HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. – The supplies inside their firebombed office had burned to ashes and now smelled like exhaust, but the volunteers at the heart of the Orange County Republican Party vowed to keep working.
They pulled out the flagpole, topped with a soot-covered brass eagle, and unfurled a blackened red, white and blue flag. They planted melted “Trump-Pence” lawn signs on a small patch of grass, set out folding tables and took to their phones to resume encouraging people to vote.
Instead, the phones kept ringing with callers who wanted to encourage the volunteers.
“Trump-Pence signs?” Blake Halsey, 21, a political science major at Methodist University, told one caller. “We’re running out. People keep coming by to pick them up.”
In the aftermath of the firebombing that ripped through the local GOP headquarters in this central North Carolina town, locals of all political persuasions have been flocking to the scene at a strip mall, intent on making a point: that even as a nasty presidential campaign rages nationally between two widely disliked candidates, Americans cannot let violence and hatred spill into their communities. They want to ensure that the bombing was an exception – not a new normal.
“This is a county of good people,” Bill Knight, 77, said to a friend. “Have you ever heard of a firebombing in Hillsborough?”
“No,” the friend said.
The past week has brought quite a change for the Republican faithful in this heavily Democratic county, which is home to the state’s liberal bastion of Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus. One day, these volunteers were watching the presidential debates with catered barbecue. Now they had become a part of the political spectacle: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, made a surprise visit Tuesday and declared the firebombing an act of “political terrorism.”
The crime was discovered Sunday morning after an unknown vandal or vandals threw an object filled with flammable liquid through an office window overnight. Nearby, someone spray-painted a 6-foot-high message that read: “Nazi Republicans, leave town or else.” It was accompanied with a swastika. Nobody was in the office at the time.
The news of the incident trickled out at first. According to Gov. Pat McCrory (R), local authorities initially handled the event as a simple act of vandalism. The party’s county chairman, Daniel Ashley, 63, just happened to be finishing up a sausage, bacon and country ham breakfast at Cracker Barrel with his wife and planned to stop at the office to pick up bottled water. Driving up the hill to the strip mall, he saw the police tape. As he got closer, he saw that someone had thrown the object through a sign that read “Freedom Speaks.”
Ashley said he was scared that his small grocery store might be bombed next. He was resolved that his party, somehow, would go back to business.
“We’re not going away,” said Ashley, his hands and his nose covered in soot from rummaging through the office’s remains. “This is my community, this is my home. The terrorists want us to go, but once you run back home, there’s nowhere else you can run to.”
Police have no suspects, and they have not discovered a motive. Ashley said that the “person who did this obviously does not like Republicans.” He said that he hoped that it might have been a neighborhood kid who took a joke too far, but that he could not ignore the possibility of something more nefarious: Was this the type of voter intimidation against Republicans that GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump had warned might happen? Was this a symptom of the bitter campaign? Would the candidates use a tragedy for political purposes?
Within hours, both candidates were weighing in.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton tweeted that the attack was “horrific and unacceptable. Very grateful that everyone is safe.”
Trump came out aggressively, tweeting: “Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems in North Carolina just firebombed our office in Orange County because we are winning.”
Knight, who said he will vote for Trump, had enough of this language.
“Asinine,” he called it. “She called people deplorable, and now he’s calling them animals? What makes him any better than her? No wonder we are in so much trouble. One of the nominees is a scoundrel and the other is a damn outright crook.”
Knight said he would have hoped that Trump, in such uneasy time, wouldn’t have been so impetuous.
The North Carolina GOP was more conciliatory when it tweeted, “Thank you for your thoughts & prayers, Sec. @HillaryClinton.”
A Democrat living in Boston set up a Web page to help the Orange County Republicans fund their rebuilding. The goal was $10,000. Within hours, $15,000 was raised. The county’s chapter of the Democratic Party called to offer well-wishes.
The Rev. William Barber, the head of the state chapter of the NAACP and a Clinton supporter, immediately condemned the firebombing.
