Primary battle to replace U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield becomes a barometer for NC Democrats

In the primary battle for the 1st Congressional District, state Sen. Don Davis and former state Sen. Erica Smith have competing visions. Davis wants to work with Republicans. Smith wants a more forceful Democratic Party.

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Erica Smith v. Don Davis
Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter
WINTERVILLE, N.C. — In the northeastern corner of North Carolina, a battle for a congressional seat is underscoring a quandary facing the Democratic Party: How far to the left should the party go in a district that has become more competitive?

State Sen. Don Davis and former state Sen. Erica Smith are the leading Democrats vying for the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who for almost two decades has served in what is now the 1st Congressional District.

The area stretching from Wilson to Elizabeth City has long been a Democratic stronghold, and whoever wins the May 17 Democratic primary would be the favorite in the general election. But redrawn congressional lines have made the district slightly more conservative.

A panel of North Carolina judges enacted a new congressional map.

The primary will be an important test that could serve as a barometer of the party’s direction. And it could hinge on who, if anybody, gets the coveted endorsement of Butterfield. Davis is the more moderate and soft-spoken candidate. Smith is a booming voice with a more liberal profile. Navy veteran Jullian Bishop and Henderson City Councilman Jason Spriggs are also seeking the Democratic nomination.

Davis has backed measures in the state legislature limiting abortion access and requiring voter ID at the polls. He says his experience in Raleigh would enable him to better work with Republicans if he were sent to Washington.

Smith, who described herself as “uncompromising and unrelentless,” is campaigning on an anti-corporation and abortion-rights platform. She carries an endorsement from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and worries Davis is too conservative, citing Davis’ history of siding with Republicans over his own party.

Smith fears he’d become a U.S. House version of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WVa., who has voted with Republicans on key issues and has an outsize influence on President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

“Do we need another Joe Manchin that we need to wait to see if they’re ever going to come around on the issues that are life-changing for people in this state?” Smith said of Davis in an interview. “I shouldn't compel you to want me to have a basic human right.”

Davis says he has also pushed for key Democratic priorities. “I have a record of making a difference on bold issues impacting our region,” he said.

For voters, however, the primary could come down to one issue: who can beat a Republican in the general election to serve their interests in Washington.

There haven’t been any nonpartisan polls of the race, but Davis appears to have the edge in the primary. He outraised Smith by more than $103,000 between Jan. 1 and March 31, according to recent campaign filings. Davis also entered April with nearly $324,000 in the bank, compared with Smith’s $102,000.

Democratic consultant Thomas Mills considers Davis the favorite because, in his view, Smith has skewed further to the left in recent campaigns. That might not resonate with voters in the district, said Mills, who isn’t employed by either candidate.

“You’ve got a left flank that's really out of touch with a lot of mainstream voters, and I think Erica Smith is out of touch,” Mills said. “I don't think Don Davis would be a Joe Manchin, but when you talk about that, the alternative to Joe Manchin in West Virginia is a Republican.”

The winner would face the GOP primary victor. The Republican candidates include law enforcement officer Will Aiken, tech entrepreneur Brad Murphy, retired Army officer Ernest Reeves, small business owner Brent Roberson, Rocky Mount mayor Sandy Roberson, businesswoman Sandy Smith, lawyer Billy Strickland and Greenville resident Henry Williams II.

Sandy Smith and Sandy Roberson are leading the race in fundraising, with Smith receiving more than $165,000 in net contributions and Roberson taking in almost $95,000.

Who’s the better fit for the district?

The new 1st Congressional District includes rural communities and urban hubs, notably outside the city of Greenville. The historically agricultural area is also grappling with growth spilling over from the Triangle. New infrastructure projects in the district could bring new industry and make it a shipping hub serving the East Coast.

About 40% of the district’s voting-age residents are Black, and that’s also important to many voters. A Black congressman or congresswoman has held the 1st district seat since the early 1990s. That makes electability and an endorsement by Butterfield, a past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, strong currency for Davis or Smith.

Butterfield announced his retirement after lawmakers passed a congressional voting map in November that made the district a toss-up. A redrawn map, enacted after a legal battle, leaves the district leaning Democratic, but not as much as the existing area Butterfield represents. The new map splits Pitt County, which supported Biden in 2020 by 9 percentage points.

Marques Thompson, a resident in the district and an organizer for a voting-access advocacy group, says he’s likely to vote for Davis—despite the fact that Smith’s record aligns with his top policy priority: redistricting reform. Thompson views Davis as the likeliest Democrat to defeat a Republican in November.

“Black voters a lot of times are kind of pigeon-holed into one party, so then you’ve got to have a representative in there that's going to win and then be on your side,” Thompson said in an interview during a candidate forum in the Pitt County town of Winterville. “If you've got the other party in there, a lot of times during the day you feel like you have no [stake].

“No one's happy with either party these days,” he added, “but at least one will act like they're gonna listen to you and the other one definitely won't.”

Smith touts personal experience

Smith served in the state Senate from 2015 through 2020 at a time when Republicans held sizable majorities, where she pushed for environmental reform and changes within the criminal justice system. She left the legislature following an unsuccessful bid for the 2020 Democratic U.S. Senate nomination and unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2022. In November 2021, she ended her latest U.S. Senate bid to run for Congress.

