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Insight: U.S. House 2020 target lists show Democrats playing defense in the South

Democratic and Republican campaign arms are targeting 25 Southern seats

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — The U.S. House campaign arms for both parties have released their first list of targets for 2020, with Southern Democrats playing an unfamiliar role they haven’t enjoyed in recent cycles — on defense, protecting their 2018 gains.

Chicken Fried Politics Editor Rich Shumate

Next year’s congressional battles in the South will take place almost entirely in the suburbs. Nearly all of the 25 districts being targeted by both parties contain suburban areas around large cities, territory where Democrats made major gains last November and hope to make more.

The National Republican Congressional Committee — trying to claw its way back into a majority after a disappointing 2018 — is targeting 12 Democrat-held seats across the South, 10 of which are held by by freshmen who flipped seats, including three seats in Virginia, two each in Texas and Florida, and seats won in breakthroughs in Oklahoma, South Carolina and Georgia.

Among the targets are eight Democratic freshmen who supported Nancy Pelosi’s bid for House speaker — a vote that is sure to be front and center on TV screens when 2020 rolls around.

Only two veteran Democrats, both in Florida, are on the GOP’s target list — Charlie Crist in the Clearwater-based 13th District, and Stephanie Murphy in the 7th District in metro Orlando. Both districts look competitive on paper, although neither Crist nor Murphy had much trouble in 2018.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting 13 Republican-held seats across the South, an audacious list that includes nine veteran GOP incumbents, some with decades of experience.

Chip Roy

Ross Spano

And while Democrats will have to defend a bumper crop of incumbents, just two of the Southern Democratic targets are freshman Republicans — Ross Spano in Florida’s 15th District and Chip Roy in Texas’s 21st District.

Defending long-term incumbents is usually easier that defending freshmen seeking a second term, which could give

Republicans an advantage overall in the South in 2020.

The GOP has another advantage — while its targets are nearly evenly split between districts that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, 12 of the 13 Democratic targets are in districts Trump carried, which will be more difficult to flip. (The lone exception is Will Hurd in Texas’s 23rd District.)

Democrats are also unlikely to replicate the wave they enjoyed in 2018, which carried them to victory in some rather unlikely places.

Still, Republicans find themselves with the unexpected — and unwelcome — prospect of spending energy and money to reclaim seats in such normally red areas as Oklahoma City, Charleston and the suburbs of Atlanta, Houston and Dallas.

Among the Republican freshman targeted, Spano, whose district stretches inland from the suburbs of Tampa, may be vulnerable in 2020 after admitting that he borrowed money from two friends that he then plowed into his election campaign, which is a violation of federal campaign finance laws.

He blamed bad advice from this then-campaign treasurer; Democrats are pushing for an investigation.

Roy, a former top aide to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, won by just two points in 2018. His district includes suburbs of Austin and San Antonio and rural areas to the west.

One seat on the Democrats’ list, Georgia’s 7th District in Atlanta’s northwest suburbs, will be open, thanks to the pending departure of Rob Woodall, who decided to retire after winning by just 400 votes in 2018. Another seat, North Carolina’s 9th District, is vacant due to an ongoing dispute over allegations of absentee ballot fraud.

Democrats have decided to forgo, at least for now, targeting two seats that they tried and failed to flip in 2018 — Arkansas’s 2nd District in metro Little Rock, held by French Hill, and West Virginia’s 3rd District, which takes in the southern third of the state, held by Carol Miller.

Andy Barr

However, they are once again trying to flip Kentucky’s 6th District, in and around Lexington, where Andy Barr held off a spirited challenge from Democratic newcomer Amy McGrath, who raised a whopping $8.6 million.

McGrath hasn’t said if she’s running again. Senate Democrats have been encouraging her for forgo a rematch with Barr and instead challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The toughest sled for Democrats will be taking out nine veteran Republicans they have targeted, including five in Texas alone.

Among the Texas targets are five men who between them have more than 60 years of seniority: John Carter in the 31st District in the northern Austin suburbs; Kenny Marchant in the 24th District in Dallas-Ft. Worth; Mike McCaul in the 10th District that stretches from Austin toward Houston; and Pete Olson in 22nd District in Houston’s western suburbs.

Until the 2018 cycle, these Texas seats had been thought safely Republican. But Carter and Marchant won by just 3 points in 2018; McCaul won by 4 points and Olson by 5 points.

Democrats are also going after Brian Mast in Florida’s 18th District north of Palm Beach; and, in North Carolina, George Holding, in the 2nd District around Raleigh, and Ted Budd, in 13th District between Charlotte and Greensboro.

