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Can abortion flip the most competitive House seat in North Carolina?

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

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In today's editionTrail Mix: Add Walker to the list of GOP candidates softening their stance on abortionIsaac Arnsdorf on how the ‘Never Trump’ movement became ‘Never Trumpism’ … What we're watching: Herschel Walker on “The Today Show” … but first, we take a close look at a key House race in North Carolina and the Senate contest

The campaign

Can abortion flip the most competitive House seat in North Carolina?

RALEIGH, N.C. — In a classroom at North Carolina State University, eight college students sat in a circle and told Wiley Nickel what issues were important to them this election.

All but one, including three male students, listed abortion access as one of their top issues.

That's good news for Nickel, the Democrat running in North Carolina's 13th District, the most competitive House seat in the swing state, and a critical pickup opportunity for Democrats in their uphill effort to maintain control of the House despite disapproval of President Biden and record-level inflation.

Nickel has made abortion access central to his campaign, saying he hopes codifying Roe v. Wade is the first vote he takes in Congress, should he win.

“This is a very important issue,” Wiley, a state senator and criminal defense attorney said during a 30-minute interview in his law office. “And, frankly, it's an incredibly rare chance to send a message about where we are as a country on this particular issue.”

A young MAGA candidate

Nickel is facing Republican Bo Hines, a 27-year-old political newcomer who's nonetheless worked for years toward elected office. He graduated from Wake Forest University's law school in May and told the Charlotte Observer in 2015 while still an undergrad that he transferred from N.C. State to Yale because it would help his political ambitions, including potentially running for president. He shopped around districts in the state before settling in the 13th. 

Hines, a former college football player, is a darling of the MAGA movement. He was endorsed by and appeared at a North Carolina rally with former president Donald Trump; the House Freedom Fund, the campaign arm of the far-right House Freedom Caucus; and the conservative Club for Growth in the primary over the objections of the local Republican Party.

Hines and Nickels are running for the seat currently held by Rep. Ted Budd, the Republican nominee for North Carolina's open Senate seat and Trump's handpicked candidate.

  • Democrats are comparing Hines to a fellow North Carolinian: disgraced, far-right Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who is also 27 and who lost his primary in May after a series of scandals and missteps. Nickel says Hines is too close to Trump and too extreme for the swing district.

“In our race, we have, you know, a far right extremist, someone who said he wanted to be the most conservative member of Congress in North Carolina, which is saying a lot with Madison Cawthorn as part of the delegation,” Nickel said.

Hines was not made available for an interview despite repeated requests.

Hines has said the 2020 election was not legitimate and calls for a complete halt of all immigration for 10 years. He has shifted his position on abortion over the past several months, saying last spring that abortion is murder. This summer he said he was open to abortion to protect the life of the mother and now says he would consider exceptions for rape and incest as well.  

  • The National Republican Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, is painting Nickel as a soulless attorney who represents those accused of the worst crimes. “If you're a criminal, Wiley Nickel has your back,” one ad says. Another calls him a “defund the police Democrat.”

Nickel said he is a “strong backer of law enforcement” and points to an endorsement by the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association.

He vows to be a moderate and work across the aisle, he used the word “bipartisan” eight times in an interview with the Early 202. If elected, he would join the conservative Democrats’ Blue Dog Coalition and the more fiscally moderate New Democrats. He said he is “running as a different kind of Democrat. You know, and I disagree with the, you know, extreme left to say they want to defund the police.” 

It’s a contrast to Hines' hard-right positioning, and it could help convince moderates to turn Nickel's way.

But his down-the-middle positioning could be uninspiring for Democratic base voters, leading them to stay home — a challenge the party in power often has in midterm elections.

Who can motivate their base?

Turnout is going to decide this race, both local Republican and Democratic political strategists say. Nickel needs to drive up turnout in the city and Hines needs to drive up turnout in the rural part of the district. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) will travel to the district to boost Nickel among black voters this week.

Shirley Hicks, who has lived in southeast Raleigh, a predominantly Black part of the district, much of her life and is now retired and volunteering for the Democratic Party, said the overturning of Roe v. Wade has motivated Democratic voters.

  • “Because I believe in God, that he doesn't give me the choice because he does give me the choice. If he gives me the choice, why should the United States government take these choices away from me?” Hicks said.

Abortion is legal in North Carolina up to 20 weeks, but it's still a major issue in campaigns up and down the ballot.

North Carolina Democrats are also focused on the state General Assembly and working to elect enough Democrats to ensure the Republican majority cannot override a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, especially on the issue of abortion.

The money game

The district, which includes urban Raleigh, suburban Holly Springs and rural Johnston County, was redistricted to be evenly split among Republicans and Democrats. It’s considered a toss up by Cook Political Report and strategists on both sides of the aisle who have seen internal polling say that it is dead even.

Both parties are aggressively competing but Republicans are working overtime to ensure they hold Budd's seat. Republicans have reserved reserved $12.8 mullion through Election Day, including $7.1 million in a contentious primary,  compared to Democrats $4.8 million through Election Day, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

  • National Republicans have spent heavily to also make up for Hines fundraising challenges. He raised $864,000 in the third quarter, according to a campaign finance report filed over the weekend, which nearly matches the $925,000 personal loan he has used to fund much of his campaign. Nickel has raised $3 million for his campaign, including $1.1 million in the third quarter.

