Politics & Government

NC leaders face challenges in their home elections. How scared should they be?

Democrat Jen Mangrum is vying for Phil Berger’s senate seat

Jen Mangrum, an education professor at UNC-Greensboro and former Republican, is GOP leader Phil Berger’s first Democratic opponent since 2014.
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Jen Mangrum, an education professor at UNC-Greensboro and former Republican, is GOP leader Phil Berger’s first Democratic opponent since 2014.

To challenge the most powerful man in state politics, Jen Mangrum moved from Greensboro into a Reidsville rental home residents referred to as the “Taco Bell house.”

The house, which Mangrum says was left intact after its owners died, wasn’t ideal. But she needed a place to live in the district where she wanted to run, which had recently been redrawn to exclude her old residence. “Every detail was southwestern,” she said of the rental home. “Your fork even had a cactus on the end.”

Compared to Berger, the state Senate leader, Mangrum had virtually no name recognition. But, after meeting with residents of the north Greensboro area, she became confident she could win.

“I wouldn’t have run if I didn’t think so,” she said in an interview with The News & Observer. “My biggest obstacle is convincing people he’s vulnerable.”

Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have a Republican supermajority to protect. If momentum builds for North Carolina Democrats, the Republican leaders might even have to worry about keeping control of the state House and Senate. They haven’t had to campaign hard for their own re-election in years, but Berger and Moore aren’t exempt from the N.C. Democratic Party effort to challenge nearly every Republican incumbent in the state.

Berger faces Mangrum, an education professor at UNC-Greensboro and former Republican, in a Senate district northwest of Greensboro. Moore faces David Brinkley, a financial adviser, in their rural House district west of Gastonia. Neither has run for office before and both face uphill battles.

Donald Trump received 66 percent of the vote in Berger’s district and 67 percent in Moore’s district in the 2016 presidential election. In July, Berger and Moore each reported having $1 million more campaign cash on-hand than their respective opponents. And experts consider their districts to be Republican strongholds.

“If one of the leaders loses, it would be a sign of a much larger wave than anybody would expect,” said Michael Bitzer, political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. “Those rural areas tend to be conservative to begin with. The gerrymandering helped to further insulate and ensure Republicans in those areas.”

However, a summer poll of 382 likely voters by Change Research found Mangrum trailing Berger by just 6 points among voters who had made up their minds. “While Mangrum has ground to make up to introduce herself and contrast her campaign with Berger, with the right resources this is on track to be a very winnable race for the Democrat in November,” says the memo, which was provided by the N.C. Democratic Party.

Even if they don’t win, Brinkley and Mangrum may distract the GOP leaders and offer Democrats a glimpse into the type of campaign that works best in conservative areas. Even while campaigning on similar platforms — that the GOP-led legislature should’ve expanded Medicaid and spent more on education — they’re taking completely different tactics.

Mangrum regularly attacks not only Berger’s policies but his character, referring to Berger as “a bully and dictator” and photoshopping a cartoon with Berger’s face on it.

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Screenshot of the Jen Mangrum for NC Senate Facebook page

Brinkley for years lived on the same Kings Mountain street as Moore and considers himself a friend of Moore’s family. Brinkley refers to his campaign as “team purple” — to emphasize his desire for bipartisanship — and his websites rarely mention Moore by name. He’s neighbors with Moore’s kids.

“I don’t think it’s professional to drag their daddy through the dirt,” Brinkley said in a phone interview with The N&O. “I’m here to talk about issues.”

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Brinkley vs. Moore

Brinkley is Moore’s first opponent since 2010, when Moore drew 65 percent of the vote against Democrat Mary Accor.

He’s likely to fare better than she did because the political climate is better for Democrats this year than it was in 2010, when Republicans took control of the NC legislature and dominated across the country. Brinkley has raised $144,000 and had $114,000 on-hand as of July — which is 16 times more than the $8,700 that Accor raised in 2010.

Moore has also come under fire this year for allegations of improperly mixing his legislative and business interests. He’s received criticism for his ties to a pharmaceutical company, and for allegedly intervening in environmental regulators’ handling of violations at a chicken plant he co-owned in Chatham County.

The N.C. Democratic Party on Oct. 17 released an attack ad accusing Moore of being corrupt.

But Brinkley says he’d rather talk about Republicans’ changes to the tax code: “I think they sell (voters) a bill of goods that they’ve cut their income taxes down, but they’re hurting them on the sales tax.” Or how he believes legislators aren’t properly vetting legislation before voting on it.

“They passed a $23.9 billion budget and nobody got to discuss it or debate about it? But at the same time, they spent almost a whole day trying to define what milk was?” Brinkley said.

He referred to the process by which Republicans blocked changes to the proposed state budget, and a bill that would’ve blocked commercial use of the word “milk” on anything that didn’t come from an animal with hooves.

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Asked how he thinks his campaign is going, Brinkley said he’s not sure.

“I’m not a career politician. We haven’t done any polls or anything,” he said, adding that he’s attended lots of meet-and-greets. “I’ve been working every night and weekend. We have to show people that we care.”

Moore, who declined to comment for this story, has campaigned on the state’s strong economy and the fact that average teacher pay has improved each year since Republicans took office.

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Mangrum vs. Berger

Mangrum is Berger’s first opponent since 2014, when he garnered 59 percent of the vote against William Osborne.

She fought her way onto the ballot and has kept throwing punches since the N.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement gave her campaign the green light. Mangrum lived in Berger’s district until it was redrawn last year, and then moved into it again in February. That prompted a residency challenge that was ultimately dismissed by the elections board in a party-line vote, with the board’s unaffiliated member siding with Democrats.

Berger, like Moore with Brinkley, has largely ignored Mangrum and R. Michael Jordan, the Libertarian candidate. Neither Republican has issued any attack ads. But according to the Greensboro News & Record’s Rockingham Now, Berger in a recent forum accused Mangrum of being unfamiliar with the district.

Otherwise, his campaign has largely consisted of touting the state’s economic achievements. Berger was unavailable to comment for this story, spokesman Ray Martin said, because “we’re so busy trying to repair and replace the campaign signs the Mangrum mob destroyed.

“She’s run a really dirty, dishonest campaign,” Martin said.

On Oct. 12, Berger mentioned the signs in a Facebook post: “The Liberal Mobs are trying to break into the Supreme Court, chasing conservative politicians and their families out of restaurants and tearing down our statues. My liberal Democrat opponent Jen Mangrum cheers them on at every riot.”

Mangrum, for her part, says she’s used her roots in a military family and history as a registered Republican to bond with conservative voters. She doesn’t need to mention Trump on the campaign trail, she says, because “Berger is my Trump.”

Mangrum had $68,000 in June and says she’s using it on campaigning methods unavailable to Berger’s previous opponent. For example, her campaign is directly texting potential voters and opening a dialogue if they respond.

“The people who are texting for me have my answer to any issue we can think of,” Mangrum said. She checks her email every morning to see if there’s a question her team couldn’t answer. “People are texting back. They see it as a direct line to you, so I make sure they get their answers back as thoughtfully I can.”

Regardless of this year’s outcome, Mangrum says she’ll run again in 2020. No politician should go unchallenged, she said.

Specht: 919-829-4870 @AndySpecht
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