Politics & Government

An outraised challenger could get a boost from what’s below her on the Wake ballot

Rep. George Holding cruised to re-election in a Trump-won district in 2016. He helped craft the Republicans’ signature accomplishment in the House, a tax cut measure that the GOP credits for a booming economy. Now Holding has raised more than three times as much money as his 2018 Democratic opponent, former Wake County commissioner Linda Coleman.

But instead of an easy path to a fourth term, Holding faces a competitive race with Coleman in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes parts or all of Wake, Johnston, Franklin, Harnett, Nash and Wilson counties. Libertarian Party candidate Jeff Matemu, a lawyer, is also on the ballot.

“History was pointing to a tight race. Whatever party is out of power in the White House faces an uphill slog. The president invokes passion on either side. The Democrats were not happy about it,” Holding said.

There is another factor at play in an election without a presidential, gubernatorial or Senate race atop the ballot: Democrats’ push to win control of the state’s General Assembly or, barring that, break Republicans’ supermajorities in both the state House and state Senate.

The 2nd Congressional District overlaps in suburban Wake County with five contested General Assembly races — three House districts and two Senate districts — where Democrats hope to flip Republican-held seats. Suburban Wake County likely contains the largest bloc of Coleman voters, including suburban women, people of color and unaffiliated voters whom the campaign is counting on to turn out for Democratic candidates.

“She will absolutely benefit from the energy that is below her on the ballot,” said Morgan Jackson, a political strategist for Gov. Roy Cooper and Break The Majority.

Democrats need to win four House seats to break the Republicans’ veto-proof majority and 16 seats to take control of the chamber. In the Senate, Democrats must win five seats to break the super majority and 11 seats to take control.

In Senate 17, Democratic challenger Sam Searcy is taking on Republican Sen. Tamara Barringer. In Senate 18, Democrat Mack Paul is running against Republican Sen. John Alexander. In House 35, Democrat Terence Everitt is challenging Republican Rep. Chris Malone. In House 36, Democrat Julie Von Haefen is running against Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar. In House 37, Democrat Sydney Batch is taking on Republican Rep. John Adcock, who was appointed to the seat in September.

Outside of the Von Haefen-Dollar race, Democrats have a money advantage in those campaigns.

“We are working together in those areas. What we’re trying to do is maximize the effectiveness of Democrats, period,” Coleman said.

But recent polls by the Civitas Institute, a conservative policy group based in Raleigh, indicate Republicans lead the state Senate races. Barringer leads Searcy 48-36 in Senate 17 with Libertarian Party candidate Bruce Brasson garnering 4 percent of the vote. In Senate 18, Alexander leads Paul 44-38 with Libertarian Party candidate Brad Hessel getting 3 percent of the vote.

“That’s not where Democrats want it in Wake County. That is a problem for Linda Coleman,” said Donald Bryson, president and CEO of the Civitas Institute.

‘Numbers you cannot refute’

Holding, a former U.S. attorney whose family controls First Citizens Bank & Trust, began running television ads in the spring, despite running in a district that Donald Trump carried by nearly 10 points in 2016, en route to winning the state and the presidency. Holding won re-election by more than 13 percentage points.

The 50-year-old Holding has been a strong supporter of the Republican-passed tax reform bill, citing low unemployment numbers (3.7 percent in September, the lowest since 1969) and robust growth numbers (4.2 percent GDP growth in the second quarter).

“The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is really stoking the economy. These are numbers you cannot refute,” said Holding, who as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee played a role in writing the bill.

Despite the strong economy, many Republicans have abandoned messaging around the $1.5-trillion tax cuts as polls have shown they have not been popular. A GOP survey, obtained by Bloomberg in September, found that more than 60 percent believe the tax cuts favor corporations and rich Americans over the middle class.

Coleman, a former state lawmaker and two-time candidate for lieutenant governor, has been making a similar argument throughout the campaign. In August, at an event for Democratic women in Johnston County, the 69-year-old Coleman said the tax cuts have a hidden cost.

“There’s a price to be paid for the tax cuts and it’s mostly to the vulnerable populations, and a lot of those groups are in the 2nd district,” she said. “Recipients of the SNAP program, recipients of Medicare and Medicaid, housing, Social Security — all of those issues are going to be impacted negatively.”

The deficit jumped to $779 billion for the fiscal year. Corporate tax collections fell despite higher profits after the tax rate was cut from 35 percent to 21 percent. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told Bloomberg this week that both parties would have to tackle entitlements such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare to control the debt.

Tax revenue was up in fiscal year 2018, but despite the strong economy fell $200 billion short of expectations. Holding said now is the time for Congress to act on spending reforms.

“What’s happening is not an opportunity for us to go to sleep and be business as usual,” he said. “It gives us some room to do things, start doing things now and gives us more time to take effect. We can use this opportunity wisely.”

Coleman said cuts will hurt middle-class priorities like health care and education and affect vulnerable populations.

“The middle class is already being strained,” she said.

Outside groups jump in

Holding has raised more than $2.5 million in his re-election bid, while Coleman has pulled in less than $690,000, according to federal campaign reports.

With polls from both campaigns and from Civitas showing a statistically tied election, outside groups have committed more than $2.3 million to the race, which could be key in determining control of the U.S. House.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put in more than $375,000. A dark money group, meaning the public does not know its donors, attacked Holding on health care over the summer. EMILY’s List is spending in the district for Coleman. President Barack Obama endorsed Coleman.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to GOP House leadership, committed $1.4 million to television and digital ads supporting Holding and attacking Coleman. The political action committee’s ads have labeled Coleman as a “career politician” who wants to raise taxes.

Holding attacked her in an ad as a supporter of sanctuary cities. Coleman said at a candidate forum during the primary that she supports sanctuary cities, but said in an interview this week that it is a non-issue in the campaign since neither the 2nd district nor the state has any communities that have declared themselves sanctuary cities.

“Once people clearly realize that Linda Coleman is a liberal, a very progressive liberal who, at the very least, will try to reverse the tax cuts that we’ve done, I don’t think this district is going to elect her,” Holding said. “That would be a big flip to go from my conservative record in that direction. Once people understand the contrast they’re not going to go there.”

Coleman is confident, too, that voters will turn out for her message of helping the middle class.

“It’s really all about the people of the district and making sure that we’re giving families a fair shake,” she said, “making sure they’re represented in a fair way and that all of the benefits don’t go to just the wealthy but to the working families.”

Wake County registered voters

Wake voters total: 734,440

Wake voters in U.S. House District 2: 283,974

Wake voters in Senate District 17: 158,962

Wake voters in Senate District 18: 119,383

Wake voters in House District 35: 74,003

Wake voters in House District 36: 67,917

Wake voters in House District 37: 76,197

— As of Oct. 1, 2018. Source: WakeGov.com

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Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC