TIME

Smoked Republican Brisket

Joe Klein Road Trip Thom Tillis and Mark Walker
Jeremy M. Lange for TIME US Senate candidate Thom Tillis, right in blue shirt, greets and speaks to rally attendees at the Guildford County Republican Party headquarters in Greensboro, N.C. on Sept. 20, 2014.

Greensboro, North Carolina

 

Candace DeSantes has just retired as a reinsurance broker in Connecticut. She and her husband have moved to North Carolina. She’s a Republican and she’s noticed something, “Up in Connecticut, we didn’t dwell that much on gay marriage and abortion.” In fact, and here she began to whisper, “I’m pro-choice.” We were standing in the middle of the Guilford County Republican Party Headquarters, a large room filled with state and military flags–and campaign posters for Thom Tillis who is running for Senate and Mark Walker, a local minister who is running for Congress.

The room was filling up fast and I asked Candace why she was a Republican, “Economic issues.” She explained that she was a supply-sider, “I don’t mind paying my fair share. What I do mind is being vilified for having done well. My husband and I have been pretty successful and I don’t like being considered part of the ‘evil rich.’ You can disagree with my point of view, but we shouldn’t vilify people for their views in this country?”

I was curious about how Mrs. DeSantes would react to a heaping helping of Dixified red meat. In a year, say 2010, when the southern GOP was slinging anger and anti-Obama conspiracy silliness, DeSantes might have second thoughts about her party of choice in North Carolina. But what followed was…well, it was different.

“It’s sad,” Thom Tillis said, “that we have to be this disappointed in this President.” And that’s about as rough as it got. He criticized Obama–on health care, on foreign policy. He criticized his Democratic opponent Kay Hagan–for supporting the Affordable Care Act, diplomacy with Iran, the Senate immigration bill–with a call and respond line, “Is that a Senator from North Carolina?” He told his own up-by-his-bootstraps story. (Tillis started on a loading dock and didn’t get his college degree until he turned 36; but he’s been successful in business and is now the Speaker of the state legislature.) “I’m optimistic about our country,” he said, running against the right-wing radio trope that everything is going to hell in a hand basket.

I thought it was pretty effective, more smoked brisket than red meat. But the real shocker was Mark Walker, the Congressional candidate, who mostly talked about missions to help the poor that he’d undertaken via his church. He talked about faith-based social programs, much the way George W. Bush did. “I don’t want to pull the rug out from under people who are suffering,” he said, “but I do want to change the incentives in many of programs that we have. You don’t pull people out of poverty by making them more comfortable.” (Earlier, he’d told me that the thing he was most interested in doing if he won was finding Democrats he could work with to make the social welfare system more effective).

What didn’t the minister mention? Abortion. Homosexuality. Here’s his toughest line about Obama, “his present policies are hurting the country.”

Now, you know exactly how Tillis and Walker will vote if they win. I would be surprised if either of them took a single vote that wasn’t lockstep Republican. (And a local billboard quotes “extremist” Walker saying, “I think Romney was right about the 47%.”) But the style change is striking: The Republicans aren’t yelling this year. At least, not in North Carolina.

 

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