WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – President Donald Trump used a campaign rally in battleground North Carolina on Tuesday to accuse the state’s Democratic governor of imposing coronavirus restrictions to hurt the president’s re-election chances, though he cited no evidence to back up that claim.
“Your state should be open,” Trump told an enthusiastic crowd that erupted in cheers in Winston-Salem.
The president, still stung from the loss of the GOP convention that was supposed to take place in the state last month but was moved to a nearly all-virtual event because of COVID-19, said North Carolina and other key battleground states such as Michigan were keeping their states shut for “political reasons.”
Trump has leveled those claims before, and has never cited evidence to back them up. He has also contradicted himself on the point, pressuring states to open while at other times arguing, as he did in July, that the decision would be “up to governors” and “based based on the data and the facts on the ground.”
North Carolina has had 27.9 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, putting it roughly in the middle of all states by that metric. New Jersey, by comparison, has had 179.5 deaths per 100,000 people and Alaska has had 5.7, according to the university.
“On Nov. 4th, every one of those states will be open. They’re doing it for political reasons,” Trump said in remarks that lasted 76 minutes.
Trump urged North Carolinians to vote against Gov. Roy Cooper and to instead vote for Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest because of the COVID restrictions. Aides to Cooper did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump’s remarks.
The campaign rally marked Trump’s third appearance in as many weeks in North Carolina, a crucial state the president needs to win in order to secure his re-election chances. Trump won the Tar Heel State by nearly 4% in 2016 but recent polls in the state show Biden with a narrow lead,
Trump used the rally, held at an airfield entirely outdoors, to lash out at two favorite subjects: Biden and China.
“If Biden wins, China wins. It’s as simple as that,” Trump said. “Joe Biden’s agenda is made in China, my agenda is made in the U.S.A.”
He also laced into Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, who he said “could never be the first woman president.”
“People don’t like her. Nobody likes her,” Trump said of Harris. “She could never be the first woman president. She could never be. That would be an insult to our country.”
Trump said Biden “has now formed an unholy alliance” with the “radical left” by naming Harris to the Democratic ticket.
The president repeated his suggestion that voters in North Carolina should test their state’s election system by voting once by mail, then trying to vote a second time in person, which is illegal and an example of the very kind of voter fraud that the president has spent months railing against.
“Make sure you send the ballot in and then go to your polling place and make sure it counts. Make sure. Because the only way they can win is by doing very bad things,” he said.
North Carolina became the first state to mail out absentee ballots on Sept. 4, which they did for voters who request them. The North Carolina Board of Elections sent a message to voters last week to remind voters that it is illegal to vote twice after Trump encouraged residents to do so during a visit to Wilmington Wednesday.
Nearly a quarter of votes were cast by mail in 2016, but election officials expect a surge in mail-in ballots this year over coronavirus pandemic concerns.
More: North Carolina presidential ballots are being sent out. What you need to know about Election Day.
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The president’s comments came as he ignored a request by the Republican chairman of the local county commission to wear a mask during the speech, which would have followed the state’s coronavirus requirements.
“It’s been ordered by the governor,” said Dave Plyler, the Republican chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in North Carolina, do as the governor says.”
Several thousand supporters gathered near the control tower of the Smith Reynolds Airport hours before Trump arrived – some sitting in folding chairs and others lining barriers around the podium with little chance of seeing anything more than a brief glimpse of the president. Campaign volunteers handed out signs that read “Evangelicals for Trump” and “this is a peaceful protest.”
Unlike some of Trump’s rallies in the COVID era, the one organized in Winston-Salem was fully outdoors.
Three large risers were set up behind the podium, ensuring the crowd would make its way into the camera frames behind the president. Elsewhere, though, supporters sat at ground level as prop planes buzzed overhead. Very few supporters — maybe one in 50 — had donned a mask.
“It’s been a crazy year, hasn’t it? It’s been one alarm after another,” said Carl Horstkamp, a 50-year-old Winston-Salem man who was attending his first rally Tuesday.
Horstkamp, who works for a manufacturing company, said he felt businesses in the state were compelled to close too quickly in response to the coronavirus, and that those closures had hurt the economy.
“I think people are really looking for a return to normal,” Horstkamp said. “It’s hard to feel confident about the future when you’re not sure what’s going to happen next week.”
It was an argument many Trump supporters here raised: That the media was overstating the risk of the virus and that policymakers had responded too aggressively. Some saw it as an effort to discredit Trump and undercut the strong economy he had hoped to tout as a centerpiece of his reelection campaign.
“I believe that the country is divided by the media,” said Dylan Phillips, a Winston-Salem man who said he supports Trump for reelection because he has “backbone.”
“He’s not so spineless as other people,” Phillips said. “We have a lot of leadership in the country…that cave to what big money wants.”
People wait for the arrival of President Donald Trump before a campaign rally at Smith Reynolds Airport on September 8, 2020 in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
The North Carolina Democratic Party attacked Trump for not respecting COVID restrictions, including the wearing of masks.
“North Carolina has recorded more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases today so far,” the party said in a Twitter post. “Ahead of Trump’s rally tonight, even the local Republican County Commissioner says there’s ‘no excuse’ for the president to not wear a mask. Will he put public health first?”
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and Winston-Salem native said Trump’s criticism of COVID restrictions is part of an overall effort to appeal to his conservative base.
“Despite so many indications that suburban voters, especially suburban women, may decide the election, Trump makes clear his strategy to maximize his base above all else,” Heye said. “There is a smaller universe of persuadable voters this time and Trump is not going to try. This is all about motivation.”
The president’s campaign rally comes three weeks before the first of three presidential debates between Trump and Biden on Sept. 29 in Cleveland.
Earlier on Tuesday Trump told reporters he planned to ramp up his travel schedule as Nov. 3 draws near.
“We’re going to Florida. We’re going to North Carolina. We’re doing a double stop. We’ll be doing some triples along the way, but right now we’re, sort of, in the earlier stages,” he said.
More: Where you can vote by mail, absentee ballot in the 2020 election
Contributing: Michael Collins
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump: North Carolina is using coronavirus to hurt re-election chances