I envy the folks in the 1st Congressional District.

Living as I do in the 2nd District in Wake County, I am represented by a well-entrenched incumbent Democrat. But it does not matter that she is an incumbent. The district is so heavily tilted towards the Democrats that a Republican can’t win here.

That is not so in the 1st District, where we can expect both parties’ primaries and the general election to be exciting and meaningful.

The 1st is in for a wild November

The Democratic nominee would be heavily favored to win in the 1st District in a typical year. The district, located in the northeastern part of North Carolina, is D+5 (lean Democratic), according to analysis by the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation. In other words, the Democratic nominee should expect to get about 55% of the vote in a typical election year against an evenly matched Republican.

This year is not shaping up to be a typical year, however. The president’s party tends to get punished in midterm elections, often losing dozens of seats in the U.S. House. Polling data paint an even more dramatic picture. The Republican advantage in North Carolina on the generic congressional vote question has grown from 1% to 12% over the past year. If Republicans maintain that advantage through November, many districts that would normally go for Democrats, including the 1st, come into play. 

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Democrats Have a Clear Choice Between a (relative) moderate and a (relative) leftist

An incumbent might be able to withstand a wave election, but 1st District Democratic incumbent G.K. Butterfield announced his retirement in November. Four Democrats filed for the now-open seat, with the two leading candidates offering Democratic voters a stark choice on the kind of person who would replace Butterfield.

Former state Sen. Erica Smith is running as an unabashed progressive, running hard to the left on issues such as abortion and the Green New Deal. Her main rival is state Sen. Don Davis, who has cultivated a more moderate reputation. Actually, both candidates have a relatively moderate voting record in the North Carolina Senate. Davis earned a Civitas Action lifetime Freedom Score of 38.83/100, and Smith was a little more to the left at 30.86/100. 

Real or not, the ideological differences between the candidates are reflected in their endorsements. Davis dominates in endorsements from local politicos. On the other hand, Smith is backed by those further on the left, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the extremist environmental group Sunrise Movement

Davis landed the most significant primary endorsement when Butterfield backed his candidacy. Butterfield said, “This election is all about who can win the election in November, and I’m completely satisfied Don Davis can be the strongest Democrat to beat the strongest Republican in the general election.”

Butterfield’s backing and the moderate nature of Democratic voters in the 1st District give Davis the inside lane for the Democratic nomination.

Republicans Face a Choice in the Battle of the Sandies

Republicans also face a clear choice in style and political approach, if not ideology.

Eight Republicans filed for the 1st District, perhaps a sign of how winnable Republicans think the district is this year. At least at the outset of the race, Sandy Smith was the clear frontrunner.

Sandy Smith, a businesswoman from Ayden in Pitt County, lost to Butterfield 54-46 in 2020. Before that time, the only reelection Butterfield had won by less than 30 percent was in the 2010 Republican wave election. The district was changing, and a Republican could win it in a good year. Redistricting did not alter the district’s fundamentals; it still leans Democratic but is winnable by Republicans in a good year.

She sees herself as a Republican in the Donald Trump mold, and the endorsements she placed on her campaign’s webpage reflect that. Those endorsements include Trump political consultant Roger Stone, former Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Trump national security advisor Gen. Michael Flynn. She also posted her endorsement from Rocky Mount YouTubers Sam Rock & GregB (“I’ve never been in a room with a white woman with that type of energy”).

Rocky Mount mayor Sandy Roberson is the only candidate with the political gravitas and funding to challenge Smith seriously in the primary. He is the only Republican candidate to have held public office and the only candidate with as much money as Smith. He raised $1.1 million to Smith’s $1.3 million, although most of Roberson’s funding came from a loan he gave to his campaign. 

Roberson is a bit of an old-school, good-government conservative who seeks to find practical solutions without spending too much of the taxpayers’ money. It is conservatism without drama.

Sandy Smith started the primary with a huge head start in name ID and support in the district. That will be hard for Roberson and the other six Republicans in the race to overcome.

The May 17 Primary Sets Up a High-Stakes General Election

Regardless of who wins the Democratic and Republican primaries, the winners will almost certainly get significant support from outside groups. That, combined with 2022 shaping up to be a good year for the GOP, means Republicans have a real chance of winning there this year. This year, the usually quiet 1st District will be one of the top races to watch in North Carolina in November.