At a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, in early spring, President Donald Trump enthusiastically previewed his planned renominating convention in the city, where he promised to be surrounded by “thousands of hardworking American patriots who love our country, cherish our values, respect our laws and always put America first."
That March 2 gathering was held before the coronavirus pandemic limited such events. And it was the last time the president traveled to Charlotte before his party canceled the convention there over frustrations with the state’s health restrictions, although Trump will be in the state Monday to visit a biotech firm in Raleigh that has been contracted to help with mass production of a potential vaccine.
After years of planning and fundraising for the convention in Charlotte, organizers moved it to Jacksonville, Florida, after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, couldn't guarantee the president a multiday event without social distancing or mask wearing. After packaging the change in location as a partisan swipe at the state's refusal to allow a full-fledged, in-person event, Trump then altered his explanation last week to say he was canceling the portions in Florida, where the pandemic has surged in recent weeks, out of concern over public safety.
But in Charlotte, the ripple effects continue. The call, at the urging of the president, to uproot rigorous planning and financial investments in the city has left businesses in a crunch and spurred concern among party leaders in a state that is crucial for Trump’s re-election.
A new NBC News/Marist poll released Monday shows Biden with a 7-point lead in the state, which Trump narrowly carried in 2016. The poll showed the president's approval rating at 41 percent, a drop of 11 points in that measure since March.
And 6 in 10 North Carolinians in the poll said they agreed with the statement that “the state was right to prioritize its health protocols for large gatherings over the objections of the president.”
The political bickering over the convention has left North Carolina GOP leaders worried about November, with Biden hoping to reclaim a state Democrats last won when he was on the ticket in 2008 but lost in 2012.
“If Joe Biden wins North Carolina, Trump gets his ass kicked all across the country,” one state Republican official told NBC News.
The decision to scrap the major in-person portion of the convention is also costing GOP donors millions of dollars on top of the economic strain being felt by businesses that were holding on amid the pandemic for the kind of boost a national political convention — and all the delegates, media and operatives — can bring to a city.
The host committee raised $38 million for the convention’s original location in Charlotte, and a majority of that has been spent, Republican officials said. The host committee in Jacksonville ended up raising an additional $6 million, and GOP officials have said that much of that money remains but they are uncertain how much of it, if any, will be reimbursed to donors.
“There was no chance they were going to be able to have a convention in Charlotte,” Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party from 2015 to 2019, said. “The bottom line is they wanted a shot at having a convention, and it didn’t work out, but that doesn’t make decisions wrong to take the best shot.”
The scramble has left Charlotte’s host committee with “tens of millions” in contractual liabilities, according to the group’s CEO, John Lassiter.
The city of Charlotte said in a statement in June that it plans to “hold the RNC accountable to fulfill all its outstanding obligations to the parties and make them whole.” City Attorney Patrick Baker has said the city itself has spent about $14 million on the convention, but expects to be reimbursed through a federal security grant. Outstanding issues persist for those involved with the planning of the convention in Charlotte, including lawyers from all parties trying to figure out how the money spent is going to be made whole, and searching for solutions for canceled contracts.
With the millions of dollars put up by the host committee for a convention in Charlotte, the individuals and businesses that contributed are now “highly, highly frustrated,” Tariq Bokhari, a Republican and a Charlotte City Council member, said.
Business owners and CEOs “expect the president of the United States, the governor of a state like North Carolina, the head of an organization like the RNC, the host committee — they expect these folks no matter how difficult it is when the stakes are this high to operate professionally in good faith and figure out a way to make it work,” Bokhari said.
The convention festivities in Charlotte will now be limited to one day, with a smaller showing of delegates.
“We will be starting in North Carolina for the Monday, as has always been planned,” Trump said at his Thursday news conference. “We were never taking that off.”
“It's probably going to be at tops a couple hundred delegates and folks that work in the apparatus,” Bokhari said. “I don't think it'll be something that, regardless of exactly how the details shape out over the next month, the city of Charlotte will even notice is happening.”
“We had businesses that were counting on that as the shot in the arm that they need after a fairly unprecedented economic hardship,” Larken Egleston, another Charlotte City Council member who is a Democrat, said. “I think we would have been very short-sighted if we'd have taken a public health risk just for a quick dollar or two.”
For a convention that was supposed to generate over $150 million for Charlotte, tension between the RNC and the community continues to grow, with a major impact on small businesses already suffering from the pandemic.
Vinay Patel, president of SREE Hotels, said that his company had 12 hotels in the Charlotte region that had more than $2.5 million in bookings with the RNC for the week of the convention. He noted that it could have brought in an additional half a million dollars in food and beverage revenue.
“It was a tremendous hit, especially in the time it came in,” Patel said. “We were in the middle of this crisis, and this convention was a silver lining.”
Charlotte has over 10,000 businesses of 25 people or less, the city said, many of which were expecting a substantive economic amplification from the convention.
“It was the light at the end of the tunnel for them,” Anthony Kearey said of the convention’s impact, who owns a few bars and restaurants in Charlotte. “A lot of places announced they would be closing for good after the announcement that the RNC was moving.”
Bob Durkin, who manages bars and restaurants with the Bar Management Group in Charlotte, echoed the concerns.
“Frankly, we don't know if it will be able to or not, so it was devastating financially, it was devastating the time we had put in, the fact that COVID was the reason it moved but that could spell disaster for some of our businesses,” he said.
“We're sort of in limbo right now waiting for the next step,” Durkin said of his own businesses, “but I can guarantee that some of them will not open. We're not sure which ones, but it will have been the last straw, and it'll definitely cause some of our businesses to be out of business for good.”
And now, some Charlotte business owners see the fallout from Jacksonville as another hit.
“That's kind of just putting salt in the wound,” Durkin said of the shift to Jacksonville, initially to do a socially distanced in-person convention that is now also canceled. “It’s a shame. ... The reality is nobody is going to be able to benefit."