CLAYTON, N.C. — For a tidy snapshot of our messy country, you could do worse than North Carolina’s newly redrawn 13th Congressional District, where suburb yields to exurb and fields of tobacco and sweet potatoes somehow hold their ground. I had to drive only 15 miles of it to see two versions of America — and to see them at war.
I began in Garner, on the edge of Raleigh, at the Full Bloom coffee shop. The barista had rainbow-colored hair. The menu advertised a vegan bagel sandwich and a “From the Hive” selection of drinks — an orange blossom latte, a lavender blossom latte — made with local honey.
Garner is in Wake County, a Democratic stronghold, and I headed south and crossed into Johnston County, a Republican one. I passed lyrically named residential developments (Annandale, Avery Meadows) that had just gone up or were about to rise. I spotted the C3 megachurch (“real hope for real people in a real world”). And then, just beyond it, I saw the signs, a little thicket of them, positioned proudly in front of someone’s house in the town of Clayton.
“Wake Up People.” “Trump Robbed.” The complaints went on in that dyspeptic vein, and above them fluttered several flags, including one each for two saviors: Jesus Christ and Donald Trump.
But there was also something else, a retort scrawled in white spray paint across the busy two-lane road. “I Love Joe Biden,” it said. To make that declaration, its authors must have taken great pains, working very late at night or very early in the morning. Otherwise, they’d be roadkill.
I visited the 13th District because it’s the site of the only House race in North Carolina that’s considered a tossup, an emblematic contest between a 46-year-old Democrat, Wiley Nickel, with decades of public service under his belt, and a 26-year-old Republican, Bo Hines, who was endorsed by Trump and crows about that whenever, wherever and however he can. On his Twitter profile, his Facebook page and his campaign website, the headshot of Trump is bigger than his own headshot.
But I also toured the district as part of my acclimation to North Carolina, to continue testing my belief that this state — my new home — is as accurate, illuminating and alarming a political mirror of the country as any other. A year after moving here from the People’s Republic of the Upper West Side, I realize that I didn’t so much turn my back on New York City as turn my gaze toward a broader, truer portrait of America right now.
Oh, there are other states billed more frequently as microcosms or bellwethers: Pennsylvania, whose midterm Senate campaign, between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz, is singularly fascinating; Florida, whose governor, Ron DeSantis, is trying out a new, Trump-lite brand of Republicanism; Wisconsin and Michigan, with their slender presidential election margins.
Well, the margins are also svelte in North Carolina, whose voters barely went for Trump in 2020 as they simultaneously gave a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, a second term. And ever since arriving here in July 2021 — or, I should say, returning here, because I attended college at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the mid-1980s — I’ve been struck by the uncanny way in which it finds itself at the center of national events and is confronted by the same big questions that the country is.
Will Republicans capitalize on inflation and successfully caricature Democrats to a point where they win big in the midterms and also exploit that victory to shore up their power well into the future? Is a mix of right-wing warriors this bellicose and progressives this determined even governable?
And what about the recent overturning of Roe? According to a Meredith College poll in May, a slight majority of North Carolinians want abortion rights codified into law or expanded, while 40 percent want them eliminated or significantly curtailed. Other surveys have similarly suggested more support in North Carolina for abortion rights than against them. While Republican candidates in competitive races here didn’t run from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs, Democratic candidates more conspicuously ran toward it, clearly wondering whether their campaigns had just been given a fresh wind.
“People feel very strongly about this issue,” said Cheri Beasley, the Democratic nominee in a pivotal Senate contest here, one of fewer than a dozen around the country considered competitive, when I met with her a week after the decision. “In so many ways, it helped people to see what’s really at stake in this election.”
Beasley, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, would be the first Black senator to represent the state, and she’s a symbol — like Representative Val Demings, who’s running in Florida against Senator Marco Rubio, and Stacey Abrams, who’s challenging Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s bid for re-election — of Democrats’ increased recognition of the crucial role that Black women have played in the party’s fortunes.
Budd has suggested that he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and Beasley readily mentions that.
Her campaign welcomed a surge in donations immediately following the abortion ruling; the $7.42 million that it reported for the period from April through June is the most ever raised in the second quarter of an election year by a Senate candidate in North Carolina. Wiley Nickel in the 13th District also saw an immediate windfall after Dobbs. “It was our best fund-raising day for the campaign ever,” he told me in a telephone interview, when he also vowed, “We’re going to keep hammering this issue.”
But while the outcomes of Nickel’s and Beasley’s bids will be important factors in the balance of power in Congress after November, there are two other races here of potentially greater significance. They’re for seats on the State Supreme Court that are currently held by Democrats, who have a 4-to-3 majority.
That majority enabled them to block state lawmakers’ latest attempts to carve out congressional districts strongly in the G.O.P.’s favor earlier this year. But if the court flips, it’s unlikely to get in Republicans’ way again.
“In terms of scope and ambition, North Carolina has the dubious distinction of being the national epicenter of gerrymandering for decades,” said Asher Hildebrand, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who’s an expert on the issue. (I’m also a professor at Sanford.)
This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a lawsuit filed by North Carolina Republicans that could sideline the state’s highest court on this matter. Those Republicans contend that state legislatures should have unimpeded authority to set election rules in their state, including the gerrymandering of congressional districts. Republicans have majorities in both chambers of North Carolina’s General Assembly, and the midterms aren’t expected to change that. With a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, Republicans would be off to the races.
