Raleigh, N.C. — When Frank Koconis was first able to vote in 1984, he cast his ballot for Ronald Reagan. Since then, he's been a reliable backer of Republican presidential nominees, including both presidents Bush, Bob Dole and Mitt Romney.
This year, that streak of voting Republican for president will end.
"I can't vote for Donald Trump. I can't do it," Koconis said.
The software engineer from Matthews isn't a fan of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, but he insists she would make a more reasonable president, especially on foreign affairs, than Trump. Koconis is part of a network of Republicans calling themselves Republicans for Clinton 2016. The effort is not well funded – it doesn't have the wherewithal to air campaign ads – and is relying mainly on word-of-mouth and social media.
In general, they're urging Republicans to cast what may be a distasteful vote for Clinton and then back GOP candidates such as U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and Republicans running for U.S. House. Ticket-splitting, Koconis said, would ensure Clinton "won't be able to push her liberal agenda through even though she's in power" without what he views as the risks of a Trump presidency.
"We think that there are a lot of Republicans out there like us," said John Stubbs, the founder of RFC16 and a former adviser on trade to President George W. Bush's White House. "More Republicans voted against Trump that for him in the primary."
But unlike big-name GOP Trump opponents like former Secretary of State Colin Powell or the former GOP lawmakers who signed onto a letter circulated by former Congressmen Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma and Tom Coleman of Missouri, Stubbs' group is mainly rank-and-file Republicans put off by Trump.
Concerns about Trump range from impolitic remarks about women and minorities to what critics view as troubling positions on foreign policy. Koconis first spoke out in a letter to the editor when Trump called for banning Muslim immigrants to the United States in 2015. He has since created his own litany of Trump quotes that he says disqualifies the candidate.
But the pitch that he and the RFC16 group is a historical long shot. The last time North Carolina voters supported the presidential candidate for one party and voted for a U.S. senator from the other was 1968. Sen. Sam Ervin, a Democrat, won a fourth term the same year Tar Heel State voters gave their electoral votes to Republican Richard Nixon.
"You're almost going against political DNA with that kind of thing," said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College. "It's just hard for a Republican to go in there and pull the Democratic lever, and visa versa."
Making that ask particularly tough, McLennan said, is the fact the Democrat in question this year is Clinton, someone whom Republican orthodoxy has calcified against over the past three decades.
Stubbs said that long-time distrust of Clinton by GOP voters is one of the biggest challenges his group faces.
"Most of the people we talk to don't want to be publicly out for Clinton, but that's where they plan to vote," he said.
Current polling indicates voters like Stubbs and Koconis are not the majority in North Carolina. A recent WRAL News poll showed 87 percent of Republicans surveyed would back Trump. The same poll showed 91 percent of Democrats plan to vote for Clinton.
"In North Carolina, far more registered Democrats are going to vote for Trump than Republicans for Clinton – by a mile," North Carolina Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse pronounced confidently. "Every election, there are Republicans who support and vote for Democrats and Democrats who support and vote for Republicans. This year is no different."
In the recent WRAL News poll, Burr led his Democratic opponent, Deborah Ross, unlike Trump, who trailed Clinton. However, in a recent interview, Burr said that, while he has tried to be "an independent voice" for North Carolina, he is supporting Trump in the campaign.
"He's my nominee, I'm supporting him," Burr said.
Certainly, distaste for the available candidates can be found in both parties.
"With Hillary, I can't trust her. Nothing is ever her fault," said Don Boyce, a registered Democrat and retired biochemist living in Raleigh. But he also slams Trump as "over the top" and questions whether he's fit for the job.
"I'm just going to abstain," said Boyce. "I can't vote for either of the two."
He described Libertarian Gary Johnson as a "niche candidate" whom he wouldn't vote for either.
That said, Boyce said he won't stay away from the polls altogether. He says he'll vote in other races.
In 2012, the last presidential year, 37,116 voters of the more than 4.5 million who cast ballots in North Carolina did not make a choice in the presidential contest. That amounts to about 0.8 percent of voters sitting out the presidential vote. Boyce speculates that percentage will be higher this year due to what he describes as "disgust" with both major party candidates.
McLennan said that, while some voters will behave like Boyce, many more will walk in and vote for their party's nominee.
"When push comes to shove, I think they're going to vote and going to stay along party lines," he said.
Stubbs says that Republicans would do well to ensure that's not the case. His RFC16 group is encouraging voters in swing states like North Carolina to become "Trump traders" who will "find a friend in a safe state who is voting for Clinton and ask them to vote for your candidate in exchange for you voting Clinton in a swing state."
If that sounds convoluted or like a bit of gimmick, Stubbs says he's just trying to pave the way for conversations that some of his fellow Republicans might not be comfortable with and then be able to refocus the party for the long term.
"In the short term, we just need to get past this unholy election year," he said.