Nickel plays offense in NC's lone congressional toss-up, moderates messaging

Democratic state Sen. Wiley Nickel is running in North Carolina's most competitive congressional race. He's banking on a centrist platform to separate himself from Republican political newcomer Bo Hines.

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Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter
APEX, N.C. — It didn’t take long for Democratic state Sen. Wiley Nickel to punch back over the airwaves.

He faced criticism from GOP groups and his Republican opponent in North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District—the state’s most competitive U.S. House race—about his law firm representing violent criminals.

Nickel responded in kind. His campaign aired a television ad featuring an image of his main opponent, Bo Hines, altered to look like a mugshot. Former Wake County Deputy Ron Taylor describes the Republican’s North Carolina court history without getting into specifics about what had amounted to just a series of traffic citations against Hines.

“The law says everyone has the right to an attorney, just like when Bo faced six criminal charges himself, his friend Donald Trump tried to overturn the election and the Jan. 6 rioters were implicated in the deaths of five police officers,” Taylor says. “Bo: The way you’re headed, you’re going to need a lawyer again real soon.”

Hines considers the ad deceptive because of the altered image — he was never arrested — and the fact that the most egregious citation was for driving 91 mph in a 65 mph zone when he was 18. Nickel stands by the message, saying it highlights what he views as Hines’ recklessness.

The back-and-forth isn’t just a typical campaign tit-for-tat. It’s a reflection of two candidates who loathe one another and a Democrat who has long sought media spotlight.

A panel of North Carolina judges enacted a new congressional map to be used for the 2022 elections.

Nickel says he wishes one of Hines’ primary opponents — Kelly Daughtry, DeVan Barbour or someone else — were competing against him in the district, which includes southern Wake County, parts of Wayne and Harnett counties and all of Johnston County — a mix of urban, suburban and rural communities.

“I know those are pro-democracy Republicans,” Nickel said in an interview with WRAL News, alluding to Hines’ refusal to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election. “I would have loved to have a more civil campaign. But this is not that race.”

Moving to the middle

The two-term state senator is running on a moderate policy agenda centered on access to abortion, affordable health care and an improved economy. But since coming to the legislature in 2019, Nickel has developed a reputation as one of the state’s most liberal members.

He voted against North Carolina’s budget last year and rejected a Covid-19 spending plan early into the pandemic, both of which received substantial Democratic support in the Republican-controlled legislature.

He’s now seeking to make the case to voters that he’s the lone candidate in the race likely to tackle the tough issues in Washington, D.C.

“I ran four years ago to change the tone in Raleigh,” Nickel said of his state Senate campaign. “That's something I'm proud of. That means working with Republicans when you can find common ground for problems. If Republicans have a good idea, I'm going to be with them. And if Democrats do, I'm going to be with them. But we've done a lot to bring our state together.”

Hines has campaigned on more divisive social issues, though he’s adopted a more economic-focused message in recent months to appeal to a wider swath of the electorate that may be turned off by controversial subjects, such as transgender students competing on high school sports teams other than the gender assigned at their birth and whether schools ought to teach young students about racism and sexuality.

Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist, thinks both candidates are effectively playing to their strengths.

“They have some similarities, but they are very different candidates who came with very different strengths,” Cooper said. “Wiley Nickel, although not the most loved state legislator in North Carolina, did have and does have a coalition that he's built over multiple cycles. Bo Hines is starting from scratch. Both of their strategies make sense for who they are and how they entered this race.”

Entering the political arena

Nickel’s message of stability is informed in part by an unstable life. Born in California, Nickel’s parents divorced when he was two years old. He moved around a lot, as his mom bounced from market to market in the television news business.

Asked where he spent the bulk of his childhood, Nickel rattled off five states, none of which he considered home. He learned to make the most of opportunities afforded to him and the importance of family.

He met his wife, Caroline, in 2007 while studying abroad in London. The couple now has a son and a daughter.

“You hug your kids a little longer, a little harder every time you think about some of that stuff,” Nickel said, reflecting on his upbringing. “You just want to do everything we can to make sure they have every opportunity and a good healthy childhood.”

Democratic state Sen. Wiley Nickel looks on as his 10-year-old son Prescott describes what he's like at home. His wife, Caroline, also weighs in as they walk along a trail at Apex Community Park on Oct. 14. (photo by Bryan Anderson)

During an interview with his family at a park in Apex, Nickel’s 10-year-old son Prescott described his dad as fun and funny, but added a caveat: “He’s not home a lot.”

Nickel cringed. Caroline broke in with uncomfortable laughter.

“Who is this man?” she said, jokingly referring to her husband.

When Nickel is on the campaign trail, he brings decades of experience with him.

At a young age, he recalls his father instilling in him a strong work ethic starting with farmwork beginning at 5:30 a.m.

In his mid-teens and early 20s, Nickel developed a passion for politics. After his father died of cancer, Nickel decided to become more active in public policy.

“Everybody gets into politics for different reasons,” Nickel said. “For me, my father died of cancer when I was 18. When that happens, you see how important it is for everyone to have access to affordable healthcare and we still don't have access to healthcare for everybody.”

Within a few years, Nickel had become a staff member to former Vice President Al Gore, where he helped coordinate travel logistics. Nickel then went to law school in California at Pepperdine University. After graduating in 2005, he unsuccessfully ran for state senate in California, losing handily in a Republican-leaning district in the San Joaquin Valley.

