The Senate Banking Committee started confirmation hearings on Thursday for Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., the president's nominee to the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Watt's confirmation is uncertain for the role as regulator of bailed out mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But that hasn't stopped several Democratic candidates from starting their campaigns in earnest for his seat in the 12th District.
State Sen. Malcolm Graham and state Reps. Alma Adams and Marcus Brandon will run for Watt's seat if he's confirmed, according to two local Democratic consultants. Graham and Brandon have already set up exploratory committees and are actively raising funds. Brandon has also sent out direct mail in the district, according to one Democratic operative.
Democrats described Graham, Adams and Brandon as the top tier of candidates who would seek Watt's seat if he is confirmed.
Democratic consultants also mentioned Torre Jessup, Watt's longtime district director, as a potential candidate.
A Watt exit was always expected to spark a crowded Democratic primary in the majority-minority district. Watt has held his seat for 11 terms, leaving many ambitious Democrats in the region waiting for decades to see some opportunity for advancement. The 12th District is based in Charlotte and Greensboro, N.C.
According to state election rules, officials would call a special election if Watt resigns to go to the FHFA. Officials must announce the contest no less than 45 days before the special election.
The short election gives early candidates an advantage, especially in the primary. But consultants cautioned no candidate would get the necessary 40 percent of the vote in such a crowded primary, forcing the race into a runoff.
If Watt is not confirmed to the FHFA post, local Democrats speculated the longtime House Democrat could retire. They suggested an ugly confirmation battle could push Watt out the door. If he retires, consultants said the dynamic of the Democratic primary would change, as candidates would have a much longer time to raise funds and acquire name ID.
"I think a lot hinges upon how the confirmation goes and how he comes out of it feeling; what his level of frustration is coming out of this," said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic consultant in North Carolina. "It could make you want to serve more, it could make you want to serve less. He's got grandkids, so he may be ready to hang it up, but it could re-energize him."