No Democrat stepped up to challenge Rep. Walter B. Jones last fall. The Republican congressman ran unopposed for a 13th term in North Carolina’s 3rd District.
But Jones’ death last month has triggered a September special election, and some Democrats are giving this military-heavy district another look.
Retired Marine Col. Richard “Otter” Bew announced his candidacy Tuesday, becoming the second Democratic Marine veteran in the race for a seat President Donald Trump carried by nearly 24 points in 2016.
National Democrats targeted three Tar Heel seats last fall and didn’t win any of them, although the 9th District is now headed to a Toss-up special election in September after the state elections board found evidence that the Republican nominee’s campaign tampered with absentee ballots. While Democrats are much more outwardly excited about the 9th District, there’s quiet optimism that the right candidate could make the 3rd District race competitive.
A former legislative assistant to Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Bew retired from the Marines last fall after 29 years. He’s served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Serbia, and his military background is a key reason he thinks he has the right profile for a Democrat to carry this district.
“Our fiber is essentially America first, not party first,” he said, describing how military personnel often approach politics.
Bew met his wife at the Marine Corps exchange at Cherry Point, which is located in the 3rd District. The district is also home to New River and Camp Lejeune.
The midterm success of Democratic candidates who were veterans inspired him. “When I saw folks like that step and run really good campaigns and do so with a different kind of dialogue — one that’s inclusive — and stay on target, the thing that I took most from that is inspiration that this can be done,” Bew said.
“This is Conor Lamb’s race in Joe Cunningham’s district,” he added, repeating how his advisers have described the race to him. Lamb won a Pennsylvania special election last spring in district Trump won by 20 points. Cunningham’s surprising victory last fall flipped a Republican district on the South Carolina coast that backed Trump by 13 points.
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A Trump district
Bew hasn’t done polling in the district as yet, but from the anecdotal conversations he’s had, he feels things are changing.
“I got strong feedback that folks who normally would have opposed a candidate from the Democratic Party are more open to it now,” he said. “You have to really be ignoring some clear evidence of how we’re viewed in the world and how we’re performing in the world to still be sticking — with the same level of your conviction — with your vote from two years ago,” he said.
He noted that local Democratic leaders are more organized now than ever.
But still, Trump won a commanding 60 percent of the vote here. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican. Any Democrat will face an uphill battle, especially during a special election when Republican outside groups will have more firepower to focus on defending this seat (and the 9th District) than they otherwise would during the on-year.
For Bew, the model is Jones, whom he called “the best constituent advocate in Congress.” Jones was known for bucking his party, and faced plenty of primary threats for doing so. Bew cited his votes against the Republican repeal of the 2010 health care law and the GOP tax overhaul. “His political courage was kind of an inspiration,” Bew said. The Democrat’s mission is to convince voters that he’ll follow in Jones’ footsteps. “Once you point out to folks that the guy you’ve been supporting for 23 years put your interest at heart, … I’m the guy who will continue doing that.”
A Democratic path?
Bew won’t be accepting corporate PAC money, adopting a pledge that many House Democratic freshmen made during the 2018 campaign.
Many of those same Democrats also pledged not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker, although not all of them actually voted against her on the floor. Bew deflected a question about whether he’d support Pelosi, who’s said she will serve no more than four years as speaker. If Bew won the special election this fall and then re-election in 2020 — under a potentially new map — he could be faced with that question, assuming Democrats maintain control of the House.
“We’ll see where we are in a couple of years,” Bew said. “It’s kinda like with the president — if what she’s doing is in the interest of North Carolina and my district, I’m all in.”
Democrats rode to victory last fall by talking about health care, and that’s an issue Bew brings up, too. He spoke of his wife suffering from a heart condition and how their access to military health care allowed her to get treatment without bankrupting their family.
Like Cunningham in South Carolina, who campaigned on his opposition to offshore drilling, Bew isn’t afraid to bring up environmental issues in such a red district, where Tuesday morning’s snow dissolved into a muddy mess that ruined his plans to help a friend load his timber truck.
“Anybody who thought climate change wasn’t real has finally come to their senses,” he said.
Bew isn’t the only Democrat who thinks he has a chance in the 3rd District. Retired Marine Ollie Nelson, who’s also a pastor, announced his candidacy last week. He’s not taking corporate PAC money either. Nelson didn’t immediately respond to requests for an interview.
Republicans will inevitably tie all Democrats to Pelosi and likely to three outspoken House female freshmen. Asked how he’d distance himself from his party in the face of those attacks, Bew took the opportunity to emphasize his newness to politics, underscoring the running-against-Washington message that worked for some Democrats last fall.
“I’m not going to attempt to be politically sophisticated,” he said. “I’m not a politician.”