visions of what leadership might look like. He said Haley’s vision stuck with him. “While it’s fun in the moment, I think that we need to depolarize and just be able to have conversations with one another without devolving into insults and labels,” he said. “Of course, I’m not perfect at it. Sometimes I’ll get carried away.” (Cue the line about his “stupid” teacher.) “But a lot of times, I’ve tried to be mindful about that kind of stuff.”

Bryant finally got to dive into campaigning in 2020, when he volunteered to help Olivia Oxendine, an associate professor of education at UNC Pembroke, try to unseat Democratic state Rep. Charles Graham. First elected to the legislature in 2010, Graham has been an electoral powerhouse: He ran unopposed for reelection three times, and then in 2018 trounced Jarrod Lowery by 18 points. 

Oxendine, a member of the State Board of Education, was nonetheless new to electoral politics. Bryant met her at a GOP political meeting. “She gave a little stump speech,” he said. “She said, ‘Please, I need volunteers. I’m begging.'”

After her speech, Bryant approached the candidate. “And immediately he says, ‘I can help you knock on doors … I can help you with your social media,'” Oxendine said. “I was just blown away. And I thought: Not only does he know what a campaign needs, he’s just very expeditious. There was no lag time. Before the next day, we were exchanging text messages.”

Bryant’s mother drove him to a McDonald’s parking lot a few days later, and he met Oxendine for a few hours of door-knocking. It was just the two of them, he said. 

At one house, “I came across this young guy, probably in his 30s. He had a gun beside him,” Bryant said. “I said, ‘I know how I’m going to get this guy’s vote.’ So I said, ‘I’m working with the Olivia Oxendine campaign. She’s endorsed by the NRA, pro-gun.’ 

“He said, ‘She supports guns? She’s endorsed by the NRA?’

“I said, ‘Yes sir. Yes sir.’

Cutler Bryant prepares to place signs for Republican candidates in yards in Robeson County on April 26.
Photo by Les High

“He said, ‘She’s got my vote.’ So I guess my political instincts kicked in.”

During that campaign, Bryant did his first bit of campaign strategizing. When Oxendine proposed a particular community for canvassing, he said, he pulled up a detailed precinct map on his iPhone and suggested they go elsewhere.

“She was so surprised that I had all this information on my phone,” he said. “She had us knocking doors in heavy Democrat areas. And I’m like, ‘No, we need to optimize Republican turnout in this precinct.’ She’s like, ‘OK, well, we’ll go here.'” 

In the end, Oxendine lost by five points in a district that voted heavily for Trump. But it was the closest anyone had come to stopping Graham, and the narrow margin encouraged Bryant. “I’d always been interested in politics,” he said. “But I think that really intrigued me about working for campaigns.” Plus, he gained a mentor in Oxendine, who urged him to start the Teenage Republicans chapter and signed on as its adult sponsor.

Crunching data

This election cycle, as he approaches adulthood, Bryant is playing more sophisticated roles as an analyst, graphic designer and connector. 

His primary focus has been Lowery’s campaign to win the state House seat that Graham vacated to run for Congress. (Both candidates won their May 17 primaries.) Not only has Bryant designed Lowery’s handbills, but he has also served as a volunteer strategist. “When you understand data and political geography, you’re able to articulate it,” Lowery said. “And that’s what Cutler can do. He’s able to break down things for people in politics for them to understand. … He’s able to pull out numbers and place it on a map, so you can visually see what’s going on.”

Usually, Lowery said, candidates in small races need to crunch their own data. “Looking at precincts, looking at numbers, what to do, where to go — sometimes I’ve reached out and asked Cutler a question, and sometimes that saves a lot of headache,” he said. “I honestly would rather call somebody like Cutler, who is local, who is learning, who’s gaining experience than, as a candidate, calling a consultant and asking the same question.”

Over the years, Bryant has come to know Robeson County’s electorate not just as data, but also as individuals. He uses those relationships to connect candidates to voters.

“He’s been helpful in saying, ‘Hey, in this part of the county, in this neighborhood, this is a good person that you could talk to,'” said Britt Lanier, the assistant district attorney. “Whenever we’re at the RNC [community center], he’ll walk me over and say, ‘Hey, this is Leah Britt Lanier. She’s running for district court judge. She’ll be on the Republican ballot in November.’ Just to give me the opportunity to be able to introduce myself and get their name. And we can go from there.”

Bryant’s latest project has been mapping the Robeson County Board of Commissioners districts to figure out which of the Democratic seats are tilting Republican. Based on that information, he has urged some of the Democrats, who hold a 5-3 majority, to switch parties. “I emailed them all the information,” he said. “And I said, ‘Look, Robeson County is trending red. If you get a strong Republican opponent in a few years, you’re going to be dead on arrival. You’re going to lose.'”

Next up: college

Bryant graduates high school next month. He plans to work on Lowery’s campaign this summer, then head 90 minutes north to study at Campbell University. “It’s a good Christian school,” he says, and within driving distance of Raleigh if he lands a political job or internship. 

Campbell, which affirms in its mission statement “that all truth finds its unity in Jesus Christ,” has produced a good number of North Carolina politicians from both major parties. Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Republican state Senator Buck Newton, and five Court of Appeals judges all graduated from its law school. Former state GOP director Dallas Woodhouse and former Democratic Congressman Bob Etheridge attended as undergraduates. (So did California Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell, whom Bryant recently called “repulsive” on Twitter. Bryant, who has a Lumbee mother and a white father, was irked by Swalwell’s statement that Republicans wanted to ban mixed marriage.) 

Bryant’s adult fans believe he, too, has a future in politics. “Cutler is going to make an awesome elected official,” said Lowery. “I can see him in the state House, state Senate. But he’s also going to make an awesome — if he wanted to — somebody’s Chief of Staff. I can see him running the state, being a presidential chief of staff, or running the State Department or something.”

For his part, Bryant said he imagines starting behind the scenes: doing marketing and design work for campaigns, or working as a chief of staff or a communications director. Later, he said, he might run for public office. 

When he was younger, Bryant said, he imagined becoming president. That’s not his ambition these days. “You have to think kind of realistically,” he said. “I’m not going to say that I couldn’t be. I never know what God has in store.”

Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist in North Carolina. Find more of his work here.

Bryant stands in front of the Republican National Committee’s office in Pembroke.
Photo by Les High