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The House Race Democrats Can’t Afford to Lose in North Carolina

Rep. Don Davis thinks he can buck Republican gerrymandering and win over conservatives.

Rep. Don Davis, D-N.C.,  arrives to the U.S. Capitol
Rep. Don Davis is among the four North Carolina House Democrats whose districts became more conservative in the newly drawn congressional maps. Tom Williams/AP

A Republican-led redistricting of North Carolina is driving three of the state’s four vulnerable House Democrats out of Congress and one — Rep. Don Davis — into what will be one of Democrats’ toughest races in the state.

For years North Carolina Democrats have been losing power over the state’s democratic levers from the legislature to the courts. If Davis can pull through, his campaign tactics will be a playbook for his party, who see their only path forward through rural districts like his.

“We’re already losing three Democratic seats. To lose a fourth would have even more daunting implications for the balance of power in the U.S. House,” Democratic strategist and Duke professor Asher Hildebrand said. “This race is significant in North Carolina to at least maintain some representation for Democratic voters, for Black voters in the congressional delegation.”

Davis’ northeast district has not sent a Republican candidate to Washington since 1883 and has consistently elected a Black representative since 1992. But an explicit effort among state Republicans to draw Democrats out of the legislative maps has made his once Democratic-leaning district into a toss-up in 2024.

Elected as a moderate, Davis has been leaning into that brand; he’s adopted some Democrats’ tougher approach on immigration and said that he understood the “frustration” that led to House Republicans’ impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. He didn’t support it though — citing a lack of votes in the Senate.

Still, veteran Democrats in the state are already casting cynical predictions for Davis’ chances.

“I have no confidence that he or any other Democrat will be able to appeal to Republican voters because of the terrible partisanship that we’re experiencing in the country,” former Democratic Congressman G. K. Butterfield told NOTUS about Davis’ chances. Butterfield is Davis’ predecessor in the district and retired in part because of Republican-led redistricting.

A Davis victory could be a marker of hope for his party’s fate in a state that’s trended Republican over the last decade, during which Democrats have lost two Senate races, and every presidential election since Barack Obama in 2008. Democrats lost control of the state’s Supreme Court in 2022, and gave the GOP the ability to override vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper after a Democratic state legislator switched parties.

In deciding to run, Davis stands alone among the sitting North Carolina House Democrats facing difficult races: Reps. Kathy Manning and Wiley Nickel are retiring at the end of their terms, with Nickel eyeing a possible Senate run in 2026. Rep. Jeff Jackson, whose district was most drastically changed from a safe Democratic seat to a safe Republican seat in the new maps, is running for attorney general. None of the lawsuits filed by liberal groups against the new redistricting will interrupt the map’s layout for this year’s elections.

There are some factors going in Davis’ favor. During his tenure in North Carolina’s legislature, Davis’ state Senate district at times touched two of the conservative-leaning areas that will be added to his district. The changes will also bring the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base into the district; Davis comes from a tobacco-farming family and a military background, having spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force.

“I’ve engaged with all of these counties for well over a decade,” Davis told NOTUS.

Even so, the path toward victory is steep.

Each county being drawn into Davis’ district voted for the Republican U.S. House candidate in 2022. Rep. Greg Murphy won both Wayne, which will be the district’s most populous, and Lenoir counties with at least 60% of the vote over Democratic candidate Barbara Gaskins.

Meanwhile, the current district’s Democratic hub — where Davis held a 15% lead over his Republican opponent, Sandy Smith, in 2022 — has been removed and included in what is now the 3rd Congressional District. Smith is running again this year.

“Minority citizens are now preferring to live in metropolitan areas and not in rural communities because of the unavailability of high-paying jobs,” Butterfield said. “This means that the rural areas are becoming more white and more conservative.”

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Democratic leaders in the state agree that the party isn’t reaching exurban and rural voters. Changing that has been a key part of the state party’s strategy going into 2024 and beyond. Nationally, Democrats gained significantly in suburban communities going into the 2016 election and again in 2020. But, over the last decade, Democrats have also lost support at about the same rate in rural, predominantly white areas in North Carolina, a shift that has negated its gains in the suburbs.

The renewed effort to reach out to rural voters is being led by the youngest state party chair in the country, 25-year-old Anderson Clayton. In 2022, Democrats didn’t even field a candidate in one-quarter of North Carolina’s 120 state House races, and in 14 of the 50 state Senate races. This time, they’re hoping that having a candidate in each race will benefit Democrats up and down the ballot.

“The bigger coordination we have there, the better off every single campaign in North Carolina will be,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee spokesperson Abhi Rahman told NOTUS.

DLCC invested seven-figure investments in North Carolina and three other states focused on breaking up Republican supermajorities.

For Davis’ race, drawing in more conservative voters has meant, at times, crossing party lines.

When dozens of House Republicans, led by Speaker Mike Johnson, made a trip to the border at Eagle Pass, Texas, Davis was the only Democrat to take his own trip there in January. Hosted by Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales, Davis came away from the visit saying he saw the need for bipartisan border security and immigration reform.

Davis was also one of just four Democrats to vote for the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act in 2023, citing its greater protections for F-15s at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. His office emphasizes his high marks on a Common Ground scorecard, measuring how much politicians cross party lines. To hear Davis say it, he’s a politician in between party labels.

“If you look at my record and our amazing team, our doors open for whoever comes through the threshold, whether it’s Democrats, Republicans, independents,” Davis said. “Regardless of party affiliation, we share the same issues and concerns.”

None of this has stopped Republicans from attempting to tie Davis to Joe Biden.

“Don Davis is an extremist in sheep’s clothing, hiding his extremism behind pleasantries,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Delanie Bomar told NOTUS in a statement. “Republicans will make sure every voter knows Davis has enabled Biden’s inflationary agenda.”

For now, he’s projecting nothing but confidence.

“I’ve been in tight races over the years and a tight race is nothing of concern to me,” Davis said.

Calen Razor is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.