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Analysis: NC Senate race offers window into world of oppo research

They’re sleuths, professional scandal-hunters. They target senators, presidents, politicians of all stripes, unearthing past gaffes and present improprieties. If there’s dirt, they’ll find it. 

They are opposition researchers, people who assemble negative information, or “oppo,” about political candidates for their clients. If the oppo is spicy enough, it can dominate headlines and define a campaign. 

And lately, they appear to be all over the North Carolina Senate race, where everyone seems to be dumping oppo.

On Oct. 7, the website American Ledger released a story with divorce filings showing that the ex-wife of Republican incumbent Thom Tillis alleged “cruel and inhuman treatment” by Tillis and that living with him would be “unsafe and improper.” American Ledger is paid for by American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC often involved in oppo research. 

The oppo dump was likely an attempt to steer the race’s narrative away from Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham’s recently uncovered extra-marital affair. 

On Oct. 2, the conservative media outlet NationalFile.com posted screenshots of flirtatious text messages exchanged between Cunningham and Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations consultant in California. 

Later that night, Cunningham admitted to sending the texts. The Associated Press eventually confirmed that Cunningham had an in-person sexual encounter with Todd in July. 

Was this a juicy find by Republican oppo researchers? Patrick Howley, the reporter who broke the story, insists it wasn’t.

“I obtained these screenshots from a concerned citizen, NOT through opposition research,” Howley wrote in an email. 

But a veteran Washington journalist who wrote a novel about oppo says the episode has the hallmarks of dirt dug up by a shrewd investigator.

“You’ll never have proof because they’re not going to name their sources necessarily, but it certainly has all the classic footprints of oppo research,” said Tom Rosenstiel, author of “Oppo.” 

“If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” he said. “An oppo duck.”

Making the sausage

For all its notoriety, oppo research begins with the mundane: combing through mounds of information to assemble a profile of a candidate.  

The oppo “checklist” includes tax records, voting histories, business ventures, personal details, divorce proceedings, lawsuits — anything that could be incriminating, said Alan Huffman, an investigative journalist turned oppo researcher who has delved into the lives of over 100 candidates. 

“Even though you’re a hired gun as an opposition researcher, your methods, if you’re doing it properly, are exactly the same as they would be if you were an investigative reporter,” Huffman said. 

In addition to targeting opposing candidates, Huffman also digs up dirt on his own clients, allowing them to anticipate attacks. 

“You look at them with basically the same sort of unjaundiced eye. [It] doesn’t really win you a lot of friends within your own campaign,” he chuckled. 

With the oppo assembled, the client — which could be a campaign, a PAC, a political party or any other independent group — decides the what, when and how of the release.  

Gary Pearce, who served as a senior advisor to former Gov. Jim Hunt, said that he would rely on four categories of information when consulting: the 10 best things about his client, the 10 worst things about his client, the 10 best things about the opposing candidate and the 10 worst things about that candidate. 

“And then I want to take those 40 things, and I want to test them all in some polls. And I want to find out what works,” he said. “And that’s what we’re gonna focus on in the campaign.” 

But after the release, the oppo doesn’t always work as intended.   

“You never know how it’s going to play … sometimes we’ll find something that seems like a total deal-breaker and nobody cares,” Huffman said. “And then sometimes something seems almost inconsequential, and then it gets a life of its own and develops this whole ecosystem and dominates the race.” 

In an era of heightened polarization and changing sexual mores, sexual scandals may not carry as much umph as before. The latest polls still show Cunningham with a slim lead over Tillis. 

And North Carolina voters may be less squeamish than most. 

“North Carolina voters are probably the world’s greatest experts in negative advertising,” Pearce said. “They have seen it for like 40 years. … It is really hard to penetrate their defenses. They have really got up bullshit shields.” 

The Wild West

Detecting oppo can be difficult, since media organizations will rarely admit that it was their source. Still, there are clues.

When a fringe news organization publishes information that would have required a high level of expertise to extract, that’s a sign, Rosenstiel said.

Other clues can be found in the way the information is released. Campaigns will often delay the release of oppo until a moment in the campaign cycle when it could have the most impact — a salacious October surprise. 

Campaigns also rarely publish oppo on their own sites, preferring to leak it to a sympathetic media organization. Think American Ledger, or NationalFile.com.  

“The goal of opposition research is to ultimately change the narrative of the race by distracting your opponent and making them have to respond to your opposition research,” Rosenstiel said. “And the best way to do that is to leak it to a friendly news operation that publishes it.” 

This process has accelerated with the partisan splintering of the media world and the proliferation of online outlets. As “quasi extensions of the party,” these media sites are perfect places to dump oppo, Rosenstiel said.  

“Our media ecosystem has become the Wild West. It’s filled with news organizations that are not really news organizations. It’s filled with partisan websites. It’s filled with places that are financed by political operatives.”

The Internet has changed oppo work in other ways, too. In a matter of minutes, false information about candidates can flit across Twitter and Facebook, feeding off likes, shares and retweets — “viral before it’s even vetted,” Huffman said.  

This complicates the work of oppo researchers. After all, who needs to hunt for evidence when a doctored video can suffice?

“I feel like that has, in some ways, made opposition research obsolete, because it’s a total work around,” Huffman said. “You don’t have to have the facts in order to undertake character assassination.”

At top, screenshots show flirtatious text messages exchanged between Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham and Arlene Guzman Todd, shared by NationalFile.com. 

Fayetteville House race heats up, Democrat outraises incumbent by $600,000

With less than three weeks until Election Day, it’s game on for candidates in North Carolina’s most competitive congressional district. 

For the second time this year, Democratic challenger Pat Timmons-Goodson raised significantly more money than her opponent, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings. She raked in nearly $1.8 million in contributions between July 1 and Sept. 30 with the vast majority — nearly $1.7 million — coming from individual donors. 

