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Cooper: ‘If you want to understand where the Republican party in North Carolina is going, it makes sense to pay attention to the convention.’

Summer brings no shortage of festivals across Western North Carolina, and this weekend, the big party is being thrown by the state’s Republicans in Cherokee.

Friday through Sunday, adherents to the state’s dominant political party in the N.C. General Assembly will convene in the mountains of Western North Carolina for their annual convention. More than 1,000 Grand Old Party faithful are expected to attend the event, which is being held for the first time at Harrah’s Casino and Resort.

The convention offers party members an opportunity to rally, network and define key points of their platform for the coming year. It will also give GOP lawmakers the chance to gather hundreds of miles away from Raleigh, where last year’s session and the current short session have been marked by continual protests and demonstrations.

The convention will be the party’s second since North Carolinians elected Gov. Pat McCrory and sent Republican supermajorities to the State Legislative Building for the first time in more than a century. Now, McCrory holds a 37 percent approval rating among voters, while members of the N.C. General Assembly score even lower at 27 percent approval, according to a recent edition of the nonpartisan Elon University poll.

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Regardless of voter opinions, the convention will undoubtedly be a rally of Republican unity and strength.

A high mark of the weekend will be the nomination of state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who won the opportunity to challenge U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan over a field of eight candidates in May’s GOP primary election. According to an organizer of the convention, the majority of Tillis’ former party opponents are expected to attend the event and openly endorse his bid to unseat the Democratic incumbent this November.

Along with Tillis’ nomination, additional high points of the weekend will include speeches from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Both Huckabee and Jindal, whose names are often floated as potential Republican presidential candidates, were announced as speakers in the week leading up to the event.

For many attendees, the convention is likely the farthest event in the western part of the state they’ll attend this year. The selection of Cherokee instead of a large city in the central and eastern portions of North Carolina brings significant attention to a region renowned for being overlooked by Raleigh.

Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, said 600 hotel rooms had been booked for the convention. He said he hoped the event would provide an economic boost to Cherokee and the surrounding region.

“A lot of people in our state forget that there’s life past Asheville,” Slaughter said. “We have a very active life over here, we’ve got a lot to show. Jackson County has a tremendous amount of assets, and we think it will be a boon to the county because I imagine a number of these people coming from all over the state would not quite know what Western North Carolina was all about.”

The decision to host the event in Cherokee might also serve as an indicator of Republican intentions to appeal to voters in minority groups across the state.

“It’s important to note that the Republican party, fairly or unfairly, has been criticized for not reaching out to minority groups,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “I think this is a clear signal that they want to change that message. I can’t think of anywhere else in the state you could hold a convention that would be so closely identified with a particular group. It suggests that they’re trying to pay attention to this part of the state, a part which many feel like Raleigh ignores.”

While attempts by Carolina Public Press to reach Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians Chief Michell Hicks were unsuccessful, the chief released a statement prior to the convention welcoming Republicans to the Qualla Boundary. Hicks emphasized his desire for the tradition and heritage of his tribe to be recognized by those in attendance throughout the weekend.

“We have an important story to tell about our tribe’s significance in North Carolina history and that of our nation,” Hicks said. “We host a number of large groups every year and are always happy to share our home and culture with visitors who would like to learn about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”

While the lure of committee meetings, general sessions and a day-long golf tournament are sure to keep many attendees in Cherokee for the entirety of the weekend, a few prominent Republicans across the state will be absent.

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Conflicting with the event is a Greensboro fundraiser scheduled for Saturday, featuring both U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. Among those who will be in attendance at the $25,000-per-person fundraiser are U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry and U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (although a spokesman for Foxx said she plans to attend a portion of the convention). U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows is scheduled to attend the convention but is also listed as a co-sponsor for the fundraiser.

Jeff Butler, press secretary for McHenry, said the 10th District congressman regretted not being able to be in two places at the same time.

“(The congressman) is sorry he cannot be in Cherokee this weekend for the convention, but looks forward to working with the party to elect Thom Tillis and Republicans across the state this fall,” Butler said in an emailed statement.

With lawmakers recently focused on key issues including teacher salaries, hydraulic fracturing and film incentives during the short session, the outlook for big news coming out of the convention is uncertain. When it’s all said and done, the biggest storyline from the event may be a clearer indication of where the state’s controlling party intends to move with its agenda in the years ahead, along with its plans for attempting to maintain power in Raleigh.

Cooper said that although news from the convention may not appeal to pedestrian voters across the state, those interested in the direction of the GOP and its influence on policy across the state would be paying close attention.

“Because of that debate, the party convention takes on some new meaning and importance,” he said. “If you want to understand where the Republican party in North Carolina is going, it makes sense to pay attention to the convention.”

James Harrison

James Harrison is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Reach him at jharrison@carolinapublicpress.org.

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