The scope and speed of restarting the wounded economy is the latest red-blue divide in American politics, the outcome of which is certain to animate – and likely influence – the remainder of the election year.
Few states more starkly illustrate that collision than here in North Carolina.
It’s not only that President Donald Trump’s advisers see the state’s 15 electoral votes as crucial to his election, which they do, but also a belief that it holds rich symbolism of economic rebuilding as a place he still intends to accept his nomination to a second term at the Republican National Convention in August.
That convention – how or whether it happens – adds another layer of tension to the political dynamic here.
The President’s fixation on the convention burst into public view on Monday as he fired off a Memorial Day tweet with a threat to move the GOP gathering out of North Carolina unless Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, could “guarantee” that he would open the arena to full capacity. Trump has accused Cooper of “playing politics” with reopening the state’s economy.
Cooper insists he is taking a measured approach rooted in data and science that will determine how North Carolina revives its economy in hopes of preventing a summertime spike in coronavirus cases.
“A pandemic cannot be political,” Cooper told CNN. “If it is, we lose that ability to work together.”
He dismissed the notion that politics has played any part in his calculation. He announced Wednesday the state would advance to the next phase of its reopening plan, with restaurants, barber shops and salons among places that could open with limitations on Friday evening, while gyms, bars and movie theaters will remain closed.
“This is not political. This is not emotional. This is based on health experts, data and science and that’s it for everybody to see,” Cooper said. “No one is being favored or disfavored over the other.”
More of CNN's coronavirus coverage
North Carolina is emerging as a fascinating laboratory in gauging political fallout from the coronavirus crisis. It is surrounded by states that have moved far more quickly to restart the economy, with businesses in neighboring South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee open for several weeks under the direction of their Republican governors.
The pandemic is now an unmistakable fact of the election. From the speed and wisdom of reopening decisions to the individual pace of a family’s economic recovery, the novel coronavirus has upended the political landscape unlike most anything else in recent memory.
“Voters are going to be determining between now and November who played politics with the decisions,” former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, told CNN. “Both good and bad politics.”
Four years ago, Trump carried North Carolina by four percentage points. On the same day, voters elected a Democratic governor as Cooper defeated McCrory by less than one point.
This year, the race for president and governor, along with one of the most competitive Senate contests in the country, will play out here over the next six months. Campaign ads are already on the airwaves, with Trump targeting Joe Biden and the Lincoln Project, a group of never-Trump Republicans, assailing the President.
“North Carolina is a purple state. It could go either way,” McCrory said in an interview Wednesday. “If President Trump loses North Carolina, he probably loses the presidency, so it is extremely important to the Republicans and the President to make sure we get our message across and the convention is a major part of messaging.”
The Republican convention, which is scheduled to be held in the same uptown arena where President Barack Obama accepted his nomination to a second term in 2012, is awash in uncertainty as party officials determine how to navigate a presidential campaign during a public health crisis.
“We will not be holding a virtual convention,” Republican chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told reporters this week, saying the planning is moving ahead for the convention to take place in Charlotte in August.
Republican officials acknowledge that it remains an open question what the event will ultimately look like and whether thousands of delegates and visitors will actually descend on Charlotte. But they say the President has instructed his reelection campaign to keep the convention on track, with anticipation of an August celebration in his honor.
Both Cooper and the Democratic mayor of Charlotte, Vi Lyles, said their recommendations and decisions about the convention will be guided by science, not politics. Business owners see the convention as a potential lifeline after more than two months of economic disaster.
But Cooper said the Republican gathering would be treated like any other major event and it remained uncertain whether concerts or the NFL would return this summer and fall. Crowds are still limited to 10 people, under the governor’s order, with additional phases of reopening still to come.
“The good thing is that this is three months away and it’s too early to tell where North Carolina will be,” Cooper said. “But we are looking at these objective measures that everybody can see and the public can examine. And in order to truly boost our economy, people are going to have to feel confident in their safety.”
McCrory, who served as mayor of Charlotte for more than a decade and now hosts a morning talk radio program here, said the convention could be a critical flashpoint.
“The dilemma you have is that Democrats in our state and our city may be making a decision for Republicans on whether or not a convention will be held,” McCrory said. “There will be suspicion regardless as to whether that was a political decision or a science decision.”
While the politics of reopening the American economy is now at the center of a national debate, sparking anger here and across the country in recent weeks, Steve Thanhauser hopes it stays out of his legendary steakhouse.
“I do not want this to become political in my restaurant, no,” said Thanhauser, who is looking forward to reopening the Angus Barn in Raleigh on Friday night. “There’s no reason that this should be political. This is very black and white.”
But in this election season, there may be no such thing, as the cultural debate now includes conversations about wearing masks and the line between government intrusion and instruction.
Even as Cooper eases some restrictions heading into the Memorial Day weekend, his slow and measured approach remains an outlier in the South.
“I want to get our economy open too, but we’ve got to do it safely,” Cooper said. “I think it’s so important that we do this with caution and not haste.”