Republican incumbent Rep. Richard Hudson brought in just over $1.1 million, with more than $660,000 from party committees and PACs. Timmons-Goodson had previously outraised him during the second quarter filing period by about $517,000. 

The Democrat shelled out more money than she raised, spending upwards of $1.8 million  in the third quarter. She’s left with $612,000 in cash on hand.

Hudson spent almost $1.4 million this quarter. But in contrast to his opponent, he still has more than $1.5 million in cash on hand heading into the race’s final stretch.

Timmons-Goodson confirmed her financial haul on Twitter over a week before the FEC released official numbers. Hudson’s campaign did not release numbers before the Oct. 15 deadline, which perhaps foreshadowed his surprisingly low numbers.

“People who give money to campaigns invest smartly,” said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University. “So the fact that she can put up those kinds of numbers says that there’s, at least, kind of a proof of concept—an idea that’s possible.” Now, for Timmons-Goodson, it’s a matter of turning those dollars into votes, he added.

The gap in fundraising isn’t the only reason to think things are tightening up in the 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Charlotte’s eastern suburbs through Fayetteville and Cumberland County. Here’s why this race could still be up for grabs:

Advertising is heating up — and voters are noticing

Yard signs and mailers and ads, oh my! 

“It’s getting aggressive with the advertising here,” said George Breece, an Army veteran and former state representative who lives in Fayetteville. He said he gets three to four mailers a week (some that are “as big as a damn car”), receives political phone calls and gets inundated with ads on radio and TV.

Both candidates spent more than $1.1 million on digital, radio and TV advertising, according to the most recent FEC filings. Factoring in mailers would bump the total even higher.

It’s typical for campaigns to advertise more as the election draws closer, Cooper said. But when there’s exponential growth in the amount of ad spending, that’s a sign of a competitive race.

“It has been and remains the most competitive district in the state,” he said of the 8th District.

‘Judge Softie’: Hudson releases first attack ad against Timmons-Goodson

Hudson’s latest ad brands Timmons-Goodson as “soft on crime” and assigns her the pejorative moniker “Judge Softie.” 

After opening on a photograph of the Democrat in judicial robes behind a court bench, the ad’s female narrator alleges Timmons-Goodson “let a man walk free who stole half a million dollars from his church” and “opposed putting tracking bracelets on sex offenders because it would ‘add to their shame.’” 

“Timmons-Goodson — too soft on crime, too liberal for Congress,” coos the narrator near the end of the video. 

Hudson’s campaign manager Robert Andrews told The 9th Street Journal in August that the campaign would focus its energy on Hudson’s accomplishments rather than attacking his Democratic opponent. 

“People always want to see going on the attack, or that sort of thing,” Andrews said in that August interview. “That’s not the deal right now. We just want to make sure that folks know who Richard Hudson is, especially in those new parts of the district.”

Andrews did not return phone calls seeking clarification on the change in tactics, but the shift likely means Hudson’s campaign views the race as more competitive than originally thought. 

“Hudson running attack ads is a sign that it’s possible that he could lose, and that he thinks that,” Cooper said. “There’s no need to get in the ditch if you don’t have to.”

Toss-up territory? ‘Lean Republican’ rating subject to change, national analysts say

As soon as the legislature released new congressional maps in 2019, Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed Hudson’s rating from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican.” The new maps, which axed Republican-heavy Rowan County and added the rest of Cumberland County, made the 8th District competitive for the first time since Hudson unseated Democrat Larry Kissel in 2012. 

Now ranked as “lean Republican,” the 8th District is the only seat in North Carolina from either party that’s ranked as anything other than “safe” or “likely.”

“Back in ‘08, the only seat that flipped in North Carolina — it was a Republican to Democrat flip — was in the 8th District when Larry Kissel beat Robin Hayes,” said Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “It could well be the only seat that flips again.”

Coleman said he agreed with Cooper that the 8th District is the most competitive congressional race in the state. In order to move it to “toss-up,” he and his colleagues Kyle Kondik and Larry Sabato would want to see public polling that shows Timmons-Goodson ahead, or statewide polling that shows Biden ahead, which could hint at a wave election. Both have emerged in recent weeks.

“On election night, when I’m watching the results come in, the first district I’m going to look at in North Carolina is going to be district eight,” he said. 

At top, incumbent Richard Hudson and Pat Timmons-Goodson are vying for the 8th Congressional District. Photos from their campaigns.

Analysis: Cawthorn employs a national ad strategy while Davis stays local

The poetry of American politics is now written in emojis and hashtags. In North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, the emojis are wavy American flags and the hashtags are Western North Carolina towns. 

The animated star-spangled banners belong to Madison Cawthorn, the Republican candidate, who uses the icons in subtle national calls for financial support to galvanize potential donors who don’t even live in his district. That red, white, and blue might work particularly well among the GOP donor pool. A 2007 Pew Research Center  report showed that 73% of Republicans say they display the flag at home, in their office, or on their car, while only 55% of Democrats do. 

In contrast, the Facebook ads Democrat Moe Davis directs to voters within his district come complete with hashtags denoting local cities and photo backdrops of Western North Carolina’s rolling blue mountains. 

Although one might expect the 37-year age gap between the congressional candidates to be reflected in their ad campaigns on Facebook, each candidate employs their own savvy strategy to target their intended audience — one national, one local. 

The two candidates primarily focus their advertising on Facebook, investing much more money on the platform than Google and Youtube. Davis is also running ads on WLOS-TV. At the time of publishing, Cawthorn had spent $163,756 on Facebook, and Davis had spent $36,816. 

