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Wake County congressional seat looking promising for Democrats

Even as a Republican running for a GOP held seat, Alan Swain has to level with himself. Things don’t look good for his campaign in the redrawn 2nd Congressional District.

“I’m a realist. It’s a tough, uphill battle,” Swain said. 

Once deep red, the 2nd is now projected to flip blue. The Cook Political Report rates the race “likely Democratic.”

Swain’s opponent, Deborah Ross, is a fixture in the state’s Democratic party. She challenged Republican Sen. Richard Burr in the 2016 Senate race, losing by a narrow margin of 51.1% to 45.3%.

Ross is on the ballot after winning the Democratic primary in March alongside Swain and Libertarian Jeff Matemu, who both ran uncontested.

To the right, NC-2 Republican candidate Alan Swain, wearing a blazer with a US Army pin, stands outside. To the right, NC-2 Democratic candidate Deborah Ross, wearing a white blouse, stands in front of an American flag.
Republican Alan Swain (left) and Democrat Deborah Ross (right) are running for the North Carolina 2nd Congressional District seat. (Credit: Alan Swain; Deborah Ross)

The path to a new Democratic House seat emerged after a panel of judges ruled the old map was unconstitutional due to gerrymandering. In the newly redrawn boundaries, eight districts are expected to lean Republican and five Democrat, compared to the previous 10 to three divide. 

The 2nd District was formerly composed of Franklin, Harnett and Nash counties, and pieces of Johnston, Wake and Wilson counties were mixed in too. In 2016, Franklin, Harnett, Nash and Johnston voted for both President Donald Trump and Burr. 

Now the district is contained solely in Wake County, with the additions of urban Raleigh and Cary providing a Democratic shift to the district’s limits. Meredith College political scientist David McLennan called that an advantage for Ross. 

“Now [the district] encompasses a lot of Wake County, which is very favorable to Democrats,” he said. 

Ross won Wake County 55.33% to 41.51% in her 2016 Senate race.

The new boundaries pushed current Congressman George Holding, a Republican, to not seek reelection.  

“What I have learned about our government, and elections, and public life could fill a book,” Holding said in a public statement announcing his retirement in December. “I should add, candidly, that, yes, the newly redrawn Congressional Districts were part of the reason I have decided not to seek reelection.”

The candidates

Ross’s fundraising adds another advantage. She has raised over $1.3 million through June 30. She had a generous headstart with $57,783 left over from her Senate campaign against Swain, who has yet to hit $100,000. He is running a largely self-funded race and has donated almost $25,000 to his effort. 

Still, the Republican candidate’s resume makes him formidable. As a retired Army colonel, a former executive officer to the White House drug czar for two administrations and a small business entrepreneur, Swain has diverse work experience. His next goal is to support his community with a seat in Washington. 

“I served my country, and now I’m being asked to serve a second time. I was a citizen soldier. And now I’m being asked to be a citizen statesman,” he said.  

Neither candidate was born in North Carolina, but both have woven themselves into their adopted communities. 

Ross arrived in North Carolina over 25 years ago to attend law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She and her husband now live in Raleigh with their dog, Wylie. 

After practicing as a civil rights lawyer, Ross made her political debut running for the North Carolina House of Representatives, where she served for more than 10 years. While in office, she acted as both majority and minority whip, as well as the chair of the Judiciary, Ethics and Election Laws committees. 

Ross said her time as a state legislator allowed her to push her policy agenda while collaborating with other politicians across the aisle.

I brought people together to find solutions, even people I did not always agree with, whether it was government ethics reform, expanding voting rights, increasing pay for educators, or issues of racial justice,” Ross wrote in an email statement. 

She also served as the state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, a point Burr’s campaign used in the Senate race to paint her as too liberal to lead the state

Ross’s involvement in state politics makes her a familiar name on the ballot. She’ll use that popularity  to her advantage, McLennan said. 

“She’s well-known,” he said. “If you look at her time when she was in the Legislature, she spent as much time if not more than any person I’ve ever seen, not just being in her office but going up into her district.”

Swain, who moved to Raleigh in 2017 to spend more time with his three daughters and grandchildren, began volunteering with the North Carolina Republican Party following the 2018 midterm election. 

“Next thing I knew after several interviews they asked me, ‘we want you to run for office,’ and here I am running for Congress,” he said. 

The coronavirus pandemic has allowed Swain to serve his community in a new way. As president of the North Carolina Asian American Coalition, Swain, who is half Japanese, has partnered with 19 other Asian organizations to purchase personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. Together, they have contributed over 50,000 items to more than 60 hospitals in North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and India, according to Swain’s campaign website. He said he has also provided disposable masks to local small businesses out of his own pocket. 

Swain said these acts highlight his commitment to Wake County. That commitment is at the core of his politics, he added. Although he lists priorities such as increasing funding for law enforcement, advocating for school choice and protecting the Second Amendment, he said his focus is on what benefits the 2nd District. 

“I may have conservative views, but I want to do what’s best for Wake County in North Carolina and the city of Raleigh,” he said. “If it doesn’t help Wake County, if it doesn’t help the state of North Carolina, I’m not going to vote in favor.”

The “D.C. gridlock,” motivated him to seek office. Frustrated by a lack of bipartisan collaboration in Washington, Swain said he hopes to draft and support House bills that will have a chance to pass in the Senate. 

He said he’ll follow former President Harry Truman’s advice on navigating D.C.: “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

“I’m not a career politician. I’m not seeking any higher office,” he said. “I don’t need this job. I want to make a difference.”

On her campaign website, Ross outlines nine priorities from access to affordable health care to providing a path to citizenship that keeps families together. Some of her agenda items include creating a public option for health insurance, increasing the maximum Pell Grant award to increase college affordability and protecting access to abortion. 

“I will work to pass paid sick leave, increase the minimum wage, protect and strengthen Social Security, and fight to end inequities in health care and education,” she wrote. 

The path forward

For now, though, Ross and her team are focused on voter registration. 

“My team is working with a coordinated field effort to turn out voters in our district to help elect Democrats up and down the ticket,” she wrote. 

For a Swain victory, there would need to be an increase of Republicans voters in November, according to McLennan. 

“It would take a massive turnout by Republicans and a lower than expected turnout among Democrats for Deborah Ross to lose,” he said. 

The 2nd District boundary contains almost 80% of Wake County. Swain knows in Wake there are 282,534 registered Democrats compared to 184,791 Republicans as of Sept. 5

“There are more Democrats registered in my county or my district than there are Republicans. The whole fight for me has to be in the center,” Swain said. “But that doesn’t change my desire to represent this county.”

Heading into the final two months ahead of election day, Ross has over 25 times the cash on hand at $473,072 compared to Swain’s $18,221. 

Ross has spent over $25,000 so far on Facebook advertisements, mainly used to ask for donations to her campaign and introduce herself to voters. Swain, on the other hand, has spent just over $1,600 on the platform. 

In addition to leading the field in campaign donations, Ross outweighs her opponent with over 25 endorsements ranging from PACs like Emily’s List to unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees. 

Swain has no endorsements listed on his campaign website. 

Despite the imbalance, Swain is not discouraged. For hope, he turns to the campaign logo embroidered on his jacket: an outline of the state filled by the American flag, with a heart over Wake County at the center.  

“We’re the heartbeat of North Carolina,” he said. “If you want the state to stay red, you better focus on Wake County. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”