After a volatile and frustrating redistricting cycle in North Carolina, the General Assembly has settled on boundaries for new state house districts. Republicans have spent months wrestling with Democrats and the courts over redistricting, and now that the process is over, they must contend with the fact that it will be more difficult— but not impossible— to attain a supermajority than they had hoped.
There are a number of opportunities that Republicans have to flip House districts across the state.
Wilson County Democrat Linda Cooper-Suggs appears vulnerable in a district that voted for Joe Biden by only 0.8%, as does Hertford County Democrat Howard Hunter, whose district went for Biden by an even closer margin of 0.2%.
But the best pickup opportunity by far for republicans is the 47th District– a predominantly Native American district in Robeson County that voted for Donald Trump by 13 points in 2020.
Incumbent Representative Charles Graham, a conservative Democrat who first arrived to the General Assembly in 2011, is retiring to run for Congress. Since securing his party’s nomination for the 47th District in 2010, Graham has coasted to victory by comfortable margins. He defeated his Republican opponent in 2010 by 34 points. In 2018, he won by 18 points. And in 2012, 2014, and 2016, he ran unopposed.
But Graham, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and retired educator, received an unexpected wake-up call on November 3, 2020 when he defeated his Republican opponent by only 4.8 percentage points— a remarkable shift from his 17.8 percent victory just two years earlier.
The 2020 Campaign
Republicans initially struggled to find a candidate willing to challenge Graham in 2020. Graham’s past election performances made him appear invincible. It was a general consensus in Robeson County that Charles Graham could hold onto his seat for as long as he wanted to. That quickly changed.
At the urging of party leaders, Dr. Olivia Oxendine, a Lumbee college professor and Republican appointee to the State Board of Education, decided to run. But Oxendine’s humble campaign was disadvantaged against Graham, a household name in Robeson County with an insurmountable fundraising advantage.
But despite being the target of negative TV ads and dealing with the struggles of being a first-time candidate, Oxendine exceeded the expectations of most observers by coming within five points of unseating Graham. Though Graham won— outperforming Joe Biden and nearly every other Democrat on the ballot — his closer-than-expected margin of victory underscored the increasingly conservative electorate in Robeson County.
“That race was significant because Ms. Oxendine was really a newcomer to politics, as far as being on the ballot; she was up against an incumbent.. and he [Graham] had all the money behind him; and of course the name recognition,” Phillip Stephens, Vice Chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party and past Chairman during the 2020 election cycle, said. “She really impacted that race because it forced Charles Graham to make a decision. He’s seen the writing on the wall and realized that he simply cannot win in this district again.”
A variety of factors likely contributed to Graham’s decision to forgo re-election and run for congress instead, but the overarching problem for Graham was the district’s steady rightward trend in the last decade.
They’ve already landed a top tier recruit in Marine veteran and former Lumbee Tribal Councilman Jarrod Lowery. Lowery previously ran for the seat in 2018, losing to Graham by 18 points in a bad national environment for Republicans. In addition to Lowery’s background, he has solid connections throughout the district. His brother, John Lowery, was recently elected as the new Lumbee Tribal Chairman by an overwhelming margin. This could benefit Lowery in the 47th District, where nearly half of its electorate are Native Americans.
Also seeking the republican nomination is Mickey Biggs, a retired Lumberton police officer with an extensive background in law enforcement.
Lowery’s community involvement and name recognition make him an early frontrunner in the primary, but Biggs, who is well respected among law enforcement, shouldn’t be discounted yet.
Other prominent republicans, including Oxendine, seriously considered running for the seat, but ultimately decided against it.
Two serious contenders seeking the Republican nomination for District 47, with others who seriously considered it, is typically unheard of in Robeson County, where longtime Democrat-held seats are often left unopposed. The impressive bench indicates how eager Republicans are to flip District 47 in the midterms.
And as if the strong republican bench and rightward trend of the district wasn’t already bad enough for Democrats, they also seem to be struggling to recruit a strong candidate for the seat.
One prominent Democratic candidate, County Commissioner Faline Dial, said that she has no interest in running for the seat and plans to run for re-election instead.
“My intention is to file for the seat I currently hold and I hope to win a second term,” she said.
When asked if she would consider a run, Democrat County Commissioner Judy Sampson – a Lumbee Indian who represents a district that Donald Trump won by double digits in 2020 – flatly declined.
Other prominent Democrats, including former public schools superintendent Johnny Hunt and two-term former Lumbee Tribal chairman Harvey Godwin Jr., have not publicly expressed interest in running.
There is at least one Democrat running: social justice advocate Aminah Ghaffar, who recently filed. But Ghaffar, who only recently moved back to Robeson County from attending college in Washington D.C., doesn’t have nearly the same level of name recognition that other Democrats in the district have. However, the Robeson County Democratic Party is confident that she can win, describing her as a “very viable candidate.”
The candidate recruitment struggles for Democrats might be aided by the fact that Republican Jarrod Lowery has received some noteworthy support from prominent Democrats in the Lumbee Indian community.
Former State Representative Ronnie Sutton, who represented Robeson County in the general assembly for 18 years as a conservative Democrat, recently attended a fundraiser for Lowery.
In addition to Sutton, former Senior Miss Lumbee Pageant winner Mable Moses – who is actively involved in local politics with an audience of elder Lumbee Tribal members on social media – has endorsed Lowery.
There might be one way Democrats can be competitive in District 47. In addition to its predominant Native American population, the District has a sizable Black population— accounting for over a fourth of the district. With former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley leading the Democratic ticket as the likely nominee for U.S. Senate, another Black candidate in District 47 like County Commissioner Wixie Stephens or at-large school board member and hometown hero Vonta Leach could inspire Black turnout. But neither have publicly expressed interest.
With the deadline to file for the seat quickly approaching,Republicans are feeling optimistic about their chances of flipping the seat.
“Absolutely,” said Phillip Stephens said when asked if he believed republicans would flip District 47. “North Carolina is three house, two senate, and two Supreme Court seats away from making Roy Cooper irrelevant. Robeson County [District 47] will be one of those seats.”
But Democrats are adamant that District 47 will remain in their column.
“The Democratic Party is alive, well and getting stronger here in this county despite the herculean efforts of the GOP to stifle and strongarm the voices of this community,” the Robeson County Democratic Party said.
Robeson County’s dramatic political shift in recent years has intrigued observers, and there will be no shortage of attention on Robeson County in 2022.