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Thursday, June 20, 2024

NC trend: Gaston County’s Michael Whatley simple task: Deliver the White House to the GOP.

Michael Whatley

Gaston County’s Michael Whatley has the top job of helping Donald Trump get back to the White House. The former president handpicked the leader of the North Carolina Republican Party in March as chair of the Republican National Committee. Wilmington native Lara Trump, who is married to Trump’s son Eric, is co-chair.

It’s a prestigious post, but calling it challenging may be an understatement, given the former president’s track record for a revolving door of top associates, from cabinet secretaries to senior aides. That includes Trump’s displeasure with Whatley’s predecessor, Ronna McDaniel, who was pushed aside after seven years, with the first presidential rematch since 1956 looming less than eight months away.

What does the “You’re fired” guy see in the Watauga County native, whose most prestigious Beltway job was as chief of staff to Elizabeth Dole, a one-term U.S. senator from North Carolina?

Trump recognizes how Whatley’s mind sees things “a step or two ahead,” says David Holt, his business partner for 15 years. Holt likens Whatley’s political savvy to the way he strategizes a game of three-dimensional chess, where each player controls three vertically stacked boards rather than a single board.

“He carefully considers all the available options and how they may play out,” says Holt. Whatley also has other intangible qualities, his longtime associate says. “Above all, he is an endlessly positive and optimistic man and he delivers what he promises. That’s a recipe for success anywhere.”

Holt, Andrew Browning and Whatley used their initials to co-found HBW Resources in 2007. The advocacy and communications company, which now has 30 employees, has run “more than 300 successful campaigns,” mostly representing energy and environmental industry clients, according to its website. Those clients include both traditional fossil fuel-oriented business and alternative energy suppliers. Holt, who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration, lives in Houston. Browning, a U.S. Department of Energy appointee during the Clinton administration, is based in Denver.

Whatley, who declined interview requests, left HBW in May 2022 to focus on his North Carolina Republican Party job. He had lessened his day-to-day responsibilities over the previous three years as he focused on keeping North Carolina a politically red state.

“Michael has always had a calling to serve and to give back to the country. His first love has always been politics and supporting American democracy, and politics is how he was called to serve,” Holt says. “We are very proud of him.”

Whatley declined a salary while chairing the state party, an N.C. GOP spokesman says. He resigned from the post after joining the RNC in March. McDaniel had total compensation of nearly $360,000 in 2022, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Wilmington native Lara Trump and Michael Whatley were officially voted the new chair and co-chair of the Republican National Committee on March 8.


LOYALTY TEST

The RNC job is a big step from his previous post, says Michael Bitzer, a politics and history professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. Whatley will have to show “absolute loyalty to Donald Trump and whether he’ll show that back is another question,” he says. Within days of taking charge at the RNC, Whatley fired more than 60 staffers and required others to re-apply for their jobs, according to Politico.

Whatley stepped in with the national Republican Party facing financial challenges. Campaign finance reports showed the RNC entered February with $8.7 million of cash on hand, compared with $24 million for the Democratic National Committee. The DNC’s chair is Orangeburg, South Carolina, native Jaime Harrison, who lost the U.S. Senate race to Lindsay Graham in 2020.

Raising a lot of money is Whatley’s first challenge, says Bitzer. “The real test is whoever gave to Nikki Haley, will they open their wallets and pockets to Donald Trump?” he says. “This is going to be a monumentally expensive election.” Spending in the 2020 Biden-Trump election totaled $5.7 billion, according to Opensecrets.org, which tracks campaign finance.

The RNC’s financial troubles may solve themselves. Haley’s campaign was heavily supported by major Republican donors dissatisfied with Trump, such as the Koch family network’s Americans for Prosperity Action. With the former South Carolina governor out of the race, more money may flow to Trump. A key issue is whether the RNC will help Trump pay his legal bills, which political observers say could depress donations.

Whatley’s work in North Carolina garnered national respect because Tar Heel Republicans have been more successful politically than peers in other Southern states, including Georgia and Virginia. Trump carried the state in 2016 and 2020. In 2022, his endorsement of Ted Budd helped the Davie County businessman win his U.S. Senate seat, overcoming a 30-percentage point deficit to former Gov. Pat McCrory.

The GOP also continues to dominate the N.C. General Assembly, gaining super-majorities in the state Senate and House, aided by a party switch in 2023 by former Democratic state Rep. Tricia Cotham of Charlotte. Whatley also helped Republicans build a 5-2 majority on the state Supreme Court, which had leaned Democratic before the 2022 election.

“Republicans have built a strategy and organization to show up at a higher rate for elections than Democrats, and even independents. That strategy in North Carolina has worked consistently,” says Bitzer.

Trump also handpicked McDaniel as RNC chair after his 2016 election, but criticism of her mounted because of weak fundraising and the GOP’s failure to make expected gains in the 2022 congressional elections. The Democratic party retained control of the Senate and kept the GOP from adding many seats in the House.

The RNC divides up money for both the presidential contest and House and Senate races. That’s always a tricky challenge, but even trickier for Whatley given Trump’s unusual clout over the party and the former president’s court-related financial challenges. In February, a New York judge found Trump guilty of civil fraud, putting him on the hook for $454 million in fines and interest. He is appealing the verdict.

LOCAL RESPECT

Back in his home county, Whatley’s rise is a matter of pride. “Gaston County has an RNC chair. That’s pretty cool,” says State Sen. Brad Overcash, a Belmont Republican seeking a second term.

He recalls how critics called Whatley a “Washington guy” when he ran for state party chair in 2019.  “Oh no,” says Overcash, who’s known Whatley for 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 [senator’s] chief of staff does.”

Whatley earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UNC Charlotte, a master’s degree in religion from Wake Forest University and a law degree from Notre Dame in 1997. He moved to Gastonia more than 20 years ago to take a job as a federal law clerk in Charlotte and later worked for George W. Bush during the 2000 Florida recount process and for the U.S. Energy Department, before joining Dole’s Senate staff.

After Kay Hagan won the 2008 Senate election, Whatley returned to Gastonia to rejoin HBW. Friends describe him as an active family man and church member, even as he has traveled for corporate and political work.  He and his wife, Suzanne, have three children.

     “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. “I think it shows his character.”
     Fletcher and Overcash expect Whatley’s style to transition well on the national level. Whatley took over the state party when it was also on shaky ground, following the resignation of Chairman Robin Hayes. The former congressman from Concord pleaded guilty to bribery charges but was later pardoned by Trump.

Whatley bolstered party finances by using data to communicate fundraising strategies to potential donors, his friends note. “There’s nothing fake or phony at all about Michael,” says Overcash. “Yes, he’s risen to a high place in politics, yet he’s not changed at all. He’s a genuinely nice guy.”

Whatley can “take the heat when Trump gives it” and “tell Trump the truth when he needs to hear it,” adds 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.”

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

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