Butterfield backs moderate Democrat Davis in race for northeastern NC congressional district

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina endorsed state Sen. Don Davis' bid to take his seat in the 1st Congressional District. Former state Sen. Erica Smith is also running.

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Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — A centrist Democrat looking to fill the seat of retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield secured the congressman’s endorsement in a race that could signal the ideological direction of the state party.

Butterfield’s decision Monday to back state Sen. Don Davis bolsters a candidate who was already seen as having an edge heading into the May 17 election over his top primary opponent, former state Sen. Erica Smith, a more liberal competitor who had also sought Butterfield’s support in the 1st Congressional District.

“Don Davis will fight to protect voting rights, provide a safety net for those who have been left behind due to the pandemic, and advocate for public-private partnerships to build much needed infrastructure in the first district,” Butterfield said in a statement.

Butterfield has represented the northeastern corner of North Carolina since 2004. Davis has said he’d push for similar legislative priorities if elected and continue to work to bolster his support.

"I appreciate the congressman's endorsement, but I want to be clear: I'm fighting to earn everyone's vote," Davis said in an interview. "I'm just thankful and grateful that I've earned the congressman's vote."

Smith congratulated Davis on securing the endorsement, but also touted support she's received from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and environmental groups.

"We have elections, not coronations, for a reason," she said in a statement, adding, "At the end of the day, it'll be the people of NC-01 who decide this election."

Navy veteran Jullian Bishop and Henderson City Councilman Jason Spriggs are also seeking the Democratic nomination.

Butterfield announced his retirement after state Republican lawmakers passed a congressional voting map in November 2021 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.

In an interview on Tuesday, Butterfield said he considers the new map a toss-up as well. He said his top reason for supporting Davis was because he thought the state senator would fare better in a general election.

"At the end of the day, this is about which Democrat would be the most formidable candidate against Sandy Smith if she were to be the Republican nominee, and I've come to the conclusion that Don Davis will be very competitive in the general election, more competitive than Erica Smith would be," Butterfield said.
A panel of North Carolina judges enacted a new congressional map.

Under the map to be used only for this year’s elections, the district stretches from Wilson to Elizabeth City. It includes rural communities and urban hubs, notably outside the city of Greenville. The historically agricultural area could benefit from new infrastructure projects that could make it a major East Coast shipping hub. The district is also dealing with growth spilling over from the Triangle.

Roughly two in five of the district’s voting-age residents are Black. A Black congressman or congresswoman has held the 1st district seat since the early 1990s. Many voters at an event this month in Pitt County cited electability as a strong motivation for supporting Davis, even though many said they also like Smith’s policies. An endorsement by Butterfield, a past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, could prove significant.

“He's got a network, he's got an organization and if he can get that group to get behind Davis in a Democratic primary, that's a strong endorsement,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant who is not employed by either candidate. “I think that Davis really probably reflects the views of a lot of the voters down there and Smith got herself too far out on the left.”

In an interview this month, Smith described herself as “uncompromising and unrelentless.” She sought to portray Davis as out of line with other Democrats, citing his past support for an effort to require voters show ID at the polls and a bill limiting access to abortion. She likened him to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has stifled some of President Joe Biden’s most ambitious policy goals, including a broad social spending bill.

Davis considers himself the best candidate because of his legislative track record and ability to work with Republicans, which could prove helpful if the GOP takes back the U.S. House after this year’s elections.

"What I believe is most imperative is having someone to show up in Washington that is about common sense and putting eastern North Carolina at the front and center," Davis said. "I believe that people are tired of all the bickering on both sides and people just want to know that somebody is there to speak for them."

Whoever wins the Democratic race would square off against the GOP winner of an eight-candidate field.

The top Republicans vying for the seat are Rocky Mount mayor Sandy Roberson and businesswoman Sandy Smith. The other GOP contenders are law enforcement officer Will Aiken, tech entrepreneur Brad Murphy, retired Army officer Ernest Reeves, small business owner Brent Roberson, lawyer Billy Strickland and Greenville resident Henry Williams II.


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