Democrats at the grassroots and institutional level are mobilizing to turn North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District blue, but maneuvering to elevate the party’s handpicked candidate threatens bad blood before the primary has even gotten underway.
When Abby Karp went on the Swing Left website and plugged in her address to find her nearest swing district, she made a startling discovery: She was in one.
Immediately after the 2016 election, Karp had gone into frantic resistance mode. Along with most of her friends, she was horrified to learn that Donald Trump would be the next president.
“I must have called my congressman a hundred times, and there were all kinds of different groups coming together,” said Karp, who is the associate dean of academics at American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro. “My wife and I really got into the calls and cards. We went organization shopping.”
A neighbor whose property backs up to hers in Greensboro’s Lindley Park called a meeting to start a local chapter of Swing Left. Founded by Ethan Todras-Whitehill, a writer and teacher in Amherst, Mass., Swing Left adopted the goal of breaking Republican control of the US House as the most effective way to counteract the Trump agenda. Todras-Whitehill wanted to help other progressives like himself who lived in deep blue areas of the country find competitive Republican-held districts to target their activism.
North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, which encompasses two thirds of urban, Democratic-leaning Guilford County and a handful rural, Republican-leaning counties to the west, is one of 70 seats Swing Left is targeting. Although political scientists and Democratic activists alike consider the 13th to be heavily gerrymandered, it was won by the narrowest margin — 12.2 points — of any of the nine Republican-held seats in North Carolina.
The seat is currently held by Republican Ted Budd, a gun-range owner from Davie County who won it in 2016 with heavy financial backing from the conservative Club for Growth PAC. Budd’s status as a one-term incumbent and President Trump’s low approval ratings make the 13th District a particularly appealing target for the Democratic Party, said Michael Bitzer, professor of political science at Catawba University. Bitzer noted that while Budd won 56 percent of the vote in the 13th, Trump earned only 53 percent of the district vote share — giving an indication of the likely floor of Republican support.
“The question in my mind is how soft has the president’s support become in the district and will that have a spillover to Budd in the fall?” Bitzer said. “All the midterms have become referendums on the party in power, particularly in the White House. We’re talking about a president with an approval rating in the low forties or high thirties. That in itself should be a warning sign.”
Swing Left NC-13 has held 16 canvassing days in Greensboro and High Point, knocking on more than 1,500 doors and registering dozens of voters since April, Karp said. The local volunteers were galvanized to move from planning to action when a couple from Knoxville, Tenn. called them to announce they were driving their camper to Greensboro to canvas. A separate division of Swing Left NC-13, based in Charlotte, fields volunteers to knock on doors in Iredell, Rowan and Davie counties at the western end of the district. Swing Left NC-13 attracted about 30 people to a training in an auditorium on GTCC’s Jamestown campus on Monday. Marisa Kanof, Swing Left’s national deputy field director for the East Coast, told the activists they have the task of managing a flood of national volunteers if the district proves to be competitive in the fall.
Swing Left’s grassroots-level commitment to flipping the 13th is matched by equal interest from the institutional Democratic Party. While Swing Left maintains a rigorously neutral role, including raising $43,000 so far that will be handed over to the candidate who wins the Democratic primary in May, the Democratic National Congressional Committee has thrown its support behind one candidate: Kathy Manning. While not officially an endorsement, Manning has been selected among 18 Democratic candidates for the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program, described on the committee’s website as “a highly competitive and battle-tested program at the DCCC that arms top-tier candidates with organizational and fundraising support to help them continue to run strong campaigns.”
The “Red to Blue” program is also providing a boost to Dan McCready, a Marine who is running for the 9th Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Robert Pittenger in Charlotte’s southeastern suburbs. Swing Left is also targeting a second district in North Carolina, but instead of Charlotte the grassroots outfit is looking east to the 2nd, another gerrymandered district held by Republican George Holding that forms a ring through Raleigh’s suburbs.
Manning’s high-wattage campaign has cast a shadow over three other Democratic candidates who have spent the past 12 months criss-crossing the district to meet voters or have let it be known they’re interested in the seat.
A former chair of the Jewish Federations of North America and chief fundraiser for the Tanger Performing Arts Center who described herself in an interview with the News & Record as “a business-oriented moderate,” Manning’s campaign has raised $561,891 as of Dec. 31. When the Greensboro candidate unveiled her campaign in early December, Budd was prepared with a spoof website that called Manning “an establishment Democrat insider who’s worked for decades alongside far-left Democrats.”
Adam Coker, a truck driver and cattle farmer who’s making his second run as a Democratic candidate in the 13th District, said it’s widely understood that proven fundraising ability is a prerequisite for institutional party support. The Coker campaign has posted $26,504 in receipts through Dec. 31, according to federal election records.
“Anybody who works in Democratic Party politics, including the DCCC, says, ‘Call me back after you have $250,000 to $350,000,’” Coker told Triad City Beat.
Cole Leiter, a spokesperson for the DCCC, denied that the committee uses a financial litmus test to select candidates for support.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to a successful congressional campaign, and in 2018 we have put a premium on candidates’ grassroots engagement and local support, recognizing the power and energy of people on the ground,” he said in a prepared statement.
Even as Leiter downplayed the role of fundraising in the DCCC’s criteria, Dan McCready, the other North Carolina candidate to secure support through the “Red to Blue” program, has posted even more impressive early fundraising numbers than Manning: $1.2 million.
