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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Gastonia’s Whatley to lead RNC with Trump’s backing

When Gastonia resident Michael Whatley was running for chair of the North Carolina GOP several years ago, some of his critics tried to dismiss him as just some “Washington, D.C., guy,” says state Sen. Brad Overcash, R-Gaston.

“Oh no,” says Overcash, who’s known the new leader of the Republican National Committee for almost a decade. “He’s been hanging around Gaston County a long, long time. He has spent a lot of time in Washington, but that’s just what a chief of staff (for former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole) does.”

Overcash and others know Whatley as a devoted husband and father to twin college-aged sons and a younger daughter. He’s someone who remains active with his church and community. He was vice chair of the Gaston County Republican Party from 1999-2001 under John Torbett, who’s now been in the state House seven terms. He reportedly especially likes the ribs at RayNathan’s, a popular barbecue restaurant on South New Hope Road between Gastonia and Belmont.

An attorney and consultant for the energy sector, Whatley travels between business and political duties in Washington, as well as Raleigh and across the state as chair of the N.C. Republican Party. In addition to his time on Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s staff, Whatley also worked for George W. Bush during the Florida recount process.

“It’s incredible to see him balance his professional responsibilities with his home life,” says Jonathan Fletcher, former chair of the Gaston County Republican Party and current candidate for the county Register of Deeds office. “I think it shows his character.”

The Republican National Committee selected Whatley as its new leader at its meeting in Houston on Friday after former chair Ronna McDaniel stepped aside. Whatley, the hand-picked choice by former President Donald Trump for the role, won by unanimous voice vote.

Whatley, who has served as N.C. GOP chair since 2019, takes over a national party that’s far behind the Democrats in raising money as the November general election looms.

“I think Trump, and the entire national Republican push in this election, is in much better shape with Michael Whatley in charge,” says Overcash.

Whatley can “take the heat when Trump gives it” and “tell Trump the truth when he needs to hear it,” says Fletcher. “Whatley has learned to do all that masterfully. It’s not blind loyalty, but it is a combination of dependability, competence and patience. That’s a combination that anyone Trump discards either never had or has lost somewhere along the way.” 

Fletcher and Overcash both described Whatley as a good organizer and serious person who has found success by using data to communicate fundraising strategies to potential donors.

“There’s nothing fake or phony at all about Michael,” says Overcash, who’s seeking a second Senate term this year. “Yes, he’s risen to a high place in politics, yet he’s not changed at all. He’s a genuinely nice guy.”

Originally from Watauga County, Whatley earned a history degree from UNC Charlotte and a master’s degree in religion from Wake Forest University. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1997 with both a law degree and a master’s degree in theology.

Whatley served as a federal law clerk in Charlotte, as a senior official in the George W. Bush administration, and then as chief of staff for former Sen. Elizabeth Dole. He first lived in Gastonia when he was working in Charlotte and returned there after his service in Washington, D.C., ended.

Under Whatley’s leadership in 2020, Trump won the state’s electoral votes for a second time. Whatley and Fletcher both cast votes for Trump in the Electoral College process.

Thom Tills was re-elected to the U.S. Senate in a come-from-behind victory. Republicans won open Council of State races for lieutenant governor, labor commissioner and superintendent of public instruction.

Republicans also captured all the statewide judicial elections and added seats in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

Both men also say Whatley’s selection has a certain wow factor. “Gaston County has an RNC chair. That’s pretty cool,” says Overcash.

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