Lucy McBath

Joe Cunningham

The freshmen that Democrats will have to defend including two in the Miami area, Donna Shalala in the 27th District, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in the 26th District; Lucy McBath in Georgia’s 6th District in Atlanta’s northeast suburbs; Kendra Horn in the Oklahoma City-based 5th District; and Joe Cunningham, who represents the South Carolina Low Country in the 1st District.

Three freshmen Democrats in Virginia are also on the list — Elaine Luria, who represents the 2nd District in Hampton Roads; Abigail Spanberger, who represents the 7th District in the Richmond suburbs, and Jennifer Wexton, whose 10th District includes the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The Republican target list also includes two Texas freshman: Colin Allred, who represents the 32nd District in metro Dallas, and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who represents the 7th District in metro Houston.

All of these freshmen, except for Spanberger and Cunningham, voted for Pelosi for speaker.

Among the GOP targets, Shalala and Wexton are likely in the least danger, as both represent districts Hillary Clinton carried easily in 2016. Horn, McBath and Cunningham — whose 2018 wins were among the biggest surprises of the election cycle — are likely in the most jeopardy.

Democrats’ success in 2018 was largely the result of raising enough money to be competitive in GOP-held districts, in many cases even outraising incumbents who didn’t take their races seriously enough.

Democratic freshmen being targeted in 2020 should have no problem raising money; neither will challengers to Republican incumbents who had close calls in 2018. Members of the majority party also tend to have easier access to campaign money than the party out of power.

Still, 2020 will no doubt see Republicans loaded for bear, with two years to regroup and build up their treasuries, leaving voters facing loud, expensive and contentious races across the South.

Heading into 2020, Republicans hold 101 seats among delegations in the 14 Southern states; Democrats have 50, with one vacant seat in North Carolina.

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U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger goes down in North Carolina GOP primary

Races now set in three competitive seats Democrats are targeting in November

CHARLOTTE (CFP) — The fields are now set for three competitive U.S. House races in North Carolina, including the 9th District where Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger has become the first incumbent to go down to defeat in the 2018 election cycle.

Mark Harris

Pittenger. seeking his fourth term in Congress, was defeated in the May 8 primary by Mark Harris, a prominent Baptist pastor from Charlotte. Harris took 49 percent, to 46 percent for Pittenger.

“From the beginning, this race has been about giving the people of this district a voice, and you have stood up tonight across the 9th District, and you have made that voice loud and clear,” Harris told supporters at a victory celebration in Indian Trail.

Harris will now face Democrat Dan McCready in November for a metro Charlotte seat that Democrats have high hopes of flipping.

McCready, a Marine Corps veteran and solar energy entrepreneur, easily won the Democratic primary. The most recent Federal Election Commission reports show that he has so far raised $1.9 million for the fall race, about three times as much as Harris.

Harris is the former senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charlotte and former president of the State Baptist Convention of North Carolina. In 2012, he helped lead the fight for a state constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, and he made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

The race in the 9th District, which includes parts of Charlotte and its southern and eastern suburbs and stretches east to Fayetteville, was a rematch of a primary battle between Pittenger and Harris in 2016 that the incumbent won by just 134 votes; this time, Harris won by 814 votes.

Pittenger had the backing of House Republican leaders, and Vice President Mike Pence came to North Carolina to campaign for him. Harris countered with anti-establishment campaign that painted Pittenger as part of the Washington “swamp.”

In addition to the 9th District, Democrats are eyeing two other seats, the 2nd District and the 13th District, in an attempt to cut into the GOP’s dominance in the Tar Heel State’s congressional delegation, where Republicans hold 10 of 13 seats.

In the 2nd District, centered in metro Raleigh, Democrat Linda Coleman had an easy primary victory and will now face Republican U.S. Rep. George Holding in November.

Coleman, a former state representative and Wake County commissioner, was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in both 2012 and 2016. However, she starts the general election with a substantial financial disadvantage against Holding, who is seeking his fourth term.

That is not the case in the 13th District, where the Democrats’ nominee, Kathy Manning, has raised $1.3 million and has $1 million in cash on hand, outstripping the Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, who has raised $880,000 and has just $362,000 on hand, according to FEC records.

Manning, a lawyer from Greensboro, is making her first bid for elective office in the district, which stretches from the northern suburbs of Charlotte to Greensboro. Budd, first elected in 2016, is trying to win a second term.

In 2016, President Donald Trump carried the 2nd District by 10 points, the 9th District by 12 points and the 13th District by 9 points.