“We detest and denounce any violence and we know violence because there’s no other civil rights organization that’s had more violence perpetrated on it,” Barber said. “We have people still alive [whose] houses were bombed, here in North Carolina, cars were bombed, and people have faced death threats. . . . We wouldn’t want anyone to experience that, Democrat or Republican.”
The political climate in North Carolina has been tense. McCrory and Sen. Richard Burr (R) are facing difficult reelection bids, while polls show a tight race between Clinton and Trump in what is considered a must-win state for the GOP nominee.
Meanwhile, the eastern part of the state has endured devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew, Charlotte is recovering from protests following the police shooting of a black man, and a court recently ruled that the state’s GOP-backed voter ID law unfairly targeted black voters.
A day after the presidential candidates tweeted about the firebombing, the swastika and the threat were covered up. Inside, the office was a mess. Wires popped out of the cushion where Ashley sometimes napped, and the carpets were blanketed in ash and glass. Sample ballots disintegrated to dust and soot coated “I Voted” stickers. A charred image of Ronald Reagan as a cowboy still hung on the wall.
Other Republican chapters were bringing trunks filled with signs to replace the ones that were lost. Locals were gobbling them up. A 78-year-old registered Democrat told the volunteers, “I hope this lights a fire under you.”
A registered independent named John Rucker, 30, came by to help “in any way possible.”
“Your heart has to go out to these people; this is a historic event in our home. I think the media has been making us feel more divided then we are, but we’re not,” Rucker said.
Stephen Scott, 49, came with his 5-year-old daughter to pick up more signs.
“I’ll take one of the melted ones,” he said. “I support Trump, and we have to show who we are.”
As voters picked up lawn signs, state GOP vice chairwoman Michelle Nix remarked: “Enough is enough. Our silent majority is not silent anymore.”
Before the bombing, state GOP leaders had hoped to pick up votes in Orange County. Although Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1 here, the number of independents has grown by 21 percent since 2012, records show. GOP officials hoped some of them were former Democrats who liked Trump, state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes said.
The local party tried to seize the opportunity by being more active about finding volunteers, making phone calls, knocking on doors and registering voters. About a week ago, Ashley recalled, the group set up a tent near downtown Hillsborough. There was some interest, but a man walked to the table and called them Nazis. Another person cursed at them because the group supported Trump.
“I think you’re a bunch of racists,” Ashley recalled the man saying.
“I don’t really care what you think,” he replied.
Ashley shrugged off those expressions as signs of a vibrant democracy. The wonderful thing about the American system, he said, is that “you can take disagreements to the ballot box.”
But now people were worried about more aggressive times. According to Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, there have been a few isolated instances of crimes that seemed politically motivated. In April, for example, someone burned rainbow flags, a common gay rights symbol, that had been placed beside a church.
Now, in the wake of the bombing, some locals say they fear that the conversation has shifted away from how to tolerate different political views to how to cope with the scourge of electoral ugliness. As Shawna Johnson, 22, and her husband, Tony, walked out of Jay’s Chicken Shack, she said she worried about what Trump’s impulsive attitude might portend for the presidency.
“I think both sides have been provocative; Trump says mean things and Clinton has these negative commercials that really hit you in the heart,” said Tony Johnson, 25. “Then a headquarters gets bombed. It really drives the point home that these campaigns might be subliminally fueling people to hate each other.”
As the sun set on the bombed-out party headquarters, this was how they treated one another: A man who had been traveling through Virginia with “TRUMP-PENCE” splayed across his RV doors sped into the parking lot to donate large signs. Two people sat down and discussed how they didn’t understand why it was so hard to ask a person to show identification at a voting precinct if they have to do the same to buy a box of Sudafed. A man wearing a “Hillary for Prison” T-shirt came to help move a heavy bookshelf.
The next day, Pence had shown up, and there were rumors that Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, may do so, too. And Ashley, the chairman, was inside looking for help.
“Can someone help me pull out this carpet?” he said. “We have work to do!”