Speaking to the DCCC’s gamble that the 13th District will deliver a Democratic win, Leiter said, “We have seen unprecedented activity at the grassroots level that has meant double-digit swings in special elections across the country. And while Congressman Budd spent the last year in Washington taking orders from Speaker [Paul] Ryan and voting lockstep with him to jack up people’s healthcare costs and give a tax handout to corporations that would balloon the deficit, paid for by working Americans, Kathy Manning was building a grassroots campaign with the resources she’d need to beat him.”
Five months before Manning entered the race, the three other candidates announced their intentions to run for the seat during the 13th Congressional District Convention in Lexington in May 2017.
Coker, who lives in Greensboro and raises cattle in Iredell County, has maintained a visible presence at progressive events over the past six months. He spoke at a vigil in Greensboro to respond to the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, and has appeared at events ranging from a press conference at Scuppernong Books to highlight anti-LGBTQ discrimination to a recent commemoration of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
“My candidacy is to be a voice for working people of many backgrounds,” Coker said. “As a person of faith and a Quaker, I’m concerned about the tone and anger of the church as influenced by Trump.”
Coker said his decision to run for Congress was influenced by an experience spending election night of 2014 in the hospital while his son was undergoing open-heart surgery. Coker’s position as a gun-control proponent is similarly rooted in family adversity: His father was the victim of gun violence.
“I watched Democrats getting slaughtered,” Coker recalled. “Now, that I have a kid with a pre-existing condition, I thought: I want to look behind the veil and see what’s behind the Democratic Party.”
As the 2016 election approached, Coker said he and two other Democrats vowed together to run for Congress. Coker finished third in the 2016 Democratic primary.
“I think Americans and North Carolinians would find it interesting to see a debate between a guy who’s a Quaker and his dad was killed by a guy who wasn’t supposed to have a gun, and a conservative evangelical with a gun store,” Coker said. “I think money would pour in. I’d make it a good debate.”
Beniah McMiller, an instructor at Mitchell Community College in Statesville, said he was inspired after seeing Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi say after the 2016 election that people who are dissatisfied with the direction of the country should run for office.
“We started in January 2017; on the second Tuesday we walked into the Iredell County Democratic Party headquarters when they were having their monthly meeting,” McMiller recalled. “I introduced myself and said, ‘I’m running for Congress.’” McMiller added that he and his wife have traveled across the district to meet with Democrats in all five counties.
“We sat down with Latino voters, we sat down with women voters — different demographics — going to churches,” McMiller said. “We just started off by listening. You can gain folks’ trust if you’re willing to have an honest conversation. I tell them: ‘I’d like to hear your concerns and how you think things are going.’”
McMiller said he feels like he has a pretty good gauge on working people’s concerns from interacting with his students. At the beginning of each semester, he asks the students why they’re in his classes.
“The general consensus is they say, ‘I want the opportunity to better my life,’” McMiller said. “When I hear those general themes, yet I don’t hear a message that resonates with the heart of the people, I’m concerned.”
Like Adam Coker, Kathy Manning cites a child’s traumatic experience with the healthcare system as the event that crystallized her interest in running for national office.
“My daughter was diagnosed with chronic illness,” Manning recalled. “She was pretty devastated. This is a condition she’ll deal with the rest of her life. She was in college starting her job search. She said that now when she does a job search she knows she’ll need a job with health insurance. She asked, ‘What happens if the ACA is repealed?’ She [wouldn’t be able to] get health insurance.” Manning said they had to fight with their family’s insurance company to get them to cover prescription medication, which would have cost $10,000 out of pocket for only the first round.
“There’s something wrong with this system,” Manning said. “She’s got to fight with the insurance company for years. Last year, when our Congress people were trying to repeal the healthcare law, it would have made it impossible for my daughter to get health insurance with a pre-existing condition. I asked myself: Why are they not trying to focus on the real issues like the exorbitant cost of prescription drugs.”
Since her campaign launch, Manning has logged 622 miles and met with voters in all five counties. With the help of her campaign manager, Tori Taylor — a North Carolina native formerly employed with the Democratic National Committee — Manning has put together a staff of five full-time campaign workers. On Tuesday, they visited a factory in Mocksville and held a meet-and-greet in Statesville, before ending the day with the Iredell County Democratic Women in Mooresville.
Manning said she’s highlighting the values of hard work, faith and family that she learned from her parents as she speaks to voters across the district.
“What’s been really important to me is to get out and understand the district,” Manning said. “The information I’m learning is really informing my opinions. I’m working on my platform. I want to have informed positions that reflect the needs of the district.”
Bruce Davis, who won the Democratic nomination for the 13th District in 2016, could not be reached for this story. Federal election records indicate he had raised $28,263 through the end of 2017. Davis put his congressional aspirations on hold in the summer of 2017 to run for mayor of High Point. He narrowly lost that race.
“One day in the near future I will run again for Congress; however, there is a pressing call for me to seek the High Point mayor’s seat,” the candidate wrote on the Bruce Davis for US Congress Facebook page in July 2017. “I hope all my supporters understand that this was a tough decision but necessary and the most logical choice at this time.”
While the candidates jockey for position ahead of the Feb. 12 filing date, volunteers with Swing Left NC-13 have been busy cultivating likely Democratic voters. Canvassers have talked to voters in Glenwood and a neighborhood near NC A&T University in Greensboro, and low-wealth neighborhoods in east-central High Point. Many of the voters are African-American or immigrants. Unlike conventional campaigns, Swing Left doesn’t work off voter lists; they knock on every door on the block.
“The neighborhoods that we’ve gone to have been, I would say, very working class,” said Rick Bardolph, a Greensboro volunteer who is transitioning into retirement. “Working poor, unemployed, people who need good government, and who aren’t getting the services that they need from their government. And they need the support that we’re giving to their communities. And we need them.”