Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham of North Carolina, at left, is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, at right.
CNN  — 

As the home of the elite 82nd Airborne Division and one of the largest military installations in the world, Fort Bragg is woven into the fabric of North Carolina, a state that proclaims itself to be the “nation’s most military friendly.”

But the base also recalls a soiled chapter in the story of North Carolina and the South, bearing the name of the Confederate General Braxton Bragg — and now, it is becoming a political flashpoint in a national conversation about institutional racism.

With efforts to rededicate military bases named for Confederate officers gaining unprecedented traction from military leaders and federal lawmakers, a proposal to rename them within three years is set to be debated by the Senate this week as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Although President Donald Trump has threatened to veto any bill that would include such a measure, the idea has won support from some Republicans.

The political pressure is particularly acute for senators seeking reelection this year, and especially those hailing from states where the military bases are located. In North Carolina, the debate is already having an impact on one of the country’s marquee Senate contests, between incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham, his Democratic challenger.

In recent days the candidates have taken divergent approaches to the question of Fort Bragg — reflecting both the uncertainty of the fast-moving political moment and the potential explosiveness of the issue, in a battleground state where the election could be decided by a minuscule margin.

In a preliminary vote this month, Tillis opposed the measure that would require renaming any military installations honoring Confederate figures within three years, even as some Republicans supported it, moving it forward to be considered by the full Senate.

“Clear position from Thom Tillis,” his campaign manager tweeted after the Senate Armed Service Committee’s vote. “Changing the name of Fort Bragg = NO.” That stance put Tillis in line with Trump, who has vowed to preserve the status quo.

But Tillis struck a softer tone in an interview with local news affiliate CBS17 earlier this month, suggesting he would welcome “a dialogue” on the matter — even one that “may result in changing the name.”

Cunningham, who served at Fort Bragg, has indicated he would support a new name for the base — and in a statement to CNN, he noted that “there’s no shortage of American heroes for whom this installation could be named.”

Still, Cunningham has not offered his unconditional support for renaming Fort Bragg, as other Democrats have.

“The first step to any changes should be seeking input from North Carolinians, including stakeholders in our military communities,” Cunningham’s statement continued, “and I’m committed to having those discussions.”

This January 2020 file photo shows a sign for at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

A national reckoning on Confederate symbols

The debate is one branch of an urgent dialogue about race and values that has been spreading across the South in recent years, as states have been forced to confront modern remnants of the stained legacy of slavery — first, in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and then in 2017 when White supremacists demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Those events had already begun transforming the political discussion around racism and White supremacist symbols, spurring states to remove Confederate monuments that had stood for a century. Now, following stark instances of police brutality, including the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and mass Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country, the debate has entered a new phase — with renewed scrutiny of 10 military bases in Southern states named for Confederate officers.

At the national level, Democrats have vocally supported a change. Even Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, considered the most vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbent up for reelection this year, supported the same measure opposed by Tillis.

That makes Cunningham’s nuanced stance all the more notable — and, for some state Democrats, disappointing.

Rhonda Foxx, a former chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina and, more recently, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in North Carolina’s 6th congressional district, tweeted her disapproval last week, saying of Cunningham’s statement: “This could easily be a statement from Thom Tillis. And this is what Democrats in the state have to be ready to contend with.”

Although Foxx said she plans to “work tirelessly” to elect Cunningham and other Democrats, she insisted the issue of renaming Fort Bragg and other military bases in the South should not be “a hard political question. It’s a question of morals and ethics.”

“We cannot not afford to allow these vestiges of division to continue to stand,” Foxx added. “And I think we do expect Democratic leaders, who represent the party of equity and inclusion, to be firm and resolute in that.”

Cunningham’s approach reflects the fragile political equilibrium Democrats still face in North Carolina — a swing state that has trended favorably for the party in recent years, but where White suburban voters often decide tight statewide elections.

