The historic district in the town of Waxhaw, N.C., is marked with lines of traditional shops and the sounds of the train that runs through it.
Sixty-nine-year-old Allen Cronk is visiting a used-book store in town. The Marine Corps veteran is a Republican voter and supporting President Trump for reelection, though he says the current state of retirement benefits, like Social Security and assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs, are "a mess."
"He ain't my greatest thought of a president," Cronk said. "He does a lot of good things, does some that aren't. But [Joe] Biden, he just does it all wrong."
Waxhaw is in Union County, a Republican stronghold south of Charlotte that saw 63% of its vote go for Trump in 2016. Trump points to the suburbs as places where he garners strong enthusiasm, but in 2016 a lot of his strength was found in exurban areas like Union County.
Now, Trump's dominance in places like this could be under threat. Democrats think they're making inroads into new, fast-growing population centers in communities like Waxhaw and with what they see as a growing wave of Republican disillusionment.
Steve and Sharon Smith are part of that wave. The Waxhaw residents were lifelong Republicans, but that loyalty has waned.
"With Trump as president, I'm embarrassed," said Steve Smith, 50. "I mean, I tell people if they ask, 'Well, I'm a Republican, but I'll never vote Republican again.' "
Sharon Smith, 53, has a one-word response when asked why she isn't a Republican anymore: "Trump," she says with a laugh.
The Smiths live in a newer residential area in Waxhaw that is surrounded by lush greenways and developments fueled by an influx of new residents. Waxhaw is one of the fastest-growing communities in the Charlotte metropolitan region.
The Smiths say the past few years, under Trump's presidency, have resulted in chaos.
Steve Smith, who works as a landscaper, says Trump lies, while Sharon Smith is deeply worried about the coronavirus. She adds that Trump isn't qualified to be president.
The Smiths are part of a worrisome national trend for the GOP: party members who don't think Trump is what Republicanism is supposed to be. And in battleground states, voters like the Smiths could tip the scales, with both of them planning to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
"I know I would walk over broken glass, through fire, on my hands and knees, to put my finger on that coronavirus ballot if I have to and try to vote this guy out," Steve Smith said. "And luckily, I live in North Carolina, where I may actually have some impact."
In 2016, Trump won North Carolina by less than 4 percentage points, fueled in part by Republican strongholds like Union County. But Democrats are betting that they can start to turn a tide there.
"We're seeing little pockets of change that are ticking towards blue," said Pam De Maria, chair of the Union County Democratic Party.
De Maria says when she moved to Union County more than 20 years ago, the word "Democrat" was virtually considered a dirty word. Now, she's pumped about communities like Waxhaw.
"It's bursting with new Democrats," De Maria said.
Since 2016, voter rolls have grown about 10%, to more than 160,000, said Brett Vines, a spokesman for the Union County Board of Elections, while during that same period, more than 10,000 voters have asked to change their party affiliations.
Between July 2016 and July 2020, Union County has seen 3,086 voters change their affiliation to Republican, while 3,335 have switched to Democratic, Vines said. But the biggest shift has been seen among those changing to unaffiliated: 3,834 have re-registered as independents.
De Maria is betting that the flood of new unaffiliated voters in the region will swing toward Democrats.
"I am more hopeful than I've ever been," De Maria said. "I think there's disappointment with the Republican Party because their silence gives consent to everything that's being done."
Dan Barry, a Union County resident and a longtime area Republican Party official, disagrees. He thinks the influx of new voters represents residents escaping urban centers and looking for the conservative lifestyle that Union County offers.
"I think folks that are coming are saying, 'I'm leaving a situation that was intolerable to me for raising my family and educating my children. I don't want to take that with me,' " Barry said. "I think [the] Union County Republican vote will hold."
But politics professor Michael Bitzer at Catawba College says he's also seeing signs of softening Republican support in Union County, and that could spell larger trouble for Trump.
"That to me sends a signal that maybe there's slippage in other staunch Republican suburban counties," Bitzer said. "And that's where the Republican base is."
Back at the historic district in Waxhaw, three generations — grandmother Cindy Carroll, daughter Lauren Harrah and 11-month-old granddaughter Austin — are about to visit the local antique store.