North Carolina voters bounce Renee Ellmers from Congress

Ellmers ends campaign with disparaging comment about a female GOP official’s weight

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

north-carolina mugRALEIGH (CFP) — Running in a redrawn district and facing a tsunami of outside spending aimed squarely at her, U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina has lost her bid for a fourth term, becoming the first GOP lawmaker to fall in a primary in 2016.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers

Ellmers lost the June 7 GOP primary to U.S. Rep. George Holding, who opted to run against Ellmers after a court-ordered redraw of the Tar Heel State’s U.S. House map moved his district to another part of the state.

Her campaign ended on a bizarre note when a television camera captured Ellmers making a disparaging remark about Maggie Sandrock, a former chair of the Harnett County Republican Party, as she made her way into a polling place to vote.

“You’re eating a little too much pork barbecue. Woo,” Ellmers said in an exchange captured by Raleigh TV station WNCN.

Reacting to the comment, Sandrock, a former Ellmers supporter who now backs one of her opponents, said the congresswoman had “become a mean girl on steroids.”

Holding took 53 percent of the vote in the the 2nd District primary. Ellmers managed just 24 percent, edging past Greg Brannon, who jumped into the race after losing a U.S. Senate primary back in March.

The House primary was delayed three months after a federal court panel ordered state lawmakers to redraw the map passed after the 2010 Census. The judges ruled that two districts were improperly gerrymandered using racial considerations.

Ellmers’s district in suburban Raleigh was substantially redrawn in the new map, forcing her to run in unfamiliar territory. Her task became more difficult after Holding decided to give up his 13th District seat, which had been moved west to the Greensboro area, and run against Ellmers instead.

Ellmers, 52, a nurse, was first elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave as a critic of Obamacare, with the support of outside conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

But those groups turned on Ellmers with a vengeance this year, spending more than $1 million to paint her as a Washington insider who supported wasteful spending.

In her concession speech, Ellmers said she was “disappointed” that the outside spending derailed her re-election bid, despite a high-profile endorsement from Donald Trump.

“The special interest groups with their deep pocks in Washington, unfortunately, have won today,” she said. “I hold my head up high. I’ve done what is necessary to serve the people of the (district).”

Ellmers also ran afoul of anti-abortion groups when she forced Republican leaders to carve out a rape exception in a bill outlawing abortions after 20 weeks.

In October 2015, Ellmers publicly denied rumors that she was having an extramarital affair with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, which came to light after McCarthy abruptly abandoned a run for House speaker.

Holding will now face Democrat John McNeil, a Raleigh lawyer, in November, in a district with a strong Republican tilt.

American Idol Clay Aiken denigrates political rival U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers in radio interview

Aiken, defeated by Ellmers in November, calls her a “bitch,” an “idiot,” and an “old snatch” on Howard Stern’s show

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

north-carolina mugRALEIGH (CFP) — American Idol Clay Aiken has publicly denigrated Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, who beat him handily for a North Carolina House seat last November.

U.S. House candidate Clay Aiken

U.S. House candidate Clay Aiken

In an April 27 interview with shockjock Howard Stern, Aiken called Ellmers a “bitch” and an “idiot. He also claimed that Ellmers had been “a condescending old snatch” during their campaign debate and that “her self-esteem is just in the floor, under the floor.”

Aiken was on Stern’s show to promote a documentary entitled The Runner-Up, airing on the Esquire Network, which chronicled his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Ellmers.

In response, Ellmer’s office released a statement saying Aiken’s “crude language and disrespectful demeanor towards the congresswoman has proven to the American people why he is a runner-up.”

Aiken, 36, shot to fame in 2003 when he came in second place on American Idol. Last year, he made his first bid for political office in the Tar Heel State’s 2nd District, located in and around Raleigh, trying to become the first openly gay person elected to Congress from the South.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers

Ellmers beat him handily, 59 percent to 41 percent, in the GOP-leaning district.

Aiken’s campaign took a bizarre turn last May when the man he narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary, Keith Crisco, died from a fall less than a week after the vote.

Listen to Aiken’s comments on Ellmers, which begin about 1 hour 40 minutes into Stern’s show:

American Idol Clay Aiken loses U.S. House bid in North Carolina

Aiken, who came in second in the popular reality show, was defeated in a Raleigh-area district

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com

north-carolina mug

Democratic U.S. House candidate Clay Aiken

Democratic U.S. House candidate Clay Aiken

RALEIGH  (CFP) — American Idol finalist Clay Aiken has been defeated in his first bid for public office, a U.S. House race in his native North Carolina.

Aiken, 35, running as a Democrat in the state’s 2nd District, located in and around Raleigh, was defeated by incumbent two-term GOP U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent in the November 4 vote.

