In retrospect, Barack Obama’s historic election as president in 2008 and his reelection in 2012 papered over swelling signs of a profound political rejiggering—in North Carolina and in Robeson County in particular. In 2010, for the first time in more than a century, Republicans took control of the state Legislature up in Raleigh. Down here by the South Carolina border, in the sandhills on the banks of the blackwater Lumber River, the margins in more races, too, suggested change was afoot.
Richard Burr had gotten 38 percent of the vote in Robeson when he was elected to the Senate in 2004. Six years later he got 46 percent. Pat McCrory, partly because of a Lumbee English teacher he had had in high school near Greensboro, he told me, prioritized the county in his 2008 run for governor. He got 28 percent of the vote in Robeson that year and lost. In 2012, when he ran again, he got 38 percent in Robeson—and won. Most residual stigma of voting Republican receded, and a burgeoning base of politically engaged, young Lumbee GOP strivers did their part. “We raised, I don’t know, $75,000 at my home,” Pembroke insurance agent Jarette Sampson told me, “for a Republican governor candidate than went on to win”—at which point McCrory hired a regional field director who had just graduated with a degree in political science from UNCP: Jarrod Lowery.
Then came 2016. Thanks to his surging numbers from Lumbee precincts, Trump did something no Republican presidential candidate had done in Robeson County since Richard Nixon did it in 1972. With just shy of 51 percent of the vote, Trump won here.
“The reason Robeson County voted Republican is the Native American population voted Republican,” Lowery told Daniel Allott, who wrote a book called On the Road in Trump’s America—in which Allott pegged Robeson as one of the “nine counties that were crucial to understanding the 2016 election.” Those on the other side of the divide obviously couldn’t help but notice as well. John McNeill, the former head of the county Democratic Party, recalled when we talked last week being at the polls in 2016 and running into a Lumbee man who told him he had never voted. But he was voting now. “I’m here,” McNeill remembered the man saying, “because of Trump.” The trend toward red, though, didn’t end with Trump. Most notably, Danny Britt, a Lumberton attorney and a JAG Corps vet, became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win the area’s state Senate seat.
In 2018, in the fraud-marred race for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, which stretches from the edge of Charlotte east and includes all of Robeson, Dan McCready overperformed as a Democrat—winning the county with 56.4 percent of the vote. In the special election not quite a year later, he still won the county—this time, though, with barely more than 50 percent.
“The biggest thing is to actually show up,” McCready told me this week. “The first thing to understand about Robeson County and eastern North Carolina more broadly is, I don’t think there’s any place in the country where politicians have left people behind as much as they have there. Folks are struggling with not just health care costs, schools, jobs, many of which were lost because of NAFTA and bad trade deals—they’re not getting the disaster relief that they were promised by politicians in both Washington and Raleigh. And then, of course, the Lumbee tribe has faced one of the greatest injustices in our entire country, which is a lack of full federal recognition.”
Even so, McCready lost in 2019 to Dan Bishop, and one reason was a sag in support from the Lumbee. “The Lumbee are culturally conservative, church-going and entrepreneurial. And more and more of us are distressed by the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party,” Lowery wrote in an op-ed in the wake of the results. He cited his own precinct, the 35th, where McCready’s share of the vote dropped from 53 percent to 39—a peek at a hardening of support in the community for Trump and evidence that social-issues-centered messaging painting all Democrats as radicals was working.
It was not lost on the Trump 2020 operation.
All the way back in early 2017, Paul Shumaker, one of the state’s top Republican consultants, told me, Trump’s aides were “consumed”—Shumaker’s word—with the chance they saw to expand their vote in Robeson County. “The Trump White House was more engaged on North Carolina, their political operations, than any point in time, of any president I’d worked with, any Republican president I had worked with, in the past,” said Shumaker, who has been working in politics in the state since Ronald Reagan was president. “They had a political strategy on the reelect to improve their vote performance in those outlying areas.” The campaign dispatched some of its most prominent surrogates—Donald Trump Jr., North Carolina-born and bred Lara Trump—not just to close-but-not-quite cities like Wilmington and Fayetteville but to Robeson proper.
They weren’t the only ones who sniffed opportunity. The Lumbees, by most accounts politically savvy and canny, responded in kind.
“There was many, many conversations about getting the president to come to Robeson County,” Lowery told me.
“We’d been working on it a year, probably a year, really trying to get him,” Sampson said. “We were trying to get him here in 2019, but it just never lined up right. And then when we got in that tight election”—polls in the state heading toward Election Day almost always showed Trump and Biden tangled in a toss-up—“then it became about the numbers, and it made it a little easier. But by that time, we’d make relationships with a lot of people around his organization.”
“I personally had a hand in getting the president to come down here,” Lowery said, describing a conversation he had with Billy Kirkland, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. “I was, like, ‘Look, you have an opportunity here.’ I said, ‘Lumbee people are voting more Republican anyway, but you need those numbers.’ I told him, I said, ‘Look, you could win by 1,700, or you could win by 8,000. It’s your choice.’”
Knowing their clout and leveraging it, Lowery, Sampson and other Lumbees lobbied for more than merely a rally. Trump wasn’t the first politician to come out for federal recognition for the tribe—far from it. Republican senators from the state have been supportive for years. So have House members from both parties who represent Robeson and areas around it. The House sponsor of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina Recognition Act is a Democrat—G.K. Butterfield from the state’s 1st Congressional District. Trump wasn’t even the first 2020 presidential candidate to come out for it—Biden had done it two weeks earlier. But Trump did it the most publicly.
“The Lumbee tribe has been fighting for federal recognition for more than a century,” the president said October 21 at a rally in Gastonia, west of Charlotte. “When I am reelected I will work with Congress,” he said, “on the Lumbee Recognition Act, and we’ll get it done.”
Three days later Trump was in Lumberton, and Lowery was an opening-act speaker at the rally at the county fairgrounds. “They said, ‘Sir, you have to be here with the Lumbee tribe,’” Trump said. “I said, ‘Explain to me about the Lumbee tribe.’” He reiterated his pledge: “When I’m reelected …” The heavily Lumbee crowd clapped, cheered and banged on drums.
“Off the charts,” McNeill, the former county Democratic boss, said when I asked what the rally did to drive up the Trump vote in Robeson.
“He already had the Native American vote,” said Mark Locklear, a self-employed investigator, precinct captain who lives in Prospect, and pro-gun, pro-life Democrat who voted for Trump in 2016 (but not in 2020 due to his bullying behavior and response to the pandemic). “But what he may have done, with coming here and announcing his support for the federal recognition, is bring some voters off the couch.”
At Fuller’s restaurant, as we polished off cups of banana pudding, Lowery was nearly giddy recounting the rallies. “We were like, ‘Oh, wow,’” he said. “The president just endorsed us. The first sitting president to actually say it.”