Cawthorn: A National Approach

The moment President Donald Trump phoned Cawthorn from Air Force One to call his primary win “beautiful” was the moment Cawthorn launched his pro-Trump brand as a valiant warrior against “radical leftists.” 

“Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Pro-Law Enforcement,” read the caption of one ad posted in August.

Cawthorn’s appeal to Republicans on a broader, national level is evident in his villainization of high-profile Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez make more appearances in Cawthorn’s Facebook ads than Davis does. One ad pictures Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez with Rep. Ilhan Omar, all covered in a monochromatic blood-red hue while posing adjacent to a photo of Mount Rushmore. “Add your name to fight back against the mob!” the caption reads. 

An ad posted by Madison Cawthorn’s campaign shows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar covered in a red hue while posing adjacent to a photo of Mount Rushmore. “Add your name to fight back against the mob!” the caption reads. (Courtesy of the Facebook Ad Library)

“Your support will help me combat Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and AOC,” reads the caption of another ad. 

Cawthorn’s Facebook ads didn’t mention his opponent by name until September. However, he recently launched a website and Facebook community (currently four followers strong) called Moe Taxes, dedicated solely to attacking Davis. 

Cawthorn’s strategy to garner support on a national level is underscored by Facebook ads utilizing buzzwords and phrases like “radical leftists,” “left-wing mob,” and “the socialist Left.” This language further polarizes voters, signals his alignment with the Republican agenda, and makes his ads generalizable to a broad audience beyond Western North Carolina. 

What’s the point of focusing on voters that won’t even have Cawthorn’s name on their ballot? Money. Like a signature at the end of a document, nearly all of Cawthorn’s ads on Facebook have a bold box in either red, white, or blue that says “DONATE NOW.” 

That strategy seems to be working. Compared with Davis, a greater proportion of Cawthorn’s individual contributions come from out-of-state, according to financial records from the Federal Election Commission analyzed by Open Secrets.

These advertising tactics and fundraising successes are in conflict with how Cawthorn has said congressional elections should run.

“I believe I should only be able to fundraise inside of District 11. That would mean that I owe my successes only to the people that I represent,” he said at a Sept. 9 debate.

Davis: A Local Approach

Davis is keeping it local, often addressing Western North Carolina voters directly in ad videos or captions. 

Unlike the all-encompassing American flag that Cawthorn garnishes his ads with, Davis applies hashtags, used to increase engagement and draw in audiences of interest, for specific counties in District 11.

#asheville #brevardnc #hendersonvillenc #wnc #nc #waynesvillenc #sylvanc #cullowhee #franklinnc,” were among some hashtags Davis used in ads where he talked about legalizing marijana and making Western North Carolina the “epicenter for alternative energy.” 

The tagged locales paint a clear picture of Davis’s targeted region. He’s focused on the “#blueridgemountains” area.

Those hallmark mountains also appear as Davis’s background for ads, further signaling his focus on Western North Carolina.

In a Facebook ad that ran regularly from August through September, Davis flaunted a poll conducted by his campaign that put the two in a “DEAD HEAT!”

A Facebook ad posted by Moe Davis’s campaign declared the District 11 race a “DEAD HEAT!”

The graphic shows Davis and his campaign logo, which features mountains, with 40% of the vote and Cawthorn, his name in plain black text, with 42% of the vote. 

In the caption, Davis distilled the choice down to “a 25-year veteran,” or a “25-year old QAnon believer.” 

On Oct. 8, Davis’s active Facebook ads were almost exclusively shown in North Carolina. Many of Cawthorn’s active ad campaigns were primarily viewed in California, Texas, and Florida, while several were primarily viewed in North Carolina, according to the Facebook Ad Library.

The local focus that anchors the content and targeting of Davis’s Facebook ads extends through his campaign. At the Sept. 9 debate, he made it clear he’s staying in the district. 

“Since the first of the year, I’ve left the district for one night. My opponent’s been jetting around the country with the Trump kids and up in Washington,” said Davis.

‘I feel like nothing’s changed’: Black voters seek change through Triad congressional race

The Woolworth’s store on South Elm Street marks the start of downtown Greensboro. Its lunch counters, the catalyst of a national wave of sit-ins in 1960, are part of civil rights history that pulses through the city.

Sixty years later, there are new signs in downtown Greensboro that the movement for racial justice is still underway — and unfinished. The words “Black Lives Matter” are everywhere, including South Elm Street, painted onto the asphalt between February One Place and Washington Street.

In North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, which includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point, some voters will be carrying those words to the polls this year. The recently redrawn district is predicted to vote overwhelmingly blue — Kathy Manning, the Democratic candidate, is highly favored — but for some of its Black residents, whose desires are neither monolithic nor zeroed on police, words are not enough. Wary of sweeping campaign commitments, they are seeking material improvements for their communities.

“I feel like nothing’s changed. I feel like it’s just more in the spotlight,” V. R. Baker, who has lived in Greensboro for 23 years, said. But national protests following the police killing of George Floyd have shifted her perspective. “Demonstrating was beautiful because it woke people up. It was like an earthquake that woke people up.” 

“When the George Floyd situation came through, it just opened up old wounds,” said Jaye Webb, chair of the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission. 

For the Triad area, the wounds are deep and many: the 1979 killings of five residents by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party during a march supporting Black textile workers where police failed to intervene, the 2018 police killing of Marcus Deon Smith, the 2019 killing of John Neville in Forsyth County Detention Center in Winston-Salem, long-unmet needs for basic community care and investment.

“Politicians, they say a lot of things, but they don’t necessarily act on them,” Ryan Upton, a junior at North Carolina A&T State University, said. “You can say it in front of us, but then when we’re going back to work and living our everyday busy lives, it’s like, okay, who really is doing it?”

The candidates have staked out distinct positions on the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a statement after Floyd’s killing, Manning wrote: “Too often, too many act as if black lives don’t matter. They do.”

