Democrats are almost guaranteed to pick up two House seats in North Carolina this year, which means that the upcoming primaries — for which early in-person voting starts Thursday — will go a long way toward determining who comes to Congress.
In both the newly redrawn 2nd District, which is based in Raleigh, and the redrawn 6th District, which is rooted in Greensboro, Democrats have a good chance of nominating women with strong liberal backing. But the primaries in each district have raised questions about identity politics and ideology and who should represent what are now safe Democratic seats.
In both of those districts, white women who have run recent races in competitive territory have a strong financial advantage over African American female candidates who support “Medicare for All.” And while money isn’t everything, especially when candidates have local connections, that’s given them a leg up in communicating their message on a tight timeline. The district maps were set in December, and the primary is on March 3.
In the 2nd District, for example, Deborah Ross, a former state representative and state director for the American Civil Liberties Union, ran for Senate in 2016. She faces three other Democrats, including Wake County School Board Member Monika Johnson-Hostler, who received the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC on Wednesday.
“Ross has too much money. You’re not going to run to the left of an ACLU attorney,” a Democratic strategist in the state said. “Much of the district is well-educated, progressive white people.”
Ross had a double-digit lead over Johnson-Hostler in her own internal survey from January.
But black women are a key part of the Democratic primary electorate, especially in North Carolina. In the new 6th District, nearly 50 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2016 were black. Nearly 30 percent were black in the new 2nd District, according to calculations from Daily Kos Elections.
And for black female candidates, these two races have been reminders of the institutional barriers they continue to face, despite sending five new black women to the House in 2018.
“We are told to come to the polls, but we are not supported on the ballot,” said Rhonda Foxx, who’s running in the 6th District along with four other Democrats. Foxx is the former chief of staff to North Carolina Rep. Alma Adams.
“There is no recruitment toward demographics. We can’t say, ‘As long as there’s some Democrat in this district,’” Foxx said. She pointed to other black women on the ballot this year, including Johnson-Hostler and state Sen. Erica Smith, who is running for Senate, and questioned whether they are supported by the party’s infrastructure.
“I am very concerned about the state and condition of black women in American politics,” she said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is not endorsing in either primary for the newly safe Democratic seats. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has backed former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, who is white, over Smith in the Senate primary.
Johnson-Hostler echoed a similar concern.
“We talk a lot about voter suppression, but what we don’t talk about is the campaign finance, campaign support side, which does the exact same thing, which marginalizes candidates of color,” she said.
National Democrats are just happy these two seats, currently held by Republicans who are not seeking reelection, are likely to move into their column.
But both Ross and Kathy Manning, who’s running in the 6th District, have run with the support of the national party apparatus before. As the 2016 Senate nominee, Ross ran with the backing of the DSCC. Manning had the DCCC’s support in 2018 when she challenged GOP Rep. Ted Budd in the 13th District.
Ross had raised $301,000 by the end of 2019 — more than six times as much as Johnson-Hostler, who’s soon getting some fundraising help in the district from CBC members.
Manning, a philanthropist and former immigration lawyer, had raised $481,000 for her bid for the 6th District by the end of 2019. Foxx had checks from the leadership PAC of her political mentor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, as well as Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, and Rep. Eric Swalwell and former Rep. Katie Hill, both of California. But she only raised $75,000 by the end of 2019.
“Oftentimes, black women candidates do not get early institutional support,” said Glynda Carr, the president of Higher Heights for America PAC, which supports black female candidates and has endorsed both Foxx and Johnson-Hostler. That begins, she said, with “the discussion of electability and likability.”
“There needs to be a real conversation about what viability looks like in states that have diverse populations or large populations of color,” Carr said.
Johnson-Hostler’s campaign cannot afford to advertise on TV and is trying to raise money for direct mail. She isn’t sure how an endorsement from the DCCC would have changed things — “People tell me it would have meant money and access, I don’t know” — but she added that she would have liked to have had it.
“We cannot get into the business of electing the people who don’t represent the people in the district,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based consultant who’s a senior adviser to the DCCC. But, he cautioned, the national party shouldn’t necessarily be involved in that.
“It’s a matter of people making their case to the voters, and let them decide because sometimes the party’s engagement is a turnoff to the people who actually live in those communities,” he said.
Without TV, Johnson-Hostler and Foxx say they’ve found other ways to get their message out, including capitalizing on what they feel is their strength in the districts’ African American communities.
“In House races, all things are relevant. It’s getting on the ground, it’s knocking on doors and some of that doesn’t take money — it takes sweat,” said New York Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, the chairman of the CBC PAC.
Running to the left
Manning and Ross have the money for TV ads, as well as name recognition from having run federal races before. They both have endorsements that signal strong progressive support in a Democratic primary, including from the state AFL-CIO. Ross is also backed by the State Employees Association, and she’s sharing the endorsement of the North Carolina Association of Educators with Johnson-Hostler.
But their African American opponents have argued that some of the things they’ve said when running in more partisanly competitive elections means they’re not far left enough to represent safe Democratic seats.
The beginning of Manning’s first TV ad is all about President Donald Trump and her promise to fight his “dangerous, hate-filled agenda.” That focus is a departure from her 2018 ads, in which she said she would not support Nancy Pelosi for speaker. Announcing her campaign that cycle, she told the (Greensboro) News & Record she was “a business-oriented moderate.”
But that might not go over as well in a new district that voted for Hillary Clinton by 22 points.
“This district does not support the politics of a Blue Dog-endorsed Democrat,” Foxx said, referring to an endorsement Manning received in 2018 from the political arm of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. “You can’t really buy your way out of that one.”
Foxx said the district was progressive and diverse.
“We have to invest and recruit toward that so that folks in this district feel like they have a voice. And that’s why we think we’re on a path to victory,” Foxx said.
Manning was not available for comment.
In the 2nd District, Johnson-Hostler argues that her experience would make her not only the best representative for the district, but the strongest candidate.
“We both agree we can work across the aisle, it’s just not my primary platform,” Johnson-Hostler said, referring to Ross.
“Black women are super voters,” she said. “The concerns they bring are important to the community I’m a part of, not just the community I would represent.”
Ross pushed back on the notion that she wouldn’t represent that community.
“The district is going to elect the best person for the job, and I have very strong relationships with the African American community,” she said, highlighting her work on anti-racial profiling legislation. “I’ve done more work on racial justice than anyone else who’s running in this race.”
“I’ve only run statewide once — and those six other times I’ve run, it was in a safe Democratic district,” Ross said.