The sprawling, rural First Congressional District covers 22 counties, including Nash, Wayne, and Wilson. Not since 1883 has a Republican from North Carolina’s First District served in Congress. But the district is now rated as a toss up and will be North Carolina’s most competitive congressional district in the fall. NC-1 became a swing district after Pitt and Franklin counties were removed and some GOP leaning counties, including Currituck, were added.

Republicans would love to pick up the seat to gain some breathing room in the narrowly divided US House. But before they dig in for an expensive fight, they will need to pick between two candidates in the primary.

Retired US Army Colonel Laurie Buckout, who recently launched her first television ad, which focuses on her military leadership, lives in Edenton in Chowan County. She is a first-time candidate racing to gain familiarity with voters before the critical March 5 primary.

To advance to the general election, she must defeat previous First Congressional District nominee Sandy Smith, a Nash County business woman and well-known conservative grassroots activist. Smith was the district’s GOP nominee both in 2020 and 2022, losing by 8% in 2020 and 4% in 2022.

One of these two ladies will face incumbent Democrat Don Davis, a freshman from Greene County, in November.  

A closer look at the two GOP candidates in NC-1, starting with Buckout:

In an interview with Carolina Journal, Buckout leaned into her military experience.

“I commanded 800 troops in Iraq,” she said. “I was fighting the very same people that Biden’s weak border lets in our country every day. I have already fought these people and won. My boots survived Iraq; they will storm through DC. “

According to Buckout, when soldiers in Iraq were dying in IED attacks, the Pentagon asked her to help tackle the issue.

“We had to stop our soldiers from being blown up. I had to do something to stop our American heroes from being killed and maimed.”

In 2006, she stood up the Army’s Electronic Warfare Division with the goal of reducing the number of casualties caused by improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, ending her career as chief of electronic warfare for the US Army. Buckhout said the systems she implemented have saved thousands of lives. She also worked on similar defense projects in the private sector, founding Corvus Consulting after retiring from the military.

Now Buckhout wants to use her unique background to help revitalize American’s war-fighting capabilities from Congress. And she’s betting on herself, investing $1 million of her own money in her campaign for the seat.

“I’m running for Congress to continue my lifelong commitment to public service,” Buckhout told Carolina Journal. “I am so sick about what is happening to our military. We must develop a clear national military strategy that clearly defines the enemy and how to defeat them. Instead, we are focused on climate change and DEI.”

Buckout’s military awards include the Distinguished Service Medal; the Bronze Star; the Defense Meritorious Service Medal; and the Joint Staff, White House and Army Staff Badges.

According to Buckout, “If Davis wins this time, he is going to be dug in like a tick.”

For Sandy Smith, will the third time be the charm?

Nash County grassroots activist Sandy Smith estimates she has put over 100,000 miles on her car campaigning for the First District over the last three election cycles. She is a regular at GOP meetings, attending many county clubs and conventions dozens of times.

This is her third time seeking the office. In March 2022, she won the Republican primary, besting second-place finisher Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson. Smith garnered 13,621 votes to Roberson’s 11,603 votes, winning 31.4% of the votes in a field that included six other candidates.

In the November 2022 general election, she was defeated by incumbent Democrat Don Davis. Davis won the race with 134,996 votes to Smith’s 122,780 votes.

In 2020, after winning the Republican primary, Smith was defeated by incumbent GK Butterfield, who won with 54.18% of the vote to Smith’s 45.82%.

Smith was endorsed by former President Trump in 2022, but just before the general election. President Trump has not endorsed in this year’s race. 

However, Smith clearly identifies with team MAGA, recently telling the Rocky Mount telegram: “When asked about my priorities, it’s very simple: Put America first — meaning defend our border, defend election integrity and defend America. My focus is on halting [President Joe] Biden’s liberal agenda, ensuring election security and strengthening border security to crack down on illegal immigration.”

Smith graduated from East Carolina University with a bachelor of science degree in business and technology. Later Smith became a successful business executive in farming, construction, and medical care.

In an interview with Carolina Journal, Smith said, “The people of eastern North Carolina know and trust me. They know I’ll fight for them because I’ve done it before.”

On her relationship with former President Donald Trump, Smith added: “I have stood with President Trump since he first ran and supported Sen. Budd. That’s why President Trump endorsed me in 2022. That trusted relationship is why I’ll beat Don Davis. In fact, I would be the sitting congresswoman right now if we had these maps in 2022. Nancy Pelosi had to spend over $6.2 million just to barely beat me in 2022, and that’s with gerrymandered maps favoring the Democrats.”

Analysis of the race:

The March 5 decision by northeast North Carolina GOP primary voters is critical because defeating Davis will not be easy. Davis is well liked and has tried to position himself as more moderate than many congressional Democrats. 

The race, as primaries often are, is more about style than positions. While the two ladies have different backgrounds, they have similar positions on many key issues.

Smith has lived in North Carolina much longer than Buckout, who settled in Chowan just a few years ago. Also, many of the grassroots are dedicated to Smith because of her dogged work on the campaign trail over the last five years. But others think the GOP needs a fresh face going into 2024, and Buckout’s long and distinguished record of military and national service will likely impress many primary voters.

With a razor-thin margin in the US House of Representatives, Republicans desperately want to capture North Carolina’s sole toss-up congressional district, NC-1 in northeast North Carolina. Whichever of these ladies wins in March is likely to get a lot of help from big donors for the general election battle in November.