Despite an open contest and some history of voters electing Democrats, outside money and support favors the Republican candidate in the new 13th Congressional District.
When Republican state lawmakers were forced by the federal courts to redraw congressional district lines earlier this year, the new 13th was one of the more balanced among 10 designed to favor candidates from their own party.
That doesn’t mean it will be anything like a fair fight.
The new 13th District covers two-thirds of Greensboro and 95 percent of High Point, stretching from the urbanized west end of Guilford County through more rural and conservative swaths of Davidson, Davie, Rowan and Iredell counties. The geographical contrast neatly aligns with the partisan breakdown of the contest: Republican Ted Budd, who owns the ProShots shooting range and gun shop outside of Winston-Salem, lives in Davie County, while his Democratic opponent, Bruce Davis, operates a daycare with his wife in High Point. A self-described “outsider,” Budd has never before run for office, while Davis served for 10 years on the Guilford County Commission.
John Dinan, a politics professor at Wake Forest University, said the 13th district race “is not on any of the major races-to-watch lists that track races expected to be competitive in November,” despite being one of the more evenly balanced districts based on voting patterns for Republican and Democratic candidates in recent elections.
While agreeing that the district leans Republican, Michael Bitzer, who teaches political science at Catawba College, said odds-making in the race is challenged by a number of unique factors this year.
“With it being an open seat, that’s usually when you see ability to go one way or another,” he said. “Incumbency is a powerful factor. With no incumbent it’s going to be the ground game and other influences — primarily the top of the ticket.
“What is the toxicity of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns down the ballot?” he added. “As we get closer to November, does something Trump says impact the Republican candidate? Do Hillary Clinton’s negatives start to approach Trump’s and hurt the Democratic candidate?”
Budd, who defeated 16 opponents in the primary to win the Republican nomination, hasn’t shied away from his party’s standard-bearer.
He spoke before Trump at a Winston-Salem rally just after the Republican National Convention and warmed up a crowd in the Twin City for vice presidential candidate Mike Pence in late August. During the second event, he hailed Trump’s plan to address illegal immigration. While decrying Clinton’s pledge to expand the number of Syrian refugees accepted by the United States, Budd said, “Donald Trump has already made it clear what he is going to do: Protect the border, repeal Obamacare…. Those are the policies that will make America great again.”
Pence returned the favor, characterizing Budd as part of a team that will return conservative policies to Washington. “When Donald Trump and I take office and Ted Budd gets sworn into the Congress of the United States,” he said, “right out of the gate we’re gonna cut taxes across the board for working families and small businesses.”
Despite equivalent attention on North Carolina from the Clinton campaign, including a recent appearance in Greensboro by vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine that drew an enthusiastic crowd, Davis has yet to receive similar exposure from higher profile candidates.
“I look forward to that one day since they’re all over our state,” Davis said. “I’m there to fire up the base. I hope I get that opportunity.”
In contrast to Pence’s embrace of Trump’s stance, Davis has emphasized a compassionate approach to immigration that includes supporting a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents. He’s spoken to a number of people in immigrant communities over the course of the campaign.
“I’ve been hearing their stories about how their lives are impacted by the rhetoric,” Davis said during a recent interview at his campaign headquarters in High Point. “How challenging it is to live an existence in the shadows — going to work, raising a family. We talk about racial profiling in the black community, and they have a double dose.”
While emphasizing that undocumented people with criminal backgrounds must be deported, Davis said he would like to find a way to protect those who come to the United States from Central America seeking asylum from violent gangs.
Davis said he holds out hope that a Democratic wave election similar to the one in 2008 will give him a shot at the 13th Congressional District seat. Voters in the district have favored some Democrats including candidates for secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction in 2012. And they narrowly supported Democrat Kay Hagan in the 2008 US Senate race, but then switched allegiance to her challenger, Republican Thom Tillis, in 2014.
Despite the potential opening, the 13th District race has not attracted attention from Democratic donors outside of North Carolina.
“Right now, it’s not going well in fundraising,” Davis acknowledged, lamenting that endorsements from the Congressional Black Caucus and NARAL Pro-Choice America haven’t translated into donations.
The most recent fundraising totals available from the Federal Election Commission, as of June 30, show Budd dwarfing Davis, $200,636 to $32,910. Budd also benefited from $500,000 in support from the conservative Club for Growth super PAC, mostly in the form of independent expenditures on TV ad buys, during his primary.
“My opponent, if he’s given half of what he got in the primaries, we’ll be up against a challenge,” Davis said. “I have a lot of supporters and we’ll have to mobilize them.”
Despite being one of the more evenly balanced districts in the state, Dinan said Davis is still likely to have difficulty attracting outside support.
“The district leans Republican to an extent that makes it unlikely that national Democratic groups would target the race for financial support and advertising, especially when there are many other districts around the country that are much more competitive and present more favorable pick-up opportunities,” he said.
While Budd has been speaking to the older, whiter audiences that attend Trump rallies, Davis is turning to college campuses in the Piedmont region for support. Much of his campaign staff is drawn from local universities. The campaign’s political director and field director both graduated from High Point University last year, while the communications director is a senior at the university, and the campaign’s strategy director is a recent UNCG graduate. The campaign held a “turn up the vote” rally at Livingstone College in Salisbury and is planning a similar effort at Bennett College in Greensboro.
Last week, the Davis campaign shifted from building its infrastructure to putting its ground game into effect. A volunteer showed up at the campaign headquarters at 5 p.m. to pick up door hangers before setting out for an hour or so of canvassing.
“I’m gonna knock this out so I can go watch the game,” he said, while a campaign coordinator lamented that there weren’t more volunteers to join him.
Davis said his campaign has identified areas of strength and weakness and his media team has put together materials to appeal to different constituencies.
“It’s a very aggressive ground campaign,” he said. “Phone calls, knocking on doors — we’re doing it the old-fashioned way.”
Budd isn’t conceding anything on his effort to mobilize voters as the campaign moves into its final phase.
“The get-out-the vote effort is going to be crucial,” he said. “I see a growing strengthening of the ground-level grassroots effort.”