Don Davis, Sandy Smith advance to November election for Butterfield seat

The state's 1st Congressional District, which covers much of eastern North Carolina, leans Democratic but could become a competitive general election contest in November.

Posted Updated

Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter

State Sen. Don Davis on Tuesday defeated three Democratic primary opponents to move one step closer to potentially filling the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield. He now advances to the November general election, where he’ll square off against Republican businesswoman Sandy Smith in an eastern North Carolina district that has become more conservative.

Smith edged out Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson. With early votes in and all precincts reporting, Smith got 31% of the vote, while Roberson got 27%. Smith needed more than 30% to win the nomination outright.

Butterfield backed Davis weeks before the election, giving him an extra boost over his top competitor, former state Sen. Erica Smith.

"We've been running this entire time on our record," Davis said in an interview. "We have been working hard and delivering for eastern North Carolina. This is only an opportunity to continue to do the work that's important to the families here in eastern North Carolina."

Davis, a former Air Force officer who has been in the state Senate since 2013, was the more moderate and soft-spoken candidate in the race. Erica Smith presented herself as a more liberal option. Navy veteran Jullian Bishop and Henderson City Councilmember Jason Spriggs also sought the Democratic nomination.

Sandy Smith, the Republican victor, touted her victory on Twitter, writing that she would "fight for border security, jobs, cutting the gas tax and fixing our broken Biden economy."

Davis takes up moderate lane for Democrats

Central to Davis’ campaign was an argument about electability, where he sought to persuade Democratic voters that his more centrist policies and track record of working with Republicans could make him the likeliest candidate to keep the seat in Democrats’ hands.

In the state Senate, Davis has pushed for changes to the juvenile justice system and budget carve-outs for his district.

The 1st Congressional District is a historically agricultural area that 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. It stretches from Wilson to Greenville to Elizabeth City. The district includes a large Black population that has historically elected leaders of the same racial group. A Black congressman or congresswoman has held the 1st district seat since the early 1990s.

On the campaign trail, Davis has said he’d vote to codify Roe v. Wade. The landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal nationwide, but a leaked draft opinion signaled a majority of justices could soon overturn the decision. Such a decision would allow states to enact tougher abortion restrictions. It would also sharpen focus on federal legislation, though Democrats do not appear unified on the issue.

Some Democrats, including Erica Smith, have expressed concerns with past votes Davis has taken on abortion.

He supported a 2017 budget that provided $1.3 million to a network of crisis pregnancy centers that discourage women from getting abortions. He also backed 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 four Democrats supportive of the 2017 budget and two Democrats who supported the so-called “born-alive” legislation. Additionally, Davis was the lone Democratic state lawmaker who voted to override a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on the born-alive bill.

"We have a great fight ahead of us to make sure that we codify Roe and support our freedoms," Davis said.

But Davis had sought in the primary to reassure women that he would advocate for them to make their own health care decisions. He also portrayed himself as the best Democrat to address affordability issues and touted his legislative accomplishments.

He secured $21.5 million in last year’s state budget for a new medical education building at East Carolina University. In Raleigh, he’s 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 Erica Smith also supported, ensured 16- and 17-year-olds were no longer automatically charged in the adult criminal justice system starting in December 2019.

Sandy Smith embraces Trump

Smith didn’t secure former President Donald Trump’s endorsement in the primary, but she received the backing of many controversial Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, former Trump adviser and convicted felon Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, who served as Trump’s national security advisor for three weeks.

It’s not the first time Smith has sought to represent eastern North Carolina in the Democratic leaning 1st Congressional District. She unsuccessfully challenged Butterfield in 2020, losing by 8 percentage points.

On Tuesday, she fended off seven GOP primary opponents, including Roberson. The other Republican candidates were 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.

Redrawn congressional maps contributed to Butterfield’s decision not to seek reelection. The congressman still considers the district a toss-up, though analysts give Democrats an edge. But in a political climate that could prove favorable to Republicans nationwide, Smith presents a formidable challenge.

The 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.