On the campaign trail, Smith tries to connect with voters by linking her lived experiences to the most pressing problems they are facing.

She said in an interview that she is well equipped to tackle rising costs of healthcare, gasoline and groceries in part because she remembers growing up at a time when her father filed for bankruptcy due to economic hardships on their family farm.

“I have that proximity to the pain and the struggle that fuels me to fight until we get it done,” Smith said.

Former Democratic state Sen. Erica Smith is running in North Carolina's 1st Congressional District. (photo by Bryan Anderson)

She also described an emotional struggle when she decided to go through with a pregnancy despite warnings from doctors that they may not be able to save her life if they performed an emergency C-section. She said she directed the doctors to try to save the life of her future son, Elias, over her own if it came down to that choice.

In 2007, Elias was born very prematurely and weighed one pound and one half ounce. She said she had to take a second job in addition to her full-time work as a teacher to pay for Elias’ tracheostomy and a six-month stay at a newborn intensive care unit, where he then weighed four pounds and five ounces before being able to go home.

At 5, Elias died. “He is the reason that I get up and fight every day because so many people are going through horrible situations,” Smith said.

Warren, the Massachusetts senator, thinks Smith can win the district. “She’s got a plan for a Rural New Deal that'll break up the big agriculture businesses to end their stranglehold on family farms, raise the minimum wage, unionize the South, and provide high quality broadband and healthcare for all,” Warren said in a statement.

Davis promotes statehouse accomplishments

Davis, who has been endorsed by voter and worker rights groups, has been in the state Senate since 2013. He said his record gives him the edge. He secured a $21.5 million earmark last year in the state budget for a new medical education building at East Carolina University. He has also pushed for expanded broadband access in rural communities and helped raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction for nonviolent crimes to 18.

The 2017 measure, which Smith also supported, ensured 16- and 17-year-olds were no longer automatically charged in the adult criminal justice system starting in December 2019.

Davis also said his work as an Air Force officer, Snow Hill mayor and state senator has prepared him well to tackle problems of increased costs of living.

He noted rural and lower-income residents in the district are particularly vulnerable to higher gas prices because of the distances required of them to commute to work. Davis thinks the problem requires a broader group of congressional members to come together to address it.

Democratic state Sen. Don Davis is running in North Carolina's 1st Congressional District. (photo by Bryan Anderson)

“These issues are so massive it’s beyond just one member,” Davis said. “What I think is important is having someone to go in and being effective at building relationships and engaging in these conversations because at the end of the day, I believe it's imperative for eastern North Carolinians to be able to get to work.”

At the Winterville event, many of the 50 attendees said they came away from the experience appreciative of Smith’s views but more supportive of Davis.

“I know Don, I know what he's done and that makes a difference to me,” said Veronica Roberson, a councilwoman for the town of Winterville. “Erica seems to be a good candidate, too, and I understand that, but it's just that I've had more experience with Don.”

Mildred Sneed, a retired teacher who lives in Greenville, said she doesn’t think Smith is too liberal for voters in the district, but she thinks Davis will have wider appeal.

“I am for Democrats all the way,” Sneed said. “I think Don Davis, the issues that he stands for, speaks volumes, and a lot of people can get behind him based on his policies.”

Candidates tangle over abortion

Smith criticized Davis over his support for a 2019 bill that would have made it a felony with the possibility of prison time for health care practitioners to not treat a baby born in the course of a late-term abortion as a person.

Davis was one of two Democrats who supported the so-called “born-alive” legislation and the only Democrat who voted to override a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Cooper in 2019 had called the bill “needless legislation [that] would criminalize doctors and other healthcare providers for a practice that simply does not exist.”

Davis in May 2021 was absent when a similar measure was discussed.

He said in an interview that he’d support a bill that would turn into law a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in which a 7-2 majority ruled that governments could not regulate abortion decisions during first trimester but could impose restrictions in the second trimester and ban the procedure altogether in the third trimester so long as the mother’s health or life is not in danger.

“Given the opportunity to serve in the U.S. Congress, I will vote to codify Roe v. Wade and I will continue to be a partner in conversations about how we continue to deal with reproductive freedom and rights in this country,” Davis said.

Asked if she’d support any limits to abortion, Smith said, “Every woman should be able to make a decision about what happens to her body.”

Butterfield looms large over race

Davis and Smith boast key supporters. In addition to Warren, Smith has been endorsed by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group. Davis, meanwhile, has the support of the North Carolina State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

But the blessing that matters most is Butterfield’s.

At the candidate event in Winterville, Davis and Smith made appeals to the retiring congressman, who declined an interview request. Butterfield's office said Saturday afternoon that the congressman will make an announcement on his endorsement at 11 a.m. Monday.

“The congressman is very thoughtful,” Davis said. “He loves eastern North Carolina and I know that he will only do what's best for our families.”

Smith said she has spoken with Butterfield. “He made it very clear that he is torn,” she said. “But he's supporting all of us right now. I've had his support along the way and I expect to always have his support.”