Under the Dome

Democrats lining up to run against Republican congressman in Raleigh suburbs

U.S. Rep. George Holding talks with Duane Cutlip on June 7, 2016 at the Hibernian in Raleigh, N.C.
U.S. Rep. George Holding talks with Duane Cutlip on June 7, 2016 at the Hibernian in Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Infuriated by President Donald Trump’s election victory and energized by the possibility of an anti-Republican wave in 2018, Democratic candidates are lining up for challenges all over the country, including in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

On Tuesday, Raleigh businessman Ken Romley became the fourth Democrat to announce his candidacy in a district represented by Republican George Holding.

The 2nd district includes much of north, south and west Wake County along with parts of Johnston, Franklin, Harnett and Nash counties. A day before Romley’s announcement, Linda Coleman, a former Wake County commissioner and N.C. House legislator, confirmed she would join Holly Springs vodka distillery owner Sam Searcy and Johnston County veteran and transgender woman Wendy Ella May in the race to unseat Holding, a third-term congressman from Raleigh.

Read Next

“A large number of candidates running is evidence of enthusiasm and gives us the best chance to choose the strongest nominee,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant and strategist based in New York. “In some ways, this works like any market. If people didn’t think the Republican incumbents were vulnerable, they wouldn’t be wanting to run.”

Romley, 52, was the CEO of Zift Solutions, a marketing software company based in Cary that employs about 200 people, until he stepped down last month to run for office. He filed paperwork to run Tuesday.

Zift’s cloud-based software helps companies that sell through indirect channels, such as distributors. Romley created and sold three businesses in the area before co-founding Zift in 2006.

“I felt like I couldn’t sit on the sidelines any more,” said Romley, who is running for office for the first time. “The country has been so good to me. I’m really concerned, especially by the actions of Congress, that my kids and grandkids won’t have those opportunities.”

Romley said economic issues, including creating private-sector jobs, are his main issues. On his website, Romley calls himself “a jobs first Democrat.” He said Republican proposals to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, including one passed by the House and voted for by Holding, were a “nonsensical solution.”

“We need new blood in Congress that is going to work toward solutions that are going to promote the well being of North Carolinians and Americans overall,” Romley said.

Democrats across the country seem to feel the same way, particularly in suburban districts like the 2nd.

Eight Virginia Democrats have announced their intention to take on Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock in suburban Washington. Seven Democrats have declared in Florida’s Miami-Dade County where they will seek to replace retiring Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Six Democrats are running against Republican incumbent John Culberson in suburban Houston.

“I would not want to be a Republican incumbent having to defend their record in Congress and having to defend this president in a suburban district that tilts slightly Republican,” Ferguson said.

Congress, with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, has a 16 percent approval rating and 79 percent disapproval rating, according to Gallup. The party out of the White House has gained House seats in 27 of the last 30 midterm elections.

But upsetting Holding, who won 56.7 percent of the vote in November, won’t be easy or cheap.

“It’s not a district where you would think the Democrats have a good chance in. It could be the kind of disastrous year where those kinds of districts become vulnerable,” said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University.

Carter Wrenn, who is working for Holding’s 2018 campaign, said the number of challengers is expected given a political climate that has people on both sides highly motivated.

“You don’t take anything for granted,” Wrenn said. “George has got to get out there and talk about his record like he did in past elections. He’s got a good strong record on fighting terrorism and national defense. He’s doesn’t play a lot of politics. He votes how he sees it and lets the chips fall where they may.”

No Republicans have filed to run against Holding so far, according to federal election records.

“George Holding always runs good campaigns. He works as if he’s 10 points behind. He’s a good candidate. He raises lots of money. It’s going to take a monumental campaign to beat George Holding,” said Chris Sinclair, a North Carolina Republican strategist. “You’re going to have to bring a big bank account.”

Holding, whose family controls First Citizens Bank & Trust, raised more than $2.6 million for his 2016 re-election campaign, according to federal election records. Romley said he expected it would take more than $1 million to compete in the race. Rohde said challengers need not outraise the incumbent, but they must be able to raise enough to run credible campaigns.

“If things continue to indicate that the president has weak public support, then the Democrats will continue to believe they have a shot at taking the House. I would expect the amount of outside money and party money to not just be record-breaking, but record-breaking by a lot,” Rohde said.

Democratic activists have targeted Holding for not holding town hall events and characterized Holding as beholden to special interests, particularly banking interests.

“There are four words that sum up exactly why George Holding is vulnerable in 2018: self-interested, Washington politician,” said Cole Leiter, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Holding apparently doesn’t understand that North Carolinians are looking for a representative who’ll work to lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs , not a representative who’ll slap an age tax on older folks’ healthcare and strip away protections for pre-existing conditions, then refuse to meet with his own constituents publicly at a town hall meeting.”

The DCCC has targeted four districts in North Carolina, including Holding’s, as it tries to flip House control from Republicans to Democrats. The group said it is not taking a stance on the candidates in the 2nd, but it does reserve the right to get involved in the primary.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089, @MurphinDC

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer