WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – President Donald Trump kicked off a campaign rally on Tuesday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to accuse the state’s governor of using coronavirus restrictions to hurt his re-election chances in November.
“Your state should be open,” Trump said to a crowd of hundreds that erupted in cheers at the Smith Reynolds Airport.
The president, still stung from the loss of the GOP convention that was due to take place in Charlotte last month but was moved to a nearly all-virtual event over COVID-19, said North Carolina and other key battleground states such as Michigan were keeping their states shut for “political reasons.”
“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 Dan Forest because of the COVID restrictions.
The campaign rally marks 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% but national polls show him deadlocked with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls.
Trump used the rally to lash out at two favorite subjects: Joe 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. 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.
Trump also criticized Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a recent visit to a San Francisco hair salon that flouted the city’s current guidelines intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Pelosi could be seen on security footage walking through the salon with what appears to be a face mask around her neck.
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.”
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.
Contributing: Michael Collins