“The result did not go the way we wanted it tonight, but we’ve walked down this path once or twice before,” Aiken told election night supports at a restaurant in Sanford, alluding to his controversial second-place finish on Idol.

The Esquire Network announced November 5 that Aiken’s campaign would be the subject of a TV reality series set to air in 2015. In a statement, the network said it had been filming Aiken’s campaign since February, and the series would “capture the internal workings of an American campaign — the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Aiken was seeking to become the first openly gay member of Congress from the South.

His campaign took a bizarre turn in May when the man he narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary, Keith Crisco, died from a fall less than a week after the vote.

Clay Aiken’s opponent in North Carolina U.S. House primary dies in fall

Keith Crisco dies as absentee ballots were still being counted in razor-close contest with Aiken

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

north-carolina mugRALEIGH (CFP) — American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken’s opponent in the Democratic primary for North Carolina’s 2nd District U.S. House seat, Keith Crisco, died May 12 after a fall at his home in Asheboro, his family confirmed in a statement.

U.S. House candidate Keith Crisco

U.S. House candidate Keith Crisco

Crisco’s death came as provisional and absentee ballots were still being counted from the May 6 primary, with Aiken leading by just 369 votes. Crisco, 71, a businessman and former state commerce secretary, had not conceded the race.

Aiken, saying he was “stunned and deeply saddened” by Crisco’s death, announced that he was suspending all campaign activities.

“He was a gentleman, a good and honorable man and an extraordinary public servant. I was honored to know him,” Aiken said in a statement.

Crisco’s death will mean that Aiken will be his party’s nominee for the seat now held by Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, who beat back a Tea Party primary challenge from Frank Roche, a Raleigh radio talk show host.

Ellmers also released a statement of condolence, saying Crisco’s “kindness and dedication to his principles were models we should all strive toward, and he will be dearly missed.”

The 2nd District includes parts of Raleigh and suburban areas to the west, southeast and northeast..

Democratic U.S. House candidate Clay Aiken

Democratic U.S. House candidate Clay Aiken

Aiken, 35, a Raleigh native, was a special education teacher when he rocketed to fame in 2003 by coming in second on the Fox network’s popular singing competition. He is making his first bid for political office. If elected in November, he will be the first openly gay congressman from North Carolina.

American Idol Clay Aiken running for U.S. House in North Carolina

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers is dismissive of singer’s challenge

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

north-carolina mugRALEIGH, North Carolina (CFP) — American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken is running for the Democratic nomination for North Carolina’s 2nd District U.S. House seat in 2014, trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a second-term Republican.

American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken

American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken

Aiken announced his run in a You Tube video video posted February 5,  in which he lambasted Ellmers for votes she cast that led to sequestration cuts in military spending and last year’s government shutdown.

“These votes hurt North Carolina,” said Aiken, who said Ellmers cast those votes to please GOP House leaders. “That’s what in the end convinced me that if I didn’t do something about it, then I couldn’t complain if no one else did.”

The 2nd District is home to Fort Bragg, a major military post where the budget sequestration led to the loss of civilian jobs.

Aiken, 35, a Raleigh native, was a special education teacher in 2003 when he shot to fame during the second season of American Idol. He went on to become a best-selling recording artist and starred on Broadway.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers

Asked about Aiken’s challenge in an interview with WMAL radio in Washington January 29, Ellmers was dismissive.

“Apparently, his performing career is not going so well, and he’s very bored,” she said, pointedly noting that he had not won on either American Idol or another reality show, Celebrity Apprentice.

“I guess the next step is Congress. You know, we don’t have a very high approval rating, so I guess the bar’s a little lower for him,” she said.

After Aiken’s announcement, Ellmers’ campaign released a statement saying the singer’s “political views more closely resemble San Francisco than Sanford” — a not-very-subtle allusion to Aiken being openly gay.

Two Democrats were already running in the 2nd District — Houston Barnes, an attorney from Durham, and former State Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco. Barnes told the Charlotte Observer that he will exit the race to give Aiken a better shot at the nomination.

Ellmers, a former nurse who was elected in the Republican wave of 2010, is facing a primary challenge from Frank Roche, a conservative radio talk show host.

Armed with an endorsement from Sarah Palin, Ellmers won the seat in 2010 by less than 1,500 votes over the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Bob Etheridge, after a recount.

However, after Republicans took control of the state legislature, the 2nd District’s lines were redrawn to make it more Republican. Mitt Romney carried the district with 57 percent of the vote in 2012, so Democrats will likely have an uphill battle to flip the seat in 2014.

View Clay Aiken’s announcement video:

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