In 2010, when Democrat Charles Graham first ran for Robeson County’s state House District 47, he defeated Republican Brawleigh Graham by a more-than-comfortable 67% to 33% margin. In Graham’s next three elections, no Republican even bothered to run against him.
Finally, in 2018, Marine veteran and fellow Lumbee tribal member Jarrod Lowery, ran against Graham, losing 59% to 41%. These were not unusual numbers in the Democrat-heavy Lumbee Indian community. But times drastically changed during Graham’s six terms in Raleigh.
Lowery told Carolina Journal that after he lost, he then spent that time building relationships in the community and could feel something shifting around 2020. He said people wanted something different than the Democrat politics they had traditionally voted for. HD-47 certainly does not look like a traditionally Republican district, with 47% Native American, 27% African American, and only 25% non-Hispanic white. But Republicans gained steam nonetheless.
In 2020, Republican Olivia Oxendine challenged Graham and only lost 52% to 48%, showing Democrats were quickly losing ground.
Then Lowery ran again in 2022, winning the HD-47 seat 61% to 39%, numbers similar to what Democrats had been achieving only a decade earlier. Graham, for his part, may have seen the writing on the wall, deciding to pursue a U.S. congressional seat instead.
To learn more about the significance of this trend, Carolina Journal spoke with Lowery and with Robeson County GOP Executive Committee member Cutler Bryant, who also served as Lowery’s deputy campaign manager.
Lowery said two main things led to the Lumbee swing towards the GOP. The first was Donald Trump putting the focus on the working class, as well as an “aggressive lurch to the left” from the Democrats.
“That’s just where the voters in Robeson County are — they’re fed up and they don’t think Democrats represent their values anymore,” Lowery said. “I mean, when you’re talking about post-birth abortion, that’s murder. That’s what the average person thinks. And radical positions like that that don’t have anything to do with making sure you can put food on the table, making sure your children have a good education, and that you’re safe in your home, they’re focusing on issues that people just don’t care about right now.”
Lowery also said crime was an issue where Democrats were seen to be on the wrong side, with messaging on being lighter on crime and defunding police. Fentanyl is a particularly difficult topic, and Republican messaging on stopping drugs coming across the border and on punishing drug dealers has resonated particularly well, because “people want solutions to problems, and they didn’t see the answers in Democrats.”
“If you go around Robeson County now, there are signs in people’s yards that say 125, because at the time that’s how many people had died in the past year from overdoses,” Lowery said. “There are more yard signs saying 125 than there are for any candidate running for office because the opioid abuse problem that we have here in Robeson County affects everybody.”
Bryant agreed that Trump and social issues were the two main causes for the 2020 shift. He said that because free-trade agreements like NAFTA were seen as harmful to the local textile and manufacturing jobs, Trump was able to gain new converts to the party by criticizing these agreements. He also noted the same cultural issues that Lowery did as keys to building Republican momentum in Robeson.
“This election really solidified that momentum,” Bryant said. “Jarrod Lowery will become the first Native American Republican in the General Assembly and the first Republican to represent District 47, and this will be, I think, the first time in history that Robeson County sends an all-Republican delegation to Raleigh. So, it’s pretty historic. I don’t know what Republicans were doing everywhere else in the country, but in Robeson County, we had a pretty good night.”
Other Republican candidates, like state Sen. Danny Britt, also won handily. Britt, a non-Lumbee, won the largest share of votes among Robeson’s GOP candidates, with 66%, including in a precinct in Robeson that was 50% black, according to Bryant. In the U.S. Senate race, Cheri Beasley won the precinct by 22 points, but due to personal relationship with Britt and others, many Democrat minority voters felt comfortable splitting their tickets and including some Republicans candidates.
Bryant said Lowery won so handily in part because Lowery received support from a number of notable Lumbee Democrats in the community. With the trend favoring Republicans, Lowery’s opponent, Democrat Charles Townsend, even told the press that he didn’t feel like he had much of a chance of winning.
“I knew that the Lumbee people were turning to the right, but you still need to get out and engage everyone,” Lowery said.
He said the first question he got from many people was, “What are you registered as?” They would make clear that if he was a Democrat, he might as well stop talking.
“I had to start putting that I’m Republican on everything I had, because that’s the mood people are in; they’re just fed up. They don’t like the direction of the country, inflation, crime.”
Lowery said this was a 180-turn from his first election, where he had tried to get people to consider him by leading with his vision rather than his party. Now, he says Democrats in the county are realizing they “have a decision to make.”
“Rep. Graham made his choice in embracing the left in the primary and abandoning his community for other folks.,” Lowery said. “You do have a lot of elected officials who will tell you that they are not really a Democrat, but they just weren’t sure they could win as a Republican. And I think we shattered that glass ceiling this election.”
Bryant said the race that many many assumed would be the closest was Graham’s U.S. congressional race against incumbent Rep. David Rouzer. Some had felt that since Rouzer was a non-Lumbee Republican, the tribal members who had supported Lumbee Republicans would still prefer the Lumbee Democrat Graham over a white Republican.
But even in this case, it turned out that Lumbee preferred the Republican. The race went for Rouzer over Graham 58% to 42%, including with a majority in Robeson.
“In the most Lumbee-heavy precinct, which is Prospect — it’s 94% Native American — Rouzer trounced Graham,” Bryant said. “It was 63% to 38% — wasn’t even close.”
Bryant said Graham’s loss can be chalked up to his decision to go further left with his party, rather than embrace his community’s values.
“It boggles my mind, but he ran away from that,” Bryant said of Graham’s shift to the left on cultural issues. “He was running on codifying Roe v. Wade… saying that abortion was healthcare. And I don’t know if he thought he would pull something over the voters eyes and they wouldn’t notice, but they did. And the feeling among Lumbee voters in the county is that Charles Graham changed.”
Another major development was Republican efforts to help the Lumbee gain federal recognition. U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms had been seen as an enemy of gaining recognition, but with both parties now fairly unanimous on working towards that goal, it is no longer holding Republicans back. Graham had tried to use references to Helms, who Rouzer had worked for decades ago, to frame him as opposed to recognition, but the fact that it didn’t work shows how perceptions have changed.
“I think for the most part they [Lumbee voters] realize that Lumbee recognition is something that both Democrats and Republicans want,” Bryant said. “But it doesn’t hurt that our congressman now, Dan Bishop [a Republican], has been very, very, very vocal in support of Lumbee recognition.”
These issues of Lumbee Indian identity and discrimination from the wider community had been tough hurdles and had kept the county from voting Republican for generations.
“One thing that you have to remember is that this is the South,” Lowery said. “For the longest time, our people couldn’t vote or there were restrictions on them voting, poll taxes, literacy tests. And then when they were finally able to vote, they had the same people who were telling them they couldn’t vote are now telling them, ‘You can vote and register, but you have to vote Democrat. Republicans are bad. They’re for the rich.'”
He said for this reason, with the Silent Generation being the first to vote among the Lumbee, they instilled in their children and grandchildren that you can’t vote Republican. Lowery said his grandmother was an exception and raised her family as Republicans.
“She said, ‘I got values and I don’t care what anybody else says’,” Lowery said. “And I’ve kind of been like that as well. I look at history and me being a minority, how a strong central government was detrimental to me. And that’s really the anchor of my views. So, I’ve always been a conservative.”