“He is kind of trying to have his cake and eat it, too,” Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, told CNN. “He’s saying (to liberal Democratic voters), ‘I know you won’t go to the Republican Party,’ but that way he also won’t lose White, suburban, moderate Democrats.”

Cunningham is not the only North Carolina Democrat treading carefully. A few years ago, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was among the prominent voices in North Carolina calling for removing Confederate statues from State Capitol grounds. But he has not yet weighed in on the question of Fort Bragg, and his office did not respond to a request for comment.

For now Cunningham holds a narrow lead over Tillis, according to a New York Times/Siena poll released this week — with Cunningham winning support from 42% of registered voters, and Tillis rating as the choice of 39%. Another 19% of voters were undecided or planned to vote for another candidate.

‘Military heavy state’

The military’s economic impact and proud tradition in North Carolina lend military issues outsized political weight — and can leave candidates little margin for error.

North Carolina “is still a military heavy state,” said Chris Cooper, “and criticizing the military is a good way to move yourself to political oblivion.”

But critics argue that Fort Bragg’s namesake is not a figure who should be celebrated as a paragon of military heroics or North Carolina values.

Bragg “left the United States in order to fight against the United States,” said William Sturkey, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose studies focus on the history of race and the South. “And I think it really undergirds how perverse it is to name military installations or to erect statues after people who fought for a failed White ethno-state that declared war on America.”

The Army has insisted that the decision to name military installations in honor of confederate officers was made “in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.” But Fort Bragg was dedicated during a period when the Lost Cause mythology was spreading throughout the South as part of a concerted effort to glorify the Confederacy. And there was no question at that time of Braxton Bragg’s primary claim to fame, or infamy.

“Camp to be named for General Officer of the Confederacy,” read the Charlotte News & Observer subheadline accompanying news of the camp’s christening on August 16, 1918.

Despite this history, recent efforts to rename Fort Bragg have quietly fizzled. Following the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, when a White supremacist gunman killed nine Black worshippers, the Army quickly dismissed the idea of renaming any of its bases honoring Confederate officers, reasoning that the “names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.” Three years ago, when White supremacists demonstrated in Charlottesville, military officials again rejected a change using the same rationale.

The Army recycled that familiar language again in a statement recently, but with a significant new concession: Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper are now “open to a bipartisan discussion on the topic,” the statement said. Meanwhile, national military leaders like Gen. David Petraeus are publicly calling for change.

At, left Richard Hudson, and at right, Pat Timmons-Goodson.

A state that’s ‘shifting rapidly’

As the landscape is transforming nationally, the political ground is also “shifting rapidly” in North Carolina, said Cooper.

“In the same way that Charleston acted as kind of a focusing event and changed people’s opinions pretty quickly, I think that’s exactly what we’re experiencing right now,” Cooper said. “The Democratic Party position two years ago, the Democratic Party position today and the Democratic Party position next month may be very different.”

Nowhere, perhaps, is the political and cultural shift underway more apparent than in North Carolina’s 8th congressional district, which includes Fayetteville and Fort Bragg. There, the debate over Fort Bragg’s name has become the latest issue in the race against Republican Rep. Richard Hudson and Democrat Pat Timmons-Goodson, who was the first Black woman to sit on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Hudson has said the decision should be made by the community, taking a more nuanced tack than Tillis — but, like Cunningham, he stopped short of endorsing a new name for the base. Hudson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Timmons-Goodson, meanwhile, is calling for Fort Bragg to be renamed. Like many people in her district, she has a personal connection: Her father was stationed at Fort Bragg at intervals during her childhood. Later on, Timmons-Goodson worked at Fort Bragg herself as a temporary clerk typist during summers in college.

“I’ve spoken to a number of soldiers and officers,” Timmons-Goodson told CNN, “and they tell me about long being uncomfortable that Fort Bragg bears the name of someone they considered a traitor.”

“I believe that the time has come for us to revisit that history,” she added. “And let’s just go ahead and recognize that there is pain associated with the symbols of White supremacy.”