Carroll and Harrah are not Biden fans.
"It's like he's relying too much on his team, telling him what to do," Harrah, 29, said.
Harrah and her mom are not completely happy with Trump; they say he's too fixated on social media. And Carroll worries he tries to be front and center too much. They're also worried about the coronavirus.
But Carroll is betting Trump is the right candidate to get the U.S. back to what she believes were better times, including a stronger economy, at the start of the year.
"Unemployment was down, and, you know, everything was looking really good," Carroll, 55, said. "So I am praying that if he gets reelected, that that is kind of where we will head back to after COVID gets resolved."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This fall's election may be decided in the suburbs, which elected a lot of Democrats to the House in 2018. Now, as he seeks reelection, President Trump is warning, quote, "suburban housewives" that he will protect them from low-income housing. Traditionally, that is racist language for people of color. But there are different kinds of suburbs. Inner ring suburbs tend to be more diverse and are voting more and more like cities. Farther out, the exurbs, as they're called, have stayed more conservative. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales asked what voters think in the exurbs outside Charlotte in Union County, N.C.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: The historic district in the town of Waxhaw, N.C., is marked by lines of traditional shops and the sounds of the train that runs through it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN)
GRISALES: Sixty-nine-year-old Allen Cronk is visiting a used bookstore. He's a Republican voter. And while the Marine Corps veteran is worried about the current state of his retirement benefits, like Social Security and help from the Department of Veterans Affairs, he's sticking with Trump.
ALLEN CRONK: He ain't my greatest thought of a president. He does a lot of good things, does some that aren't. But Biden, he just does it all wrong.
GRISALES: Waxhaw in Union County, a GOP stronghold. But not all Republicans here are sticking with Trump. Residents Steve and Sharon Smith were lifelong Republicans until a new political force took over the party.
SHARON SMITH: Trump (laughter).
STEVE SMITH: I mean, with Trump as president, I'm embarrassed.
GRISALES: Now they're voting for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. They're part of a worrisome trend for the GOP - party members who don't think Trump is what Republicanism is supposed to be.
STEVE SMITH: I mean, I tell people if they ask. I'll say, well, I'm a Republican, but I'll never vote Republican again.
SHARON SMITH: I mean, this coronavirus has got me so worried.
GRISALES: That's the Smiths at their home in Waxhaw, which is surrounded by lush greenways and new developments. It's also one of the fastest growing communities in the Charlotte metropolitan region.
PAM DE MARIA: So we're seeing little pockets of change that are ticking towards blue.
GRISALES: That's Pam De Maria. She's chair of the Union County Democratic Party. She says more than 20 years ago, Democrat was a dirty word in Union County. Now she's pumped about communities like Waxhaw bursting with new Democrats. Dan Barry, a Union County resident and a longtime area Republican official, disagrees.
DAN BARRY: 'Cause I think the Union County Republican vote will hold.
GRISALES: Barry thinks the new residents are escaping urban centers and values in search of a conservative lifestyle and will add to the GOP rolls. But politics professor Michael Bitzer at Catawba College says Union County is showing clues of softening Republican support, and that could spell larger trouble for Trump.
MICHAEL BITZER: That, to me, sends a signal that maybe there's slippage in other staunch Republican suburban counties, and that's where the Republican base is.
GRISALES: Back at the historic Waxhaw district, three generations, Grandma Cindy Carroll and daughter Lauren Harrah are about to visit the antique store with 11-month-old granddaughter Austin in tow.
LAUREN HARRAH: Yeah.
GRISALES: Carroll and Harrah are not Biden fans.
HARRAH: It's like he's relying too much on his team telling him what to do.
GRISALES: That's Harrah. She and her mom are not completely happy with Trump. They say he's too fixated on social media. And Carroll worries he tries to be front and center too much. They're also worried about coronavirus. But Carroll is betting Trump can get the country back to better times seen at the start of the year.
CINDY CARROLL: You know, everything was looking really good. So I am praying that if he gets reelected, that that is kind of where we will head back to you after COVID gets resolved.
GRISALES: Trump won North Carolina by a razor-thin margin in 2016, thanks to places like Union County. And whether previous voters remain loyal could decide if he can win this battleground state again. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Waxhaw, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.