By Sarah Nagem
Charles Graham said he wasn’t surprised by his lack of a landslide win in the Democratic primary for North Carolina’s District 7 seat in Congress.
All four candidates in the race won at least one county in the newly drawn seven-county district, which encompasses much of the southeastern part of the state. Graham, who has served in the N.C. House of Representatives since 2011, beat his closest opponent, Cumberland County Commissioner Charles Evans, by fewer than 800 votes, according to unofficial results.
“I knew it was going to be a close race,” Graham told the Border Belt Independent on Thursday. “I’m very pleased to come out on top.”
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Now Graham, a lifelong Robeson County resident and member of the Lumbee Native American tribe, has a bigger hurdle in front of him. He will face off against David Rouzer, the incumbent Republican in District 7, in the general election in November.
The district, redrawn this year by the N.C. Supreme Court, includes all of Pender, New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus, Bladen and Robeson counties and most of Cumberland County. It leans 54% Republican.
Graham’s home county, Robeson, will likely play a big role in the race. Robeson County voters picked Barack Obama for both of his presidential terms, but then switched to Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.
Hoping to seize on the momentum, the national Republican party opened a “community center” in Pembroke to engage Native American voters.
It’s clear, Graham said, that Robeson County is becoming a political battleground in North Carolina. But Graham, who describes himself as a moderate Democrat, said he is counting on voters not affiliated with a political party to pick him next fall.
Earlier this year, unaffiliated voters became the largest voting bloc in North Carolina, according to Carolina Demography. The number of unaffiliated voters in Robeson County increased by 115% between 2010 and 2022.
“I believe I have a message that can resonate most definitely with our Democratic base, and independents, and may pull in a few Republicans who are not satisfied with the way the Republican party is moving,” he said.
At least one Democrat is already skeptical: Evans.
A self-described “true Democrat,” Evans is not shy about criticizing Graham’s record in the state legislature. Graham has voted with Republicans on issues from abortion rights to the budget.
“This man has not supported the LGBTQ community,” Evans said. “Has not supported women’s right to choose. I’m almost afraid he will not support voter rights.”
Graham voted in favor of House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill” that forced people in state-owned buildings to use the restrooms that correspond to their sex assigned at birth. Last fall, he apologized for the vote when he launched his campaign for Congress with a viral video about the Battle at Hayes Pond, in which Native Americans pushed back the Ku Klux Klan in Robeson County in the 1950s.
Graham’s campaign website says that he personally “chooses life, but he believes reproductive health is a Constitutional right, and should not be overturned.”
Graham said his focus on affordable housing and education also speaks to his Democratic ideals. He has been a vocal proponent for Medicaid expansion, which would give hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians access to health care coverage.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I stand up with the core values that Democrats believe in, in terms of our party.”
Ultimately, Evans said he will support the Democratic party in District 7. He said he was proud of his strong showing in the primary, especially considering his “shoestring budget” of about $60,000.
He was the top vote-getter in two counties, earning about 65% of the votes cast in Cumberland and 55% in Bladen.
Graham also won two counties: Robeson, with more than 70% of the vote, and Columbus, with nearly 44%.
Michael Bitzer, a political analyst and professor at Catawba College, warned against drawing conclusions from Graham’s narrow win.
“I would be cautious in trying to make any in-depth analysis in what we see in a primary versus what we see in a general election,” Bitzer said. “By the time you get to November, party loyalty kicks back in.”
For Graham to have a chance in November, Bitzer said, Democrats must work hard to get out the vote. He said the party needs “energized and mobilized voters.”
Evans agreed, saying Democrats have “lost our excitement.”
“I do believe that a Democrat can win that district,” Evans said. “We’re just hungry for leadership.”
Graham hopes to be that leader. “I feel really good going forward,” he said.
To learn more about Charles Graham, read this story published by The Assembly.