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With map set, North Carolina prepares for crowded primaries, comeback attempts

Impact of Cawthorn’s district switch one of the races to watch

Former North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers is seeking to return to Congress, running for the GOP nomination in the highly competitive new 13th District.
Former North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers is seeking to return to Congress, running for the GOP nomination in the highly competitive new 13th District. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected, March 9 |After months of candidates shifting as map boundaries changed, the primary field in North Carolina is set, with former Rep. Renee Ellmers trying for a comeback in a new district that could be one of the nation’s most competitive and a large field of Republican challengers to freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn.

The Supreme Court on Monday denied an appeal from the state Republican Party to block the congressional map chosen by a three-judge panel in February. That map was set after the state Supreme Court threw out one adopted by the GOP-led legislature, which would have favored Republicans in 11 of the state’s 14 districts.

“We are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal filed by the NC Legislature citing electoral time constraints,” Michael Whatley, the state party chairman, said in a statement. He argued it was a violation of the U.S. Constitution for the state courts to draw their own map. 

The state’s delegation will include several new members, with Democratic Reps. G.K. Butterfield and David E. Price retiring and the state gaining a seat after reapportionment. The primary is May 17.

Based on voting patterns in 2020, the map chosen by the judges could lead to a 7-7 split between the two parties, but the GOP could pick up more seats because of the national environment favoring Republicans, said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College who runs the Old North State Politics blog. 

“So could it be 8-6? Could it be, potentially, 9-5? We’ll just have to kind of see how things play out as we get closer to November, but if it’s a 7-7 split post-November’s general, I would say Democrats have done a really good job.”

Cawthorn shifts back to district

Cawthorn, who two years ago defeated a candidate backed by President Donald Trump in an open primary and went on to become such a strong supporter that Trump had him speak at the Republican convention, had decided to move to run in a new district when the initial GOP-crafted map came out. After the court imposed a different map, he decided to run again in the 11th District in the state’s mountainous western end, where seven other candidates are also running. 

“He surprised a lot of people with that kind of jumping ship into the new district,” Bitzer said. “In terms of how he is perceived in that whole district, I think a lot of people are going to be using the line of, he wanted to flee the mountains and now he’s coming back. Does he deserve another term?”

Cawthorn got a win last week when a federal judge rejected an attempt to have him disqualified from running for Congress because of his alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. While a post-Civil War constitutional amendment barred supporters of insurrection from serving in Congress, a judge ruled the amendment was invalidated by a subsequent amnesty.  

Crowds in both parties

The new 13th District, just south of Raleigh, is an open seat and has drawn a five-way primary on the Democratic side and an eight-way race among Republicans. 

Former state Sen. Sam Searcy, a Democrat, decided to run for the seat within the last two weeks after the map was finalized, filling out a primary field that includes state Sen. Wiley Nickel, teacher Denton Lee, former U.S. Air Force officer Nathan Click and Jamie Campbell Bowles. 

Searcy, who has most recently served on the state Board of Community Colleges, said the district covers two of his former state Senate districts, noting that he’d beaten tough Republican opponents for those seats. He said in an interview that he’d “lived the struggles that people in this district experience,” which would help convince voters to send him to Congress. 

Searcy said higher costs could affect voters’ decision when they head to the polls this year but noted that dynamics abroad and domestically could change before then. 

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in Ukraine. We’re going to have to watch other geopolitical issues that are taking place, and we’re going to have to watch domestic issues here at home and keep fighting for the families, like voters in this district, every day to make sure that they have food on the table and a little bit more money in their pocket. And we’re going to do everything we can to do that, and at the end of the day that message is going to resonate with voters,” he said. 

In an interview before Searcy entered the race, Nickel said his campaign would be running the “Jeff Jackson playbook,” referencing the state senator who dropped out of the state’s Democratic Senate primary last year and is now running in the 14th District, by “seeing voters where they are, town halls everywhere and answering their questions one-on-one.”

“We just follow the rule that all politics is local, and for two terms I’ve been a state senator working to solve problems for my constituents in Raleigh and Cary,” Nickel said. “Folks know me very well as someone focused more on getting good policy rather than playing political games, and we think we’re well-positioned because of that.”

Ellmers cites experience

Among the eight Republicans running in the district are Ellmers and Bo Hines, a former college football player at North Carolina State and Yale. 

On his campaign website, Hines touts endorsements from Cawthorn and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, two of the most vocal pro-Trump members of the House. The conservative Club for Growth has also backed Hines.

Ellmers, a former three-term congresswoman, is running on her prior Capitol Hill experience. She noted that many of her opponents have more money in the bank right now but she has higher name recognition from having previously represented much of the district, calling herself a “pseudo incumbent.”

“I’m known to the voters and I’m running on my record,” she said.

Having previously served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Ellmers said she wouldn’t face a learning curve if she returned to Congress when dealing with energy issues currently being discussed on Capitol Hill. 

“My message to the voters is send someone to Washington who’s worked on this issue, who’s worked on the Keystone XL pipeline opening, who’s worked on bringing natural gas production, who understands that we have to put certainty back into this market,” she said. 

This report has been updated to remove a reference to Rep. Deborah K. Ross being in one of the state’s toughest races.

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