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As North Carolina emerges as a key election battleground, Democrats feel the pressure to deliver

A Democrat among Trump supporters, Gina McGourty has taken steps to protect her signs.
A Democrat among Trump supporters, Gina McGourty has taken steps to protect her signs.Dillon Deaton

Thirteen Democratic signs fill the yard of Gina McGourty’s one-story white house, an unmistakable display of her support for Joe Biden. In Gaston County, N.C., a deep red area west of Charlotte, that makes her an anomaly.

Her mailbox is across the street, in the yard of her Trump-supporting neighbor, so these days she waits until he leaves before collecting her mail.

McGourty, 33, is no stranger to conversations with those who see things differently — she is a volunteer for the local Democratic party — but for her and many other liberals in this deeply conservative area, the way that bitter politics has seeped into daily tasks as mundane as checking the mail has become exhausting. She installed a security camera recently after repeated yard sign thievery.

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“You are either a hard-core Republican or you’re a hard-core Democrat, there is no in-between here,” she said.

Tension is high in North Carolina, a critical state in both the presidential race and the battle for control of the US Senate. Except for 2008, the Republican presidential nominee has won the state in every election dating back to 1980, but this year, President Trump has found himself in a dead heat with Biden.

The Senate contest was thrown into turmoil this month when Republican incumbent Thom Tillis contracted COVID-19 after attending the now-notorious Rose Garden gathering honoring Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and Democrat Cal Cunningham — who had been comfortably ahead in the polls — became embroiled in a sexting scandal with a woman who alleges the two had an extramarital affair. Amid such high stakes and last-minute twists, the contest was recently dubbed the most expensive Senate race in American history, fueled largely by an influx of millions of dollars from outside the state.

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“North Carolina is vital," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. While it is one of several key states for Biden, flipping the Senate seat is even more crucial for Democrats’ quest to regain the Senate, he said. Democrats need a net gain of at least three seats to take the Senate majority if Biden is elected and Tillis is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents.

Early voting has smashed all expectations. So far, 3.2 million people have cast ballots, or 43 percent of registered voters, according to state data. By comparison, just 1.7 million people had voted at this point in 2016. Despite record turnout, however, there are still concerns about lack of access to the ballot box, especially for people of color.

Early voters so far have been overwhelmingly white and majority women. About 40 percent of early ballots have been cast by Democrats, 30 percent by Republicans, and 29 percent by unaffiliated voters, according to state data.

As Election Day inches closer, Democrats in North Carolina feel the pressure to try to deliver a knockout blow to Trump and the Senate Republican majority.

Like many Democrats in this state, Trump’s performance as president spurred McGourty to do more than simply vote. Two years ago, fed up with his leadership and inspired by the number of seats that Democrats flipped nationwide to win the majority in the House of Representatives, she looked up her local county Democratic organization and got involved. Gaston County is growing, as people like her move out of the city, and she sees an opportunity in that growth.

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“We can definitely get new voters. We may not turn this county blue, but maybe into a purple area,” she said.

When the pandemic hit, McGourty lost her job as a waitress and bartender, so she threw herself into full-time volunteering.She recruits new volunteers by text message, serves as a poll greeter, and writes postcards to encourage people to vote.

The political tension is on full display when McGourty texts voters to try to recruit new volunteers. Most people are polite, but some Trump supporters reply with messages that range from false (“Biden is a socialist”) to angry ("Hell NO!!!!!) to words unprintable by this newspaper, including one that accused her of supporting third-trimester abortions.

“I’m not really sure why they think Democrats are evil, but it is pretty intense,” she said.

Junior Howell sets up to sell President Trump memorabilia in an abandoned drug store parking lot in Gastonia, N.C. on Saturday. Howell, who was born and raised in Gastonia, says he sold nearly $3,000 
worth of memorabilia during Trump's recent rally at the Gastonia Municipal Airport. "I have seen more American and Trump flags flying here now than I've seen in the last 20 years," says Howell.
Junior Howell sets up to sell President Trump memorabilia in an abandoned drug store parking lot in Gastonia, N.C. on Saturday. Howell, who was born and raised in Gastonia, says he sold nearly $3,000 worth of memorabilia during Trump's recent rally at the Gastonia Municipal Airport. "I have seen more American and Trump flags flying here now than I've seen in the last 20 years," says Howell. Dillon Deaton/For The Boston Globe

The intensity has been heightened as both presidential candidates and their allies have repeatedly visited the state, recognizing that it is crucial to a White House win. Their campaigns and outside groups also are bombarding voters with flyers, text messages, and commercials.

