North Carolina's 12th, once referred to as the "I-85 district," is vacant for the first time since it was drawn following the 1990 census, and its unique geography is again a central feature in the race to represent it.
The recent departure of longtime Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt to direct the Federal Housing Finance Agency sparked a crowded primary for the black-majority district, which Watt first won in 1992 when it stretched all the way to Durham . A half-dozen Democrats qualified to run for the heavily Democratic district, whose population centers of Charlotte in the south and Winston-Salem and Greensboro in the north are separated by about 90 miles of territory, roughly along Interstate 85 .
Half of the Democratic vote comes from Charlotte's Mecklenburg County, which four of the six candidates in the race hail from — potentially diluting some of the population advantage a leading Charlotte candidate might otherwise enjoy. Conversely, state Rep. Alma Adams is one of just two candidates from the Greensboro area, and party insiders in the state believe Adams will win enough support from her wing of the district to give her the advantage in the May 6 primary.
“Alma Adams is the person to watch,” said Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson. “She has put together the best organization, the most money and has locked away one end of that district in Greensboro.”
Adams, the only woman in the race, does have a built-in advantage, but Democratic operatives said the crowded field makes it nearly impossible for her to avoid a runoff, triggered in the Tar Heel State when no candidate garners more than 40 percent of the vote. That leaves the five other candidates vying for the second-place spot.
State Rep. Marcus Brandon, also from Greensboro, is trying to cut into Adams' base while also carving out some of the Charlotte vote. Brandon said he opened a campaign headquarters in Charlotte to better connect with voters in that half of the district.
The four candidates from Charlotte are: Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board general counsel George Battle III, state Sen. Malcolm Graham, former Charlotte City Councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell Jr. and attorney Curtis Osborne.
None of the candidates are likely to run TV ads in the district. Airtime comes at a high price thanks to the prohibitively expensive Charlotte media market, especially with a high-stakes Senate race topping the ticket. Instead, Democratic operatives said a well-oiled ground game and built-in familiarity with voters will help determine who advances to the July 15 runoff.
Operatives said Graham, a longtime state legislator and former Charlotte city councilman, has a strong team behind him and may be the best positioned to advance along with Adams.
“Malcom Graham is from Mecklenburg County, and everyone says it’s a two-way race between he and Alma Adams,” said Matt Bales, the research director of the nonpartisan FreeEnterprise Foundation in North Carolina.
Strategists added, however, that Battle could also squeak his way in. The son of a prominent bishop in the area, Battle has name recognition in the community.
Mitchell, who recently lost an election for mayor of Charlotte, could also be competitive, as he is an active and familiar member of Charlotte politics. And Brandon has a unique profile within the field as an openly gay state legislator.
In a runoff scenario, Democratic operatives said Adams still might have the advantage because of her organizational strength, which includes the backing of EMILY’s List, a group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. But a Charlotte-based opponent would undoubtedly hold a geographical advantage and this time would not have other candidates from the area to contend with.
"It becomes raw politics in a runoff," Jackson said. "And it will be whoever can marshal their resources. It's not going to be about money, radio or direct mail or television — that's not going to be effective. It will mostly be about turning out and convincing your most loyal [supporters]."
Correction, April 8 12 p.m. An earlier version of this post misstated George Battle III's current position. He is general counsel for the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board.