Her campaign has neither discussed race further on its website, nor run Facebook or Google ads about race, according to online databases. 

During an interview with The 9th Street Journal, Lee Haywood, the Republican candidate, said: “I’m for ‘all lives matter.’ Yes, Black lives are included in there as well, but all lives matter.”

His campaign has not discussed race further on its website, though his first “issue” is public safety. His campaign has run one Facebook ad about the Black Lives Matter movement, which reads: “I belong to the oldest Black Lives Matter group in the nation: the Republican Party!” 

The candidates have not made clear what actions they plan to take in office against structural racism and police brutality.

Manning supports a ban on hogtying, the police practice that killed Smith and Neville, and she endorses the Justice in Policing Act, the House Democrats’ police reform bill, which she called “an important first step” in a statement without enumerating subsequent steps.

Haywood does not have a public plan. “The Republican Party, we’re not promising the Black people anything,” he said. “We’re not promising any checks. We’re not promising any freebies. We’re going to leave you alone as much as possible.”

In this moment of racial reckoning, though, Black voters say that they are not asking for “checks” or “freebies,” but for the government to repair systemic problems and tangibly serve communities in need.

“The problem is so deep-rooted. I would say, focus on mental health, expanding public education and the resources that it has, and also trying to secure these families that may not even have a place to live,” said Demetri Banks, a senior at A&T, referencing the low-income neighborhoods surrounding the university. “If we focus on that, everything will trickle down.”

Black voters interviewed by The 9th Street Journal said that when defunding the police is mentioned, it is about a need to realign budget priorities and redistribute funding to properly address social gaps.

“‘Defund the police,’ I feel like, is a stretch because they’re still needed, but I feel like if you’re going to give the money and resources to one emergency field, you should give it to the other,” said Christopher Slade, who has lived in Greensboro for 19 years. “If you have the resources to invest in police, tear gas, rubber bullets, then I feel like you should be able to invest in hospitals and help COVID research.”

Joy Kirk, who has lived near High Point for three years, has worried as much about her children’s interactions with the police as she has about her children’s safety after a recent rash of shootings in Greensboro and High Point.

“If the system wasn’t set up the way it was and designed for us to fail to begin with, there would be less Black-on-Black crime. But that justifies someone else, that’s held to a higher stature, to shoot and kill us?” she said.

In Webb’s work with the advisory commission, community members have urged broader investment in employment opportunities, healthcare, and crime prevention programs such as midnight basketball. 

“I don’t think we can allow police to police the police. I think if we don’t make moves on that, we could see the next Minneapolis,” he said.

For Webb and the commission, those moves involve increased transparency: repealing laws that could conceal police misconduct, establishing nationwide police decertification records, and making records about police personnel and correctional facilities widely accessible.

“It’s not in the matter of defunding the police from existence. I think it is reappropriating funds into other opportunities that would allow for communities to have resources,” he said. “Hopefully, our elected officials will understand not only that this is the right time, and that it’s not going away no time soon.”

What it means to support the military to Fort Bragg House candidates

Most Americans don’t think about war every day. Many don’t even personally know a service member or veteran. At Fort Bragg, the nation’s largest Army post and one of the world’s largest military bases, the word carries a different meaning. 

“War is not just three letters in the alphabet here. It’s a way of life,” said George Breece, an Army veteran, former state representative and former chairman of the North Carolina Military Affairs Commission.

With its outsized influence in the 8th Congressional District, Fort Bragg automatically has the ear of its Washington delegation. Now, voters of the 8th District — which stretches from Charlotte’s eastern suburbs eastward to Cumberland County — must decide who they want as Fort Bragg’s next House representative. 

A military town that ‘beams with pride’

More than 120,000 soldiers and military family members live on base at Fort Bragg, and roughly 140,000 more live nearby in Fayetteville and other communities, said Elvia Kelly of Fort Bragg’s public affairs office. As the largest metropolitan area in the 8th District, Fayetteville’s voters could play a large role in the outcome of the congressional election.

One could think of Fayetteville as a “monotown” with one big employer: Fort Bragg. It’s hard to understate the installation’s influence on the local economy, said Kelli Cardenas Walsh, an Army veteran and a history and military studies professor at Fayetteville State University.

“People on both sides like to remind the community that without Fort Bragg, the economy of Fayetteville would greatly suffer, and I have no doubt about that,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, the Fayetteville community “beams with pride” and strongly supports the military, Breece said. But there’s also a downside to living near a major base. The community hurts when someone from Fort Bragg gets injured or killed in combat, said Dan Dederick, a retired Marine and one of North Carolina’s civilian aides to the secretary of the Army.

“You know these people, you like them, you go to church with them, your kids go to school with them,” Dederick said. “And then when something bad happens, they get killed or wounded, it’s real close and personal.” 

The base makes that close-knit community more diverse, too. Fort Bragg attracts people from around the country, Breece said, and sometimes service members marry overseas. The city hosts an international folk festival each year with a parade of nations to celebrate the different cultures represented. 

That combination of diverse city and traditional military base makes for intriguing voter demographics in Cumberland County: 43% of voters are registered Democrats, 23% are registered Republicans and nearly 33% are registered independents, according to Sept. 19 numbers from the North Carolina State Board of Elections. 

Unlike the rest of the 8th District counties, which traditionally vote Republican, Cumberland County historically votes Democratic. It was previously split between two districts, with the city of Fayetteville divided down the middle. 

This year, though, the redrawn maps reunite the entire county in one district and concentrate the power of the Fayetteville vote.

A proven incumbent, or a hometown challenger?