Biden held a drive-in rally in Durham this month, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, swung through Charlotte and Asheville last week. Ivanka Trump visited the state recently and the president held a rally just 10 miles south of McGourty’s house last week at the municipal airport, a gathering that drew a tightly packed crowd of more than 20,000 people, only some of whom wore masks.

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That type of disregard for the pandemic frustrates people like Paige Garner, 52, a health care worker who lives in the county north of McGourty and cares for the elderly. Garner has witnessed the virus wreak havoc on her patients, forcing families to visit through windows and other patients to die alone. She also lost four friends to COVID-19, and yet many of her neighbors, acquaintances, and even relatives still don’t take it seriously.

“I’m just disgusted with the playing down of COVID, the deaths,” she said. “I’m angry that people don’t take it more seriously in our state.”

Garner grew up in the area, then lived in more liberal parts of the state before returning home to care for her mother. She owns a gun and considers herself a Christian. Her son voted for Trump last time. It is difficult, she said, to live among people she has known for decades, yet have come to such opposite conclusions about what the country needs.

“It has torn a lot of our state apart. Friends, families. But that’s where we are right now,” she said.

Garner, who in the past has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, pulled a straight Democratic ticket this year for the first time ever. That included a vote for Cunningham, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel whose large favorable polling margin all but evaporated after it was revealed that he sent sexual text messages to a woman who is not his wife. The Associated Press reported the woman said the two had at least one intimate encounter in July. Cunningham has apologized for causing “hurt” in his personal life but has not confirmed the affair.

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Garner and many other Democrats said they still feel compelled to support Cunningham because they are determined to win back the Senate.

“I think that people will look at the balance of the Senate more so than at his judgment when it comes to his marriage,” said Billy Richardson, a state representative from Fayetteville who endorsed Biden after his breakthrough primary win in South Carolina in February.

“He seems to have resonated with what I’d call undecided middle class voters,” Richardson said about the former vice president’s appeal in North Carolina.

Still, many voters believe their best bet is with Trump.

Brian Greene, 48, a concrete truck driver who lives 20 minutes from where Trump held his rally last week, said he believes the pandemic has been overblown by the media. He lost two relatives to COVID-19, but believes that was because they had severe underlying health conditions. Greene supports Trump because he believes that his tax cuts have benefited him and the construction industry.

“We all know wealthy people are going to stay wealthy regardless. The middle class people never catch a break,” he said. The majority of his friends and all his family also support the president, Greene said.

With early voting underway since Oct. 15, the race now will largely depend on turnout. That is complicated this year because of the pandemic, along with longstanding concerns in the state about voter suppression.

A recent court ruling in North Carolina made it easier for voters to correct mistakes on their mail-in ballots and was largely seen as a positive development by voting access advocates. But many still worry about how people will overcome all the other challenges that come with voting this year.

Rev. Anthony Spearman, president of the NAACP of North Carolina, said his organization has received reports of voter intimidation and inappropriate behavior by partisan poll observers, including one person who worried poll workers by standing behind them without a mask.

“That was very, very frightful,” he said.

At the same time, he and others are encouraged by the enormous turnout.

“What is going to prevail in this election are the numbers,” he said. “The numbers are far above anything that we could have imagined.”

To increase voting access, the local nonpartisan group Democracy North Carolina operates a hotline that voters can call to ask questions about how to fill out an absentee ballot, register to vote, or to report voting problems. Calls have peaked since early voting began, the group said.

Other advocates try to help voters feel welcome at the polls.

Kristie Puckett-Williams, who works for the ACLU of North Carolina, sits every day from 8 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. under a red tent in the parking lot of Garinger High School on the diverse east side of Charlotte, with a sign that says “Black Voters Matter.”

She and others greet people, direct them where to go, and pass out hand sanitizer and masks. She informed one 90-year-old woman that she could stay in her car for drive-up voting. People are wary because of COVID-19, but also worried about white supremacists, she said.

“They feel safe seeing people who look like them sitting waiting for them,” she said.

With the election now just a week away, volunteers like McGourty are in hyperdrive. But it is “nerve-racking,” she said, because she still has no idea which way North Carolina will go. Last Friday evening, she and her fiancé joined a group of volunteers on a highway overpass, waving Biden signs and American flags as drivers whizzed underneath. Even there, the deep division was on display.

“We’re getting a lot of honks, but we’re getting a lot of people flicking us off,” she said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.