It's probably still the economy

Vernon McLendon, 79, said he's a registered Democrat but voted for Trump. He said he's undecided on who he will vote in the congressional race and that abortion is a personal choice that won't factor into his vote. Inflation, he said, is his top concern “because this affecting my IRA and my investments.”

Republicans and Democratic strategists in the state say that the economy is the most prevalent issue.

They will make the election about the economy  of Joe Biden or it's gonna be an election about potential changes” to abortion in North Carolina. Republican political strategist Paul Shumaker said.  “Whereas those same voters are walking into the grocery store every day, and they're saying ‘oh my god, the sky is falling.’”

Nickel said he supports the Democrats' Inflation Reduction Act, the climate change, health care and deficit reduction bill and said Democrats need to do more to address inflation, including addressing the high cost of housing through tax credits and incentivizing housing near transit.

Hines, in an interview on NewsNation at CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Coalition conference, he said the key to stopping inflation is “to stop the government spending,” but he doesn't mention inflation on his website.

Democrats accused of underfunding a fight to be N.C.’s first Black senator

Also in North Carolina is the extremely close Senate race between former state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley — who could become the state’s first Black senator — and Rep. Ted Budd, who is backed by former president Donald Trump. It has received a lot less attention than races in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada, but it could determine control of the Senate. Here’s an excerpt from our colleague Cleve R. Wootson Jr. who followed Beasley on her stump through western North Carolina:

“Beasley had spent a day last week pinballing around western North Carolina, stumping for the state’s soon-to-be-open Senate seat. At her last event, a brewery in this liberal mountain stronghold, the Democratic candidate eased onto a stool as a moderator asked if anyone had a question.”

  • “When the microphone came to Ann Baxter, she unloaded her concerns. She’d seen an avalanche of ominous ads from Budd’s camp, tearing into Beasley’s record and painting what Baxter believes is an untrue and unflattering picture. But she had only seen two pro-Beasley ads. When, she asked, was Beasley going to fight back?”
  • “The paucity of ads — and money from deep-pocketed political action committees and donors that would fund them — has been an enduring worry for Beasley’s supporters days before voters begin to head to the polls to determine who will replace Sen. Richard Burr (R), and which party controls the U.S. Senate.”
  • “Since August, Beasley, a former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice, has been in a statistical tie with Budd, a three-term congressman endorsed by former president Donald Trump. North Carolina Democrats have been raising the alarm that without more help, their chance to end a 14-year streak of Senate losses will evaporate.”

Trail Mix

Add Walker to the list of GOP candidates softening their stance on abortion

Dylan Wells on the trail in Georgia:  Ahead of Friday’s one and only debate between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker in Savannah, the issue of abortion was dominating campaign coverage following an allegation that Walker, who has run an antiabortion campaign, paid for an abortion in 2009.

But neither candidate sought to make the raging debate over access to abortion or Walker’s alleged behavior the centerpiece of the event, which I was on the ground covering (in my very first reporting trip for The Post after starting last week!)

Supporters of Warnock I spoke to before the debate said they didn’t believe he should bring up the allegations against Walker.

“That speaks for itself. Walker is showing his true color,” Mattie England, a retired nurse, said at a rally for Warnock.

The senator took their advice.

Neither candidate brought up the allegation until the moderator asked about it, at which point Walker again said the reports that he paid for the mother of one of his children to get an abortion in 2009 are not true.

  • “That’s a lie,” Walker said when asked. “I’m a Christian. I believe in life. And I tell people this: Georgia is a state that respects life.” He did not comment further on the reporting, and Warnock did not hammer him on the issue.

But interestingly Walker also appeared to soften his position on abortion during the debate, following the trend of other Republican candidates nationwide backing away from hard line stances on abortion to reach general election voters.

Walker, who has said he supports a national abortion ban and that he does not support any exceptions, denied supporting a complete national ban, and said that he supports the Georgia “heartbeat bill.” 

  • The Georgia bill bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically around six weeks. It has exceptions for medical emergencies and in cases of rape and incest when a police report is filed.

As The Post has previously reported, congressional candidates across the country have scrubbed their positions on abortion from their websites in recent months. Walker’s comments add him to the list of GOP contenders to change their position on abortion as the midterm election rapidly approaches.

Keep an eye out for Dylans's coverage for The Post ahead of the midterms and follow her on Twitter.

The campaign

How the ‘Never Trump’ movement became ‘Never Trumpism’

The year of ‘Never Trumpism’: “For many disaffected Republicans, 2022 is the year the ‘Never Trump’ movement became ‘Never Trumpism,’” our colleague Isaac Arnsdorf writes.

  • “In races across the country, former and even some sitting Republican elected officials are endorsing Democratic candidates in unusual numbers. And a crop of Republican-led groups that sprang up to oppose Trump has now turned to persuading Republican voters against supporting the party’s nominees who are imitating his divisive appeals and lies about the 2020 election.”
  • “The efforts are a combination of outreach from Democratic campaigns, Republican groups acting on their own initiative and spontaneous decisions by individual voters. There’s no central coordination. Republicans say they’re motivated both by local dynamics in specific races and the national environment — a reflection of how Trump’s transformation of the party has exploded into a new generation of Trump-style figures.”

What we're watching

Georgia Senate GOP candidate Herschel Walker sits down with NBC News’s Kristen Welker. Who’s tuning in?

The Media

Early reeeads


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