The incumbent in the race, Republican Rep. Richard Hudson, proudly calls himself “Fort Bragg’s congressman.” Serving the base is his “most humbling and most important duty,”  spokesperson Greg Steele said. Hudson’s commitment to Fort Bragg is proven by recent victories, Steele said, citing increased hazardous duty pay for certain troops and the creation of a pathway for service members to seek malpractice compensation from military health care providers

But Pat Timmons-Goodson, the 8th District’s Democratic challenger and the child of a Fort Bragg military family, argues Hudson has not earned the moniker he’s adopted. Standing up for soldiers, veterans and military families involves more than passing favorable legislation, she said.

“What our veterans and service members need are folks who will stand up with them in tough times,” she said. “That’s what leadership is, and that’s what it calls for.”

She criticized Hudson for his silence after intelligence officials concluded that Russians placed bounties on the heads of American soldiers and for his absence during a vote on the latest National Defense Appropriations Act. (Steele confirmed to The 9th Street Journal that Hudson was indeed not present for the vote.)

“I do believe that my opponent puts his political fortune ahead of the people within our district, including our military families and veterans,” she said. 

Hudson declined The 9th Street Journal’s request for an interview. Breece, who knows both candidates personally and will not endorse one, praised Hudson’s accomplishments and said he deserves the “Fort Bragg’s congressman” designation.

“Without question,” Breece said. “He’s worked very hard to get funding for whatever Fort Bragg needs.”

Rep. Richard Hudson, the Republican incumbent, stands outside Fort Bragg’s headquarters with Lt. Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla of the 18th Airborne Corps (left) and U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette (middle). Photo taken on Aug. 18. Courtesy of the Hudson campaign.

If reelected, Hudson will continue prioritizing military and veterans affairs, Steele said. His top priorities are pushing for additional funding to improve on-base housing and passing a bill he introduced in January to extend healthcare benefits for veterans’ caregivers. 

‘Losers’ and ‘suckers’

A piece published by The Atlantic in early September said President Donald Trump called service members who died in combat “losers” and “suckers” for “getting killed.” He also reportedly told former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” while visiting the gravesite of Kelly’s son, who was killed in action in Afghanistan 

As more news outlets, including CNN, the Associated Press and Fox News, confirmed various pieces of the story with their own reporting, Hudson took to Twitter to bash the article as “garbage” and a “hit piece.”

“I was there the next day when he stood in the rain to honor our fallen,” Hudson tweeted in the president’s defense. 

Steele offered no further comment, but said voters should look at Hudson’s track record to see what he’s done for the military community.

Timmons-Goodson, however, was outspoken on Twitter in her criticism of the president’s reported remarks.

“My father, brothers, nephews, and neighbors are not ‘losers’ or ‘suckers,’” she tweeted. Her father, Edward Timmons, served as a sergeant first class and an 82nd Airborne Army Ranger at Fort Bragg. “We all should honor the sacrifice of those who serve, our leaders should too,” she added.

A soldier, the father of congressional candidate Pat Timmons-Goodson, Edward Timmons, served as an Army Sergeant First Class and an 82nd Airborne Ranger at Fort Bragg and stands in military gear with a gun over his shoulder and a helmet on in a faded photo. Courtesy of the Timmons-Goodson campaign.
Candidate Pat Timmons-Goodson’s father, Edward Timmons, served as an Army sergeant first class and an 82nd Airborne Ranger at Fort Bragg. Courtesy of the Timmons-Goodson campaign.

Amidst the debate, Breece sees common ground: both candidates highly value the military. He’ll feel good about the election’s winner regardless of who it is. 

“Both of these candidates are very good and decent people, and they both understand Fort Bragg,” Breece said. I am confident that Fort Bragg will be well served.”

Democratic congressional candidate Pat Timmons-Goodson, left, speaks with three Fort Bragg veterans outside. All are wearing masks.
Democratic congressional candidate Pat Timmons-Goodson, left, speaks with Fort Bragg veterans. (Courtesy of the Timmons-Goodson campaign)

Why Moe Davis thinks he can win the Western North Carolina congressional seat

Never mind what the pundits and the prognosticators think. Moe Davis says he has a fighting chance to win the 11th Congressional District in Western North Carolina because his opponent is inexperienced and the district has new lines that make it more winnable for a Democrat.

In a wide-ranging interview with The 9th Street Journal, Davis, the Democratic nominee, said the district may have voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but voters have become disillusioned with the president and his party. That lack of enthusiasm should help Davis defeat his Republican opponent, 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn. 

According to The Cook Political Report, the 11th District is rated likely Repubican. But Davis said that evaluation is too dependent on results from the 2016 presidential election. 

Davis said the most revealing statistic about the new district isn’t Trump’s 17 point margin over Clinton in 2016. It is the more narrow 6.5 point margin in the governor’s race the same year.

“Two polarizing New Yorkers are probably not the best barometer for Western North Carolina,” said Davis, referring to Trump and Clinton. “The Roy Cooper, Pat McCrory governor’s race [is] a better measure.” 

That indicates the race is “doable,” Davis said. “And our polling is showing that we can win.”

Internal campaign polls are always questionable because they are often used to persuade donors to give money and to convince journalists that a race is winnable. But Davis insists his poll, conducted in July, shows real promise for his campaign.

Respondents were more supportive when they were read information about the candidates’ records and policy stances. By the last question, they preferred him 52% to 35%, he said.

“Our challenge over the next 48 days is to inform the voters so they can make an educated choice,” he said in the interview Wednesday. 

Davis was dressed casually in a denim button-down shirt and sat in front of a Zoom background with blue mountains and stars and stripes. Among the highlights: 

  • Davis was unapologetic about angry tweets in recent years that sometimes were vulgar or called for violence. He said that as a commentator for CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and NPR, “you tend to use bombastic language because you want to get noticed.” He compared himself to Seb Gorka and Rick Wilson, who have also generated controversy with their tweets and comments.
  • Asked about the spectrum of ideologies of the Democratic Party, Davis said he considers himself a moderate Democrat.
  • After the election, Davis plans to go to one of the many breweries in Asheville. “Win or lose, I’m getting an IPA and sitting on the porch,” he said.

