Months before there were candidates and fundraisers and the omnipresent yard signs, the North Carolina General Assembly decided the outcome of the 2nd Congressional District race. A Democrat would win.
To comply with a court ruling, the Republican leaders of the legislature agreed that the 2nd Congressional District would be their surrendered soldier.
Incumbent Republican George Holding knew this when he announced he would not seek reelection. Democrat Deborah Ross knew it when she launched her campaign for the seat in December 2019. And Alan Swain surely knew it when he agreed to take a bullet for the GOP, running as the party nominee in a race that was inevitably doomed.
No matter how many “Swain for Congress” signs were planted in yards and medians around the district, he could not defeat his greatest enemy: the newly redrawn map.
“Holding’s announcement certainly shed light on the realization that running in this district would be an uphill battle,” Swain said in an email to The 9th Street Journal.
The (almost final) tally: 311,834 for Ross to 172,518 for Swain.
The map got more friendly for Ross because it was reconfigured to solely encompass Wake County, with lots of Democratic voters in Raleigh and Cary.
That’s politics in the age of gerrymandering. Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan group that promotes transparency in government and opposes gerrymandering, says lawmakers can’t resist the temptation to help themselves.
Those who are in power, currently the GOP in North Carolina’s legislature, want to ensure they maintain that power, he said.
The Republicans’ strategy for the maps is to concentrate Democrats into as few seats as possible, according to Phillips.
“The doctrine is lose big and win small when you have the power to draw the maps. And so you’ll pack as many Democratic voters into as few districts as you can,” Phillips said.
This played to Ross’s advantage. In 2018 Wake County elected U.S. Rep. David Price with over 70% of the vote. Ross won by similar margins this election, claiming victory with about 63% of the vote.
For Swain, the new map signaled defeat. For Ross, it meant opportunity.
After a failed U.S. Senate run in 2016, Ross still wanted to represent North Carolina in Washington. But she needed an opening.
“I wasn’t going to run against David Price,” she told The 9th Street Journal in an interview this week. “But when they redrew the maps, I was in a different congressional district.”
As a resident of Raleigh, the redrawn maps moved her out of Price’s district.
“The biggest factor was, new seat, no Democrat,” she said.
Map makers will also make or break Ross’s chances for reelection. With 2020 Census data, the maps will be reconfigured yet again with population growth likely adding a 14th seat for North Carolina. And with that comes the temptation for more gerrymandering.
Above, Swain had lots of signs. But they couldn’t overcome the map. Photo from Swain for Congress campaign.
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.
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.”
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.”