Already, North Carolina’s congressional delegation is lopsided, with eight Republicans and five Democrats representing a state in which registered Democrats, registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters each account for about a third of the electorate. The state’s increase in population over the past decade earned it an additional 14th District for 2022, and as a result of the redistricting that the State Supreme Court ordered, the likeliest split after November will be eight Republicans and six Democrats or, if Nickel wins, seven and seven.
But unshackled Republicans would certainly change that for 2024, when a split of 10 and four is “probably the best scenario for Democrats,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in North Carolina. “That’ll look like a gift. In my mind, Republicans will try 12 to two if they can. And that will throw the national balance off, because that gives Republicans in the House that many more seats.”
In a chilling article in The Atlantic this month, James Piltch called the state’s combination of partisan judicial elections and practiced gerrymandering a “democratic doom loop,” potentially abetting a degree of Republican dominance divorced from, and unaccountable to, the will of the state’s people. The article’s headline: “North Carolina Is a Warning.”
That hasn’t stopped an influx of newcomers, many of them lured, as I was, by gentler rhythms, more space and a lower cost of living than in many areas in the Northeast or on the West Coast. It’s a beautiful state, bracketed by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a sophisticated state, with nationally renowned universities and fast-growing cities like Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham. It’s a changing state, with new jobs in tech replacing old ones in manufacturing.
And it’s a tense state whose residents are, as Bitzer said, “sorting themselves more and more into like-minded communities.” That was driven home to me when I looked for a house here. I had the vague idea of finding, within a roughly 25-minute drive of Duke’s campus in Durham, some kind of political mix that reflected the state’s reputed political color. I like purple.
But I learned how inexact the “purple” label is. It implies some real blending of red and blue, some halfway point. But North Carolina is purple only if you step far back, the way you do to make sense of a Seurat painting, so that you no longer see the individual dabs and blotches of red and blue.
A blotch of deep blue is where I ended up, 20 minutes from Duke, on the border of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Front yards near mine showcase “Black Lives Matter” and “We Believe” signs. Several neighbors’ first conversations with me were about how to follow the county’s recycling rules correctly.
These days, “the red is redder and the blue is bluer,” said Steve Schewel, who was on Durham’s school board and then its City Council before serving as the city’s mayor from December 2017 to December 2021. During that time, he watched its population increase (it’s now nearly 300,000 people), its culinary and cultural scenes take off, its home prices skyrocket and its politics become more uniform and bolder.
“Durham wants to be a progressive beacon for the South and the nation,” Schewel said, pointing to the welcome mat that it puts out for undocumented immigrants and refugees and to its embrace of diversity. Although there are as many white as Black residents, the City Council is composed of six Black people and one Latina. The mayor, the district attorney, the chair of the school board and the city manager are all Black women.
But Durham’s beacon doesn’t even reach parts of North Carolina with a different political orientation.
“I went to a Chamber of Commerce thing last Friday, and I was the only one in a mask,” said Lynn McCloud Dorfman, the chair of the Catawba County Democratic Party, in the western foothills of North Carolina, when we spoke in early June. “I felt like Hester Prynne, but instead of a scarlet A, I had a blue D. I wore a T-shirt to an outdoor folk festival that said, ‘Keep Calm and Vote Blue,’ and if I had eye contact with somebody in a mask, they’d give me a thumbs-up. Everybody is in their corner on their team.”
Is there any chance that everybody comes a bit closer together? My conversations with both Beasley and Nickel gave me a scintilla of hope. Beasley put less emphasis on partisan differences and cultural schisms than on issues of common concern — for instance, lowering health care costs and prescription drug prices. Nickel repeatedly mentioned his desire to reach across the aisle.
That can, on occasion, happen here. In an article on CNBC.com, Scott Cohn cited instances of such bipartisanship as one reason North Carolina ascended last week to the No. 1 spot in CNBC’s annual ranking of top states for business. “State leaders keep managing to put aside their very deep political divisions to boost business and the economy,” Cohn wrote.
Damon Circosta, the chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, told me, “This is a state that’s most comfortable — more comfortable — forging a middle path.” North Carolina swung sharply right during the first half of the last decade, but then voters denied the incumbent Republican governor, Pat McCrory, a second term and elected Cooper. Two years later, Republicans lost their supermajorities in the state legislature. Cooper, meanwhile, has combined a mild manner and practical approach to remain popular enough that he’s mentioned as a possible presidential contender if Joe Biden doesn’t run again.
But many of the state’s Republicans are anything but mild. After Cooper’s election in 2016, Republican lawmakers vengefully used their majorities in the legislature to diminish the incoming governor’s power. After Richard Burr, the state’s retiring senior senator, joined six other Republicans who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, the state’s Republican Party formally censured him. And after the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, in late May, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Mark Robinson, traveled to the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston to deliver an uncompromising pro-gun speech.
Republicans here chose Budd as their Senate nominee and Hines in the 13th District over less Trumpy alternatives, and both candidates have a talent for provocation. On the home page of Budd’s campaign site, the phrases “Family Man” and “Small Businessman” are smaller than “Liberal Agenda Crusher.” The site’s collection of videos includes one in which he seems to be patrolling the Mexican border with a bulky gun tucked under his belt.
Both he and Hines traveled to Nashville in mid-June for a conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the main political arm of the country’s evangelical Christians. “We are soldiers in God’s army,” Hines said in a speech there, “and we are engaging in spiritual warfare. There are two options. We can fight, or we can fail.”
I want a third option, perhaps symbolized by another scene in Johnston County, just outside the center of Smithfield, where a stretch of road was shared by a church on one side and, on the other, a craft brewery with the motto “Good Beer Brings People Together!” Something has to. In North Carolina, so much else is tearing us apart.
Frank Bruni (@FrankBruni) is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter and can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.