At top, Moe Davis in an interview with The 9th Street Journal with his patriotic Zoom background. 

Trump, GOP slow to support Republican for Greensboro House seat

The Trump rally in Winston-Salem on Sept. 8 was as much a campaign stop for the president as it was a reward for political allies.

“Representatives Greg Murphy, Virginia Foxx, Mark Walker, Dan Bishop, and Ted Budd, what a group. What a group. What a group, thank you fellas. They’re warriors. Boy, I’ll tell you, those House guys, they were in there, they were fighting for us,” Trump said halfway through his hour-long remarks, peering over an elevated podium at the recipients of his praise.

On cue, rallygoers cheered, waving red, white, and blue signs from the tarmac at Smith Reynolds Airport.

A few minutes later, the president directed his supporters to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Republican candidate for governor, and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, Republican candidate for attorney general.  Applause erupted once more for both candidates, familiar faces from speeches preceding Trump’s.

Lee Haywood, Republican candidate for North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, which includes Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point, sat three rows in front of the president. He went unmentioned. 

“Loved it, loved it, loved it,” Haywood said of the rally. “I like to hear Donald Trump get up there and tell the truth the way he sees it.”

The rally was a continuation of the candidate’s unreciprocated adulation of president and party, even as the GOP seems to be giving up and cutting its losses in the former Republican stronghold. Kathy Manning, the Democratic candidate, is heavily favored to win. Haywood has troubles with visibility and money, and the Republican establishment has balked at backing his campaign. The president not mentioning Haywood during a visit to the candidate’s district is only the latest example.

Last year, the General Assembly redrew the 6th’s lines from eight predominantly rural counties to Guilford County and part of Forsyth County. In the new district, Hillary Clinton won by over 20 points in 2016. No House Republican elected in 2018 represents a district that voted for Clinton by more than four points.

“It’s not just a major long shot. It’s an impossibility,” said David Wasserman, House editor at The Cook Political Report. “Republicans have abandoned [the district] for good reason, because it’s unwinnable.”

The new borders signal underlying social and political change in North Carolina’s Triad. If the district were on the ballot in the late twentieth century, it would have been very competitive, Wasserman said. But the urbanization of the Triad has driven a major blue shift.

“That’s probably not an area that [Republicans] would be too wise to invest their resources,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

One of those resources is the president’s political capital, which has not yet been spent on Haywood. 

“There’s no reason for Trump to mention Haywood. It would not have any kind of beneficial effect for the president or Haywood,” Wasserman said.

Haywood remains loyal to the president. One of his campaign Facebook’s first posts since the rally announces plans to attend a “Trump convoy and ride” in nearby Alamance County on Saturday, an event unlikely to provide much-needed local name recognition.

The campaign has also struggled with fundraising. Up to the most recent campaign finance filing on June 30, the Haywood campaign raised $15,365, while the Manning campaign raised $1.4 million. As of Sept. 13, Haywood estimated that his campaign has now raised a total of about $60,000.

“I’m going up against a very wealthy person over here. She can self-fund her campaign, and I’m just a regular guy,” Haywood said. Campaign finance filings show that Kathy Manning has made one $67.06 contribution to her own campaign.

Closing the gap has been impeded by the coronavirus pandemic, which has already shuttered six months of opportunities to woo voters face-to-face. What Haywood calls “a narrow path to victory” is now even narrower. He said he is focused on social media and grassroots outreach, so in an effort to materialize his campaign, in-person doorknocking is slated through the next month.

“The heavy hitters that usually give money, they’re reluctant to do so,” Haywood said. “Everybody knows this is a tough race. They’re starting to come through. They’re starting to realize that this is a winnable race.”

While the Forsyth County and Guilford County GOPs have supported the campaign since its start, Haywood declined to comment on state and national support. However, he said that the Trump campaign was aware of his own and that he hoped for a shoutout if the president returns to North Carolina — Haywood’s best bet against a difficult pandemic and a difficult map.

“About the only thing my campaign is missing is a swarm of locusts,” Haywood said.

Update: This story has been corrected to indicate that Kathy Manning has made one $67.06 contribution to her own campaign. An earlier version incorrectly said she had not made any.

The many controversies of Madison Cawthorn add intrigue to Asheville race

On the third night of the Republican National Convention, the would-be youngest member of Congress, Madison Cawthorn, got a moment in the national spotlight when he gave a speech in front of more than 17 million viewers. But his national debut was marked by a gaffe when he mistakenly said James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence.

Instead of being celebrated as a rising star, Cawthorn faced stories that said he had fumbled American history.

It was a high-profile misstep for the candidate from Western North Carolina whose campaign has been marked by several controversies in the past few months. He has come under criticism for a 2017 Instagram post celebrating his visit to Adolf Hitler’s vacation home known as “Eagle’s Nest,” which he said had been on his “bucket list for awhile,” and “it did not disappoint.” He referred to Hitler as “the Führer,” a German term of reverence.

Cawthorn also has a real estate investment company called SPQR Holdings LLC, which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, a Latin term for the Senate and the Roman People that some people link with white nationalist groups. 

His Democratic opponent Moe Davis has seized on the controversies to portray the 25-year-old Republican as naive and out of step with the 11th Congressional District, which has new boundaries for the 2020 election that make it more friendly for a Democrat. In a statement to CNN, Davis said the controversies “paint a pretty clear picture of someone that’s got some explaining to do.”

Perhaps. But the district, formerly home to Mark Meadows, now the White House chief of staff, is still considered pretty safe territory for a Republican.

