One close and hard-fought congressional race in North Carolina will signify how the election fares across the state and perhaps elsewhere.
It pits blue-trending suburban voters outside Raleigh against red-voting rural ones dominated by Trump loyalists.
Veteran Republican strategist Paul Shumaker said the 13th District contest between Democratic state senator Wiley Nickel and Republican political newcomer Bo Hines will be won or lost with suburban female voters.
“It’s two districts rolled into one,” agreed Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist who, like Shumaker, has deep experience in North Carolina politics. “It’s the closest, most swing race in North Carolina. It’s truly a jump ball.”
The North Carolina congressional map has had three different looks in 18 months and faces a court-ordered fourth next year. Virtually every district features a new look.
Raleigh’s suburbs, like Cary and Holly Springs, feature massive growth and college-educated voters. “They’re getting bluer and bluer each cycle,” Jackson said.
Rural areas in North Carolina, Jackson said, aren’t growing because there are no jobs. The countryside’s average age keeps increasing, and its college-educated voters are declining.
“There’s no industry moving in,” partly because companies can’t find educated workers.
“I grew up in the rural part of the state,” agreed Shumaker. “If you went to college, most went to Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, Asheville, and you didn’t come back.”
Candidates supported by former president Donald Trump have a strong advantage among Republican primary voters, said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina.
“It’s hard for a non-Trumpist candidate in today’s North Carolina Republican Party politics,” he said.
North Carolina differs for Republicans from neighboring Georgia, where establishment Republicans in the large Atlanta metro area provide a counterweight to rural Trump supporters. North Carolina’s biggest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh, aren’t as big.
Each candidate epitomizes where the respective parties are right now in North Carolina.
Nickel, 46, has national political experience. He was an advance man for former vice president Al Gore in the 1990s and did similar work for the Obama White House. He also worked with Gore on climate issues.
In 2006 he ran for a state senate seat and lost in his native California, where he descends from a powerful landowner. He then moved to North Carolina and opened a criminal law practice. He was elected to the North Carolina State Senate in 2018.
Hines, 25, has never run for office before. The son of an NFL player had a standout freshman year as a wide receiver for the North Carolina State Wolfpack, then transferred to Yale because he’d become interested in politics.
He played a few games there but got hurt and never played again. He had already expressed an interest in running for Congress in 2017.
From the Charlotte area originally, Hines considered candidacy in another district near Greensboro and Winston-Salem before settling, as the state’s congressional maps kept changing, on this one.
“The major complaint against him is that he’s district-shopping,” Bitzer said.
Nickel’s campaign website ticks the usual Democratic policy boxes—climate, gay and abortion rights, gun safety—without advocating positions most Democrats would think radical. Nickel notes he’s a gun owner.
Hines’ website on the Republican side shows uncompromising positions on the Second Amendment, abortion, and similar issues.
The first photo one sees on his home page is indicative: it’s not the young photogenic athlete’s, but Trump’s.
On the economy, he echoes Trump’s “America First” policy “that serves American people by protecting American jobs and businesses.”
Both candidates fit their parties’ North Carolina mold.
Bitzer said Nickel “represents a kind of moderate governing style that tends to play well with swing voters” in North Carolina. Hines, meanwhile, shows his unswerving alignment with Trump.
How will all that work in the November election?
Shumaker said Republicans will run on economic issues, citing Biden’s poor handling of it.
Democrats want to run on social issues like abortion and gun violence.
Recent events like the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Jan. 6 hearings, and a spate of mass shootings have helped them energize their demoralized base, particularly women.
Republicans want to avoid discussing those issues, while Democrats want to avoid discussing the economy.
The question for Hines, Shumaker said, will be how well he can maintain his popularity in rural areas while blunting losses in suburban areas over social issues. Plus, he needs to motivate Republicans who chose not to vote in the primary. Hines got about a third of the party voters in a primary where turnout was only 20 percent.
Nickel must manage failed expectations: anger over the economy and the sense, particularly among female voters, that Democrats have not done enough on social issues, Shumaker said.
“The worse the economy gets, the worse it gets for Democratic candidates.”
Jackson sees the upcoming midterm elections as a replay and reversal of the 2018 midterms. Then, Democrats were the party out of power and seen as headed toward a historic victory, only to see their momentum blunted when Republicans mobilized around anger over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Democrats still made gains and took the House, but not as convincingly as they had hoped.
The same may happen to Republicans this time, he said, if Democrats can use Roe v. Wade and gun violence issues effectively enough to slow GOP momentum.