At the time, California wasn’t the overwhelming Democratic powerhouse that it is today. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the star of action movies such as “Predator” and “The Terminator,” was the state’s Republican governor. Schwarzenegger often vetoed proposals from the Democratic-controlled legislature. Nickel sought to boost Democrats’ power but didn’t have a clear theme to his campaign and made a number of missteps.

During an uncontested primary, for instance, Nickel spent more than $250,000 largely through personal loans on television ads mostly in the Sacramento media market — a move to bolster awareness of his campaign that was met with confusion among some Sacramento political leaders, according to Capitol Weekly, a local political news site.

Since then, Nickel has used the megaphone of his office to work toward expanding Medicaid and legalizing medical marijuana and online sports betting. While all three proposals saw movement last year in the Republican-controlled legislature, negotiations largely fell to GOP legislative leaders. None of the plans were sent to the state’s Democratic governor.

As Democrats lack the power to achieve their policy goals without Republican support, Nickel continues to urge House lawmakers to pass a Medicaid expansion bill approved earlier in the year by the Senate.

“This is all about helping people, and the best thing I can do is make sure we continue to close the coverage gap,” Nickel said.

The Democrat is now presenting this year’s congressional race as a binary choice.

“This is a race that is not about Democrats and against Republicans,” Nickel said. “It’s about whether you're pro-democracy or not.”

Hines warns that the Democrat would make the district more like California, a state many hardline conservatives mock.

"He was too liberal for California and he is certainly too liberal for North Carolina,” Hines wrote on Twitter.

After working as a White House staff member to former President Barack Obama, Nickel gave another go at politics, winning his 2018 legislative bid in North Carolina.

A representative for the district

The district Hines and Nickel are vying for is considered the lone toss-up race in North Carolina and one 31 such contests in the nation. The 13th district includes areas that have undergone much change. Explosive growth in the Triangle has brought in more, expanding Democratic support in towns near Raleigh and diminishing GOP advantages in counties that have become less rural.

Both candidates are trying to present one another as too radical and out of touch with voters in the evolving district.

Nickel on Monday labeled Hines as a “27-year-old trust fund kid completely out of touch with the needs of hard-working North Carolina families,” a reference to the up to $1 million Hines has withdrawn from his trust this year to help fuel his campaign.

Hines disputes any characterization that he’s out of touch with voters.

“My parents aren't bailing us out. I'll tell you that,” Hines said. “We get to decide what we want to do with our own money. Our parents are business people who think the best way to learn is on your own. I live in a very modest home in [Fuquay-Varina] and we love our life and we love our neighbors and things like that. But it's not like we're sitting here in a multimillion-dollar mansion, laughing on a pedestal. We're living the life of a middle-class American.”

Hines criticizes Nickel for living in an expensive home in the affluent town of Cary, and for the fact the home is just outside the congressional district. Hines accurately notes the Democrat can’t vote for himself because of his residence.

“What folks should know is that I've served this community for two terms in the state Senate,” Nickel said. “This is a district that includes my state senate district. We live just outside the lines, but you don't have to to run for Congress.”

The hostility in the race was visible in a WRAL lobby last month as Hines and Nickel met in person for the first time to flip a coin to see who would be interviewed first. As Hines started to extend his hand, Nickel turned to shake a reporter’s hand and stared back at Hines.

“He refused to shake my hand,” Hines later said of the awkward exchange.

Nickel said he didn’t notice Hines extending his hand.

“People have real problems in this district,” Nickel said. “There are real things that we need to talk about and Bo Hines’ feelings is just not one of them.”

How Nickel would govern

Nickel is running with the backing of the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association, an important police group that is also backing prominent Republicans, including U.S. Senate candidate Ted Budd — which could help a candidate in a moderate district. Nickel rejects calls from a handful of national Democrats to strip funding from law enforcement agencies.

He’s also created distance between himself and President Joe Biden. While he said he’d welcome a joint campaign appearance with Obama, he showed little appetite for such an appearance with Biden.

“That's not going to happen,” Nickel said. “They're not coming here.”

He added, “I would welcome anyone who wants to come out to help campaign and win the seat. But I can just tell you, I worked for two White Houses. It takes weeks to plan a presidential visit.”

Nickel thinks he’s better equipped than Hines to tackle inflation. He put forward a 30-point plan this month outlining how he’d combat rising costs. It was filled with lots of generalities and a few specifics.

Nickel said he’d work to convene regional leaders to coordinate housing policy between local, state and federal stakeholders. He also wants to expand low-income housing tax credits and crack down on corporations that are coming into the Triangle to purchase homes.

“We need to be talking about a middle-income housing tax credit, especially in this area, helping people who are struggling to pay rent and pay for housing,” Nickel said. “We also have a ton of these out–of-state corporations coming in and gobbling up homes. We need to disincentivize that and make it easier for individual homebuyers to buy their first home.”

Hines argues Nickel would be a rubber stamp for Biden policies, which he views as destructive to residents’ pocketbooks.

“It's not fair that they're in a position where they're having to choose between their medication or going to the grocery store to buy food for their families,” Hines said. “This is a result of incompetent governance and this is a result of a Biden administration that has spent overbroadly.”

Nickel said the first bill he hopes to take up in Congress is a proposal to codify Roe v. Wade, the recently overturned Supreme Court ruling that for decades legalized abortion nationwide.

In response to the recent mass shooting in Raleigh, Nickel said he’d work to increase federal spending on mental health, expand background checks and establish laws that prevent potentially dangerous individuals from buying weapons. He says he’d also work to ban assault weapons.

“I just believe in North Carolina and I know the voters see the difference,” he said. “They look at my work as a state senator, as a public servant and my opponent. We're going to come out on top.”