The candidates 

Cawthorn, a business owner from Hendersonville, North Carolina who has not held elected office before, wants to claim Meadows’s open seat. 

Cawthorn was home-schooled in Henderson County and spent one semester at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia before dropping out. He worked at a Chick-fil-A restaurant and as a staff assistant to then-U.S. Rep. Meadows.

AVL Watchdog, a local news website in Asheville staffed by Pulitzer Prize winners, has revealed inconsistencies in Cawthorn’s campaign biography, which suggested that he was unable to attend the U.S. Naval Academy because of a car accident that left him partially paralyzed. But AVL Watchdog obtained a deposition in which Cawthorn acknowledged that his application to the Academy had already been rejected before the crash. He is now CEO of a real estate investment company and a motivational speaker. 

Cawthorn has said he wants to be a voice for Generation Z, those born in the late 90s and early 2000s, and is running to oppose “AOC, The Squad and the radical left-wing mob,” referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats.

His opponent is Davis, 62-year-old retired Air Force colonel and former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. Davis earned his bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University and his law degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law. 

A once ardent prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay and defender of the terrorism policies, Davis resigned when he refused to be pressured by what he alleged was political influence from the Bush administration to streamline high-profile terrorist cases and use evidence obtained by waterboarding. He then became a vocal critic of the handling of cases there and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which critics say is a euphemism for torture. In 2008, Davis testified on behalf of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s personal driver, a fact that Cawthorn uses as ammunition to call Davis a “terrorist defender” on a website Cawthorn created to attack his opponent. 

In 2011, Davis joined the faculty at Howard University School of Law, and in 2015 he became an administrative judge with the U.S. Department of Labor, retiring last year.

Davis told AVL Watchdog that he decided to run for Congress after surveying the likely candidates and deciding that he had the strongest credentials to take on Meadows. 

“I was disappointed when [Meadows] dropped out of the race because I thought he was an easy target,” he said to AVL Watchdog.

Davis now faces a candidate who lacks experience but has star power in the Republican Party. 

In June, Cawthorn pulled off an upset when he beat Trump-endorsed Lynda Bennett in a runoff. Cawthorn then made it clear that he supports Trump and has tied himself closely with the president. He sums his positions up on his Facebook ads with a four-point list: “Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-Gun and Pro-Law Enforcement.” 

That seems to have pleased the president.

“Madison Cawthorn, a real star. You’re going to be a star of the party,” Trump said to a crowd of supporters at the Flavor 1st Growers and Packers facility in Mills River on August 24. Cawthorn, bound to a wheelchair from a car accident that left him partially paralyzed at 18, beamed as he sat maskless in the crowd. 

Controversies

Cawthorn has been on the defensive because of the controversies. 

 In addition to the visit to Hitler’s home and the name of his company, he has been criticized for a July appearance at a private border wall in El Paso, Texas.

AVL Watchdog reported that his Instagram video in front of the wall included debunked claims about human trafficking of American children across the border. The claims originated with the far-right conspiracy movement, QAnon

Cawthorn’s spokesperson John Hart told AVL Watchdog that the candidate “categorically disavows QAnon.” 

Davis seized the opportunity to call out Cawthorn for a lack of integrity. 

“My QAnon cult, alt-right opponent’s #StolenValor effort proves the USNA made the right call,” Davis tweeted, referring to his rejection from the Naval Academy. 

Where they stand

The candidates generally follow their parties on the major issues in the campaign. Davis supports a public option healthcare system, which consists of expanded Medicare while still allowing people to opt for private insurance. Cawthorn wants to foster a competitive free-market system that he predicts would “drive down costs.”

For gun rights, Cawthorn advocates for few restrictions while Davis supports background checks, red-flag laws, and  restrictions for purchasing assault weapons that are similar to a concealed carry permit.

When asked about reparations to compensate people for slavery and racial inequality, Cawthorn said he strongly opposed the idea and called the concept “racist.” Davis supports it and thinks the recently approved reparations resolutions passed by the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission should be expanded to the federal level.  

Both candidates agree on the importance of securing broadband service in rural areas, but they disagree on how to do it. Davis supports HR 7302 Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act that would use $80 billion of funding to provide internet access for rural communities. Cawthorn proposes a reform to the formula used by the federal government for payments in lieu of taxes to give local governments more money to fund their unique infrastructure needs. He also suggests offering tax incentives to corporations to provide the service. 

Redistricting

The Republican grip on the 11th District has slightly diminished in the new map. The district now has all of Buncombe County, including liberal Asheville, which had been partly carved out of the old map.

That made the district more competitive, said Chris Cooper, professor of political science at Western Carolina University.

“It made it possible for Davis,” he said. 

The Cook Political Report recently downgraded the district from a solid Republican district to likely Republican. 

Counties now included in the district are Polk, Avery and parts of Rutherford, all three of which voted for Trump in the 2016 election. Trump won Polk by 28.2 points and Rutherford and Avery by about 50 points each. But Burke and Caldwell, two counties that also heavily voted for Trump, were moved to the 5th District. 

Still, that’s only a small boost to Davis.

“Even with redistricting, even with large proportions of unaffiliated, it is still a district that tends to vote for Republicans,” said Cooper. 

According to the latest financial reports from June 30, Cawthorn raised a total of $803,058, compared with $493,434 for Davis.

“Davis is the best candidate the Democrats have had in this district since Heath Shuler,” said Cooper, referring to the former NFL quarterback and moderate Democrat who represented the district from 2007-2013. When the district was redrawn to remove half of Asheville, Shuler announced his retirement from the House in 2012. 

The district is now closer to when Shuler first ran and won, giving Davis a better shot. 

