For the first time since 2010, North Carolina is not set to have a top-tier Senate race in a federal election cycle. With Republicans favored nationally, polls showing Republicans ahead by large margins at both the generic ballot and Senate, and a thoroughly uncompetitive House map, the Tar Heel State won’t be the most vital state to watch in 2022.
But despite this, North Carolina voters will head to the polls in two of the most interesting primaries of 2022 – congressional races that might hint at the future direction of each party.
On the Democratic side, the most important primary to watch is in the 4th congressional district, which contains all of Alamance, Durham, Granville, Orange, and Person counties as well as a sliver of Caswell County. At Biden+35, it is the most liberal seat in the state and contains one of the few counties to have voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016, Orange County. While this seat is strongly Democratic seat, it isn’t wholly so – it can be split into roughly three parts:
- Durham County – 324,833 people, Biden+62
- Orange County – 148,696 people, Biden+51
- The rest – 271,504 people, Trump+11
The key county to watch here will be Durham. Despite the far larger population the rest of the seat has, Orange will also punch well above its weight in a Democratic primary due to its overwhelmingly blue nature.
The major candidates on the Democratic side are Valerie Foushee, who represents Chatham and Orange in the State Senate, and Nida Allam, a county commissioner in Durham. Foushee, who is black, has been supported by virtually all establishment Democratic groups, including the AFL-CIO, Congressional Black Caucus, and EMILY’s List, as well as AIPAC.
While Foushee is a reliably liberal vote in the State Senate, progressives have coalesced around Allam, the first Muslim woman elected to office in North Carolina. Allam has received support from the Squad, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and progressive advocacy groups like Brand New Congress and the Sunrise Movement. Former American Idol star Clay Aiken is also running, but isn’t expected to be a major factor.
In many ways, however, the race has turned into a proxy war over the Democratic Party’s stance on Israel. Progressives have responded angrily to AIPAC’s involvement, while Foushee’s advocates have pointed to a long string of anti-Israel remarks, including declaring on Twitter that the United States is the “United States of Israel” and attendance at a rally where the genocidal chant “from the river to the sea” was loudly raised. For her part, Allam wrote an op-ed apologizing for attending and live-streaming the rally and said that “anti-Semitism must have no home” in Israel/Palestine.
Only a handful of polls have been taken in the race, the most recent from EMILY’s List, which showed Foushee up 35% to 16%, with Aiken in third at 10%.
On the Republican side, scandal-ridden incumbent Madison Cawthorn faces a heated primary with a field of candidates all hoping to either win outright or pull him under the 30% needed to avert a runoff. Initially elected on the premise of presenting a new generation of forward-looking Republicans, Cawthorn has since totally unraveled during his time in office. From his participation in the infamous 1/6 rally on, Cawthorn immediately went into office on a bad note – but ever since his infamous comments alleging the existence of cocaine sex orgies, he has faced a relentless stream of opposition research from angry Republicans, both federally and locally.
Cawthorn’s scandals are too numerous to list. In the just the last fews month, Cawthorn has been cited twice for bringing a loaded gun to an airport, been stopped for driving with a revoked license, called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug”, and faced credible allegations of insider trading. Combined with repeated attacks on fellow Republicans for being insufficiently conservative and bizarre attempts to seize control of the state party’s nominations, this has led North Carolina Republicans to either avoid siding with Cawthorn or, like Senator Thom Tillis and leadership in both houses of the legislature, endorse State Senator Chuck Edwards instead.
Incidentally, Edwards only ran in this seat to begin with because Cawthorn originally opted to relocate to Charlotte. Cawthorn only opted to return to his original seat after a redraw – a decision that angered local Republicans, who also point to his closure of campaign offices across the vast, rural, 11th district. For his part, former President Trump has urged voters to give Cawthorn a “second chance”.
While Edwards is the clear leader among the challengers, there are other credible candidates, like Michelle Wodhouse, the 11th district’s GOP chair. If no candidate clears 30% of the vote, a runoff will be held – however, if any candidate does clear this threshold, they’ll be the nominee. Polling has shown Cawthorn declining rapidly in recent months, but no poll has shown Edwards ahead or Cawthorn below the 30% threshold.