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The North Carolina Race That Wasn’t Supposed to Be in Play

GOP Rep. George Holding faces his toughest re-election — in a district drawn for his party

Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., is running for re-election for the first time with a Republican in the White House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., is running for re-election for the first time with a Republican in the White House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

NASHVILLE, N.C. — Rep. George Holding didn’t have time to finish his beer.

The North Carolina Republican made a last-minute appearance at the local Chamber of Commerce’s Fall Shrimp, Oyster and Chicken Fest here Thursday night. But after 20 minutes of schmoozing at the entrance of the Rose Hill Plantation, it was time to push on to the opening of a county GOP headquarters about 20 minutes away. 

For the first time in his career, Holding is facing a real race in the general election — his first with a Republican in the White House. (He defeated former Rep. Renee Ellmers in a competitive 2016 member-on-member primary in the 2nd District.) 

He’s up this year against Democrat Linda Coleman, a former state representative who’s lost two races for state lieutenant governor. And with just six days until Nov. 6, it’s an open question whether a blue wave could sweep Holding away in a district that was drawn for Republicans  — and whether he’s done enough to prevent it.

Republicans say the race looks better for the congressman than it did several weeks ago — likely the combination of GOP voters naturally tuning in late and the Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings moving some independent voters rightward. But national groups are still spending, signaling that neither party has put away the race. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales the race Leans Republican.

With Democrats needing to net 23 seats to win the majority, Holding knows what’s at stake.

“There are lots of folks with even more difficult races than mine,” he said at the Nash County GOP headquarters last week. “So we can’t lose this one.”

Watch: 12 Ratings Changes for House, Senate and Gubernatorial Races — 4 Toward GOP, 8 Toward Democrats

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A changing district 

Two other districts in North Carolina — the 9th and the 13th — have long been targeted as competitive races this year. But the 2nd District, which includes suburban and exurban Raleigh, attracted national attention much later.

Holding’s team has long known he was in for a tough race this year based on the way the state is changing, particularly in the Raleigh suburbs.

Addressing the GOP crowd at the county headquarters, nestled between a Mexican restaurant and a strip mall in the more rural part of the 2nd District, Holding said a majority of district residents aren’t from North Carolina.

“Hmm,” the crowd murmured. 

He touted the 2nd District as among the fastest-growing and most-educated in the country. Much of that growth is occurring in Wake County — Coleman’s base — while the surrounding rural areas trend more conservative. Holding will need Republicans and conservative Democrats (who vote Republican) to turn out for him, or as he told them — “to punch above your weight.”

Although Holding thinks Republicans are starting to wake up, he feels the Democratic energy throughout his district. Democrats in the state are benefitting from what’s known as a blue-moon year — the first election after a new president is in power when there are no statewide races on the ballot. That means it’s up to House incumbents to carry the load; there are no coattails.

That could be a problem when midterm voters, especially in the suburbs, see the election as a referendum on the White House. Among unaffiliated voters, who make up nearly a third of the district, President Donald Trump is unpopular. (He carried the 2nd by 10 points in 2016.)

“If you’ve got a Democrat with a message, and Trump’s at 40 percent approval rating, it’s going to be competitive,” Holding said in an interview.

Democrat Linda Coleman has name recognition in the district since she's previously represented the area and run statewide (Simone Pathe/CQ Roll Call)
Democrat Linda Coleman has name recognition in the district since she’s previously represented the area and run statewide (Simone Pathé/CQ Roll Call)

The three-term congressman sounded the alarm bells this summer with a fundraising email that said he was down 3 points in his own campaign’s polling. Several days later, the Coleman campaign released its own numbers that gave her a 45 percent to 44 percent lead.

That prompted involvement from national Republicans, worried that Holding — the congressman who once fell asleep while presiding over the House floor — wasn’t raising enough or doing enough campaigning to hold his district. 

Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, opened a field office in the district in August. It has reserved $1.4 million here, and made this the first North Carolina district where it went up on TV. Since its first ad in September, it’s run several more, including one released late last week.  The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List are also invested in the district. 

“It was a race that was in everyone’s rearview mirror and now all the sudden, it’s right there in front of you and it’s the only thing you can see,” North Carolina Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson said earlier this month. 

Suburban voters 

A race that ramps up late often starts negative, with both sides fighting over swing voters — in this case, the suburban women who may be the deciding factor in so many close races this year. 

“At end of day, they’re going to look at two candidates and decide which they dislike the most,” said longtime North Carolina consultant Carter Wrenn, who’s working for Holding. 

Coleman’s message is all about health care. And for many of the voters who showed up in the torrential rain to cast their ballots for Coleman last Friday in Apex, that message was resonating. 

For others, voting for Coleman was about sending a message.

“We need change,” said a young woman whose pink raincoat shielded her from the downpour. Despite being a registered Republican, she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and is afraid that racism and sexism “are coming back.”

But even some of Coleman’s supporters were pessimistic about her chances, citing the attacks against her. CLF has been hitting her for raising taxes when she was a county commissioner and for paying her own property taxes late (which Holding admitted he’s done, too, since the penalty in North Carolina doesn’t actually kick in until a much later date).

Holding’s campaign, meanwhile, is going all in on immigration and sanctuary cities, even though the state of North Carolina has outlawed the latter. Most of his ads from the past two years feature the same middle-aged white woman, a church friend of the Holdings. In the latest, she tells viewers about a local criminal case, then uses that to contrast Coleman and Holding’s positions on sanctuary cities. 

Coleman called the attacks “fear mongering and race-baiting,” noting that Wrenn ran the late Sen. Jesse Helms’ campaign and Holding served as a aide to the senator.

But while that tactic may have worked well for Holding in GOP primaries, it’s not guaranteed to win him independents in a general election.

“His feels like a base play and hers feels like a persuasion play,” said Jackson, the Democratic consultant.

The one female voter this reporter encountered over several hours at two early voting locations on Friday who was riled up about the “caravan” and “the liberal mob” was a volunteer for the Republican Party. She’d signed up to sit in the rain for a three-hour shift handing out GOP campaign literature. 

But Zan Bunn, a 53-year-old Republican woman from Cary who’s a local party leader, thinks enough of the party faithful will turn out to boost Holding.

“They’re often quiet,” she said. “2016 proved that to us.”