But Mac McCorkle, a public policy professor at Duke University, said Davis needs a significant push from a Democratic wave across the state in order to win.

“If Moe Davis beats Cawthorn, Joe Biden is gonna be winning North Carolina, and he’s gonna be winning the nation pretty big. It’s gonna be a blowout,” said McCorkle.

At top, Madison Cawthorn and Moe Davis. Campaign photos.

Update: This story has been corrected to indicate Davis’s position on assault weapons is not to support a ban but instead to seek the same requirement for purchasing them as for obtaining a concealed carry permit.

New map and new challenger bring energy to Fayetteville race

For the first time in years, political experts say North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District is not a safe Republican seat.

Last year, after throwing out gerrymandered district maps that favored Republicans, three North Carolina judges forced the Republican-controlled state legislature to draw more competitive maps. That changed the dynamic in the 2nd and 6th Districts, which Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Report rate as sure flips for Democrats. 

The 8th might be in play, too. Rep. Richard Hudson, the Republican incumbent, may boast more money in the bank, but Democrat Pat Timmons-Goodson outraised him 3-1 in the most recent fundraising quarter ending June 30.

Sabato and Cook moved the 8th into the “lean Republican” column –– rather than the usual  “solid” or “likely Republican.” But they and other analysts are still skeptical that redistricting and a strong challenger will be enough to flip a district held by an eight-year incumbent.

New district, new challenger

The new 8th District stretches from Charlotte’s eastern suburbs across seven mostly rural counties to Fayetteville. 

Cumberland County, home to Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, historically votes Democratic, and the new maps move the once-split county entirely inside the 8th District. But the six other counties largely voted Republican in 2016 and 2018. 

Timmons-Goodson, the Democratic candidate, calls Cumberland County home. Born in South Carolina, she moved with her family to Fort Bragg when she was in elementary school. Her father served in the Army for 18 years. 

The 8th District stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville. Source: NC General Assembly

Timmons-Goodson’s experience comes from law and the judiciary, not the state legislature or business world. After earning undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she served as an assistant district attorney in Cumberland County. From there she rose through various judgeships, eventually becoming the first African-American woman on the North Carolina Supreme Court. President Barack Obama then appointed her to a six-year term on the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights.

“She’s not a woman who’s sitting there looking for the partisan side,” said Timmons-Goodson’s senior advisor Thomas Mills. “She brings a temperament that I think people are looking for right now.”

On the campaign trail, she stresses the importance of supporting veterans and military families, particularly with quality healthcare. The existing Veterans Administration healthcare system fails to meet the needs of veterans, she said in a recent interview with The 9th Street Journal, due to a high number of vacancies throughout the VA.

“The military community means a great deal to me, and my father was a veteran,” she said. “I had the benefit of the health care that’s provided through the Veterans Administration, and so I know how important it is to the veterans in this area.”

Timmons-Goodson faces Hudson, who has represented the district since 2012 when he defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Larry Kissell. Hudson sits on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. 

Hudson was born in Franklin, Virginia, and grew up in Charlotte. He and his family now live in Concord. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Hudson first worked as communications director for the North Carolina GOP. For the next 12 years he worked as a staffer for four former GOP House members –– including U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes (R–N.C.). His wife, Renee Hudson, served as chief of staff to President Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway. 

As Fort Bragg’s congressman, Hudson also prioritizes issues affecting veterans and military families, said campaign manager Robert Andrews. In addition to improving the VA, Hudson wants to ensure veterans have adequate pensions and access to affordable housing. 

Andrews said Hudson was not available for an interview in time for publication.

Will the 8th District flip?

Timmons-Goodson won’t discuss how analysts are assessing the race. Instead, she says her priority is to introduce herself to the voters and let them know how hard she will work for them. 

“I believe that a majority of them will say that the current representative should look for another job,” she said.

Timmons-Goodson has criticized Hudson for not speaking up for his constituents and for not speaking out against the president. She noted that when Trump called for a boycott of Goodyear tires, Hudson did not stand up for the thousands of workers that Goodyear employs at its Cumberland County factory. Hudson told local media that he was not aware of the president’s tweet until a reporter pointed it out to him.

The Hudson campaign chides Timmons-Goodson for out-of-state financial support flowing to her campaign, Andrews said. Outside of North Carolina her biggest donor bases were New York and California, according to second quarter Federal Elections Commission filings. FEC records show 134 donors from both states gave approximately $116,000 of the $846,000 she raised in the second quarter.

At the end of June, Hudson had raised $2.3 million, compared to roughly $1.1 million for Timmons-Goodson, according to Open Secrets. But she outraised him by about $517,000 during the second quarter. She says she’s aiming even higher for the third quarter and is “feeling really good” about the numbers so far. 

But strong fundraising by itself is not enough to win an election, says Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. 

Moreover, Bitzer says the redistricting process only made the 8th District slightly more favorable for Democrats by including the entirety of Cumberland County. Hudson still has the advantages of incumbency and a generally friendly district, so Democrats will need high voter turnout, he said. 

Bitzer also says that national dynamics, maybe even more than the individual candidates, will likely determine the outcome of the 8th District. There’s a strong relationship between how a district votes at the presidential level and how it votes down the ballot, Bitzer said, and that pattern might be magnified this year.

For all the hype about being the “most competitive” district in North Carolina, the 8th District has a relatively slim chance of flipping, Bitzer concluded.

“If that seat went Democratic, then there’s a tsunami that has bowled over at least North Carolina, if not the rest of the country.”

At top, incumbent Richard Hudson and Pat Timmons-Goodson are vying for the 8th Congressional District. Photos from their campaigns.

Update: This story has been corrected to note that Timmons-Goodson moved to Fort Bragg in elementary school, not when she was 2 years old, and that she was an assistant district attorney, not the DA, in Cumberland County.