North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District—safe for black Democrats for 30 years—no longer is.
Redistricting gave Republicans a better chance to win it as they seek to regain control of the House. The open seat promises to be a real fight this fall.
Democrat Donald Davis, a state senator, faces Republican challenger Sandy Smith, who lost but made a strong showing against a longtime incumbent in 2020.
Democrats want to tie the Trump supporter to the Jan. 6 rally and march on the Capitol but haven’t shown proof that she was ever inside.
The GOP, meanwhile, is fielding a candidate known to appeal to the district’s rural Republicans.
G.K. Butterfield, the Democrat representing this district since 2004, opted last fall not to run for reelection. A federal appellate court in 2016 ruled the district had been racially gerrymandered in violation of the Constitution.
That lawsuit grew out of the 1992 redistricting that put more black Democrats in Congress, often at the expense of white Democrats. It also created more suburban Republican districts, enabling the GOP’s big sweep in 1994 to gain a House majority for the first time in 40 years and make Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House.
First redistricted in 2019—and twice more as North Carolina’s Congressional maps got redrawn—the district kept only a narrow Democratic majority, according to national political analysts.
Real Clear Politics now rates the race a toss-up.
Butterfield, a former North Carolina Supreme Court associate justice, announced he would not seek reelection in November 2021, three months before the court he used to serve on finalized the latest redistricting in February 2022.
Once chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Butterfield had won with landslide majorities—typically two-thirds to three-quarters of votes cast—against token Republican opposition for years.
He first won in 2004. But Smith’s challenge in 2020, when Butterfield won by 8 points, showed the 2019 redistricting had made the district more competitive, and subsequent revisions have kept it so.
The district in northeastern North Carolina has no cities with more than 100,000 residents
Composed of small towns and rural areas, it sits in North Carolina’s Black Belt and splits evenly between blacks and whites, each making up 42 percent of its population.
Adding other groups, such as Hispanics, makes this a majority-minority district, said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C.
Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in Raleigh, N.C., said it has always been agricultural, with large plantations and farms and few college-educated voters.
“It’s remained rural and agricultural. Even if folks don’t farm anymore, they grew up on farms. They still feel like they’re farmers. Their parents or grandparents were farmers.”
The rural communities are often racially divided, he said. “They struggle with racial issues and racial justice.”
Each party’s candidate speaks to the district’s underlying nature.
Davis, a state senator for all but two years since 2009, is a former mayor of his native Snow Hill. A veteran and Air Force Academy graduate, he represents the type of moderate Democrat the district favors, Jackson said.
As a first lieutenant, he coordinated Air Force One operations at Andrews Air Force Base, according to his website. Davis beat a primary opponent who raised significantly more money than he did but lost to him by a 2–to–1 margin.
Smith is a strongly pro-Trump Republican, one Bitzer terms “a MAGA Republican,” the type who runs well in North Carolina’s rural areas.
Her website makes no bones about that:
“I’m Sandy Smith, the unapologetic America First, pro-life, pro-guns, pro-military, freedom living, pro-Trump fighter running for U.S. Congress in North Carolina’s 1st District.”
The main photo on her home page features her shooting a rifle. She wants to “drain the swamp.”
And she notes, “I made history by swinging my district 25 points towards the Republicans and now it’s time we finish the job we started and take back our country in 2022.”
Jackson sought to tie her to controversial Trump supporters like Marjorie Taylor Greene and fellow North Carolina Republican Madison Cawthorn. “Far Right is not far enough for her.”
Smith has been endorsed by Trump loyalists like Roger Stone, General Michael Flynn, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Bitzer said the conventional wisdom is that her primary opponent, Rocky Mount mayor Sandy Roberson, would have drawn more crossover Democrat votes and thus run stronger in November than Smith.
“He would likely be more competitive than a fire-breathing Trumpist,” Bitzer said. But if Republicans can win this district in November despite all that, it points to a good night for them statewide and maybe nationally.
Whether they can win here depends on “how Republican the electorate is and specifically how Trumpian it is.”
Smith won her primary by 2000 votes despite Roberson’s attempts to smear her two weeks before the election with allegations about her personal life and finances.
Roberson said in a tweet the information had been gathered but not used by Butterfield in 2020 because the election wasn’t close. And he said he was using it now because the Democrats undoubtedly would in November.
Republican leaders privately fret such pro-Trump candidates have little appeal beyond the former president’s loyalist base and could sink the party in coming years with college-educated voters.
The conventional wisdom is that they don’t appeal to the suburban women who can be the swing vote in close districts.
But that may not matter in North Carolina’s 1st District, which doesn’t contain the big-city suburbs in question.