North Carolina Rep. George Holding has been here before, facing a district that doesn’t look like the one he currently represents.
But unlike in 2016, when court-mandated redistricting moved his seat across the state and he choose to run in a different district closer to home, the partisan composition of his current 2nd District has now changed significantly, becoming virtually unwinnable for a Republican.
Holding, a former U.S. attorney and aide to the late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, is one of two Republicans whose districts will become much more favorable to Democrats under a new congressional map that the GOP-controlled state General Assembly enacted last month. A panel of state judges ruled on Monday that the 2020 elections should go forward under this new map.
But unlike 6th District Rep. Mark Walker, who’s leaving the door open to launching a primary bid against an incumbent in a different seat, Holding told The (Raleigh) News & Observer on Wednesday that he won’t challenge another sitting GOP lawmaker.
So far, though, he’s stopped short of saying he won’t run for reelection next year. Holding’s consultant, Carter Wrenn, did not return calls for comment Wednesday. Wrenn’s other major client, retired businessman Garland Tucker, dropped his Senate bid against North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis on Monday. Candidate filing closes on Dec. 20.
Even before the latest lines were drawn, Holding — who’s one of the wealthiest members of Congress — told the News & Observer he hadn’t been raising much money locally because he expected the state would be forced to draw new districts. “No one is entitled to a congressional district,” he said at the time.
He brought in $175,000 during the fundraising quarter that closed in September, including just $8,000 in itemized contributions of $200 or less. His chief of staff, Tucker Knott, left the congressman’s office in September to become a lobbyist for Pfizer.
Under the new map, Holding’s 2nd District would have backed Democrat Hillary Clinton by 24 points in 2016, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. (President Donald Trump carried the current version of Holding’s district by 6 points.)
Republicans currently hold 10 of the state’s 13 districts, despite only narrowly outpacing Democrats in statewide votes in 2018 House races. Democrats are expected to pick up two seats under the new lines, and the congressional map will change again after the 2020 Census.
This isn’t the first time the General Assembly changed Holding’s district. Four years ago, after a federal court ruled North Carolina’s map an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, the GOP-controlled legislature had to draw a new map and postpone its 2016 congressional primaries. (That 2016 map is what has since been challenged as a partisan gerrymander.)
Luckily for Holding, though, the legislature had it out for someone else back then. State lawmakers moved his 13th District across the state, leaving him to run in the same district as GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers. She was already facing four primary challengers in the 2nd District, in part because of her opposition to anti-abortion legislation that required rape and incest survivors to report their attacks to authorities and her support for reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, but they were all drawn out of the new district.
“I just looked at the map. I didn’t think it was particularly aggressive. I thought it was pretty common sense,” Holding told CQ Roll Call in March 2016, sitting in his barren campaign office in Raleigh.
Fewer than 15 percent of the voters in the new 2nd District overlapped with the constituents Ellmers represented. In contrast, the new seat included about 60 percent of Holding’s constituents from the old 13th District. Ellmers, who’s running for North Carolina lieutenant governor this cycle, became the fist member of Congress to be endorsed by then-candidate Donald Trump — and the first GOP incumbent of the 2016 cycle to lose.
Holding went on to easily win the general election for the Raleigh-area seat that year. But he’s always been more interested in policy than campaigning, and he wasn’t enthusiastic about running in 2018, when he faced a tougher race. Democrats were targeting the suburbanizing district, and by mid-summer, Holding was raising the alarm bells. With a tightening national environment in the fall, though, and help from a GOP super PAC, he ended up surviving by about 5 points.
2016 Senate nominee Deborah Ross announced her candidacy for the 2nd District this week, but will likely face a competitive primary. Scott Cooper, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, was already running. 2018 nominee Linda Coleman, a former state representative, could take another look at this district too.
As for Walker, his 6th District will go from having backed Trump by 15 points in 2016 to one that would have backed Clinton by nearly 22 points.
Democrat Kathy Manning, who lost to 13th District GOP Rep. Ted Budd in 2018, has announced she’ll run in the new 6th District.
Walker is considering challenging Tillis or Budd in a primary next year.
“He’s got three bad options — run in a Dem majority district, challenge an incumbent colleague, or challenge a sitting senator,” GOP consultant Jonathan Felts said in an email Wednesday.
Neither primary would be easy. Trump has endorsed Tillis for Senate, and the Club for Growth, which tried to woo Walker into the Senate race earlier this year, has said it will stand by Budd in the 13th District, even though he represents less of the new district than Walker currently does.
Walker is likely also interested in running for the open Senate seat in 2022, with Republican Richard M. Burr not running for reelection.
“He’d be better off seeking that seat as the victim of judicial activism rather than as someone who ran and lost a primary in 2020,” Felts said of the 2022 Senate vacancy.