It’s an unusual year for the 12th Congressional district race. For the first time in two decades, it’s an open seat. Charlotte Democrat Mel Watt represented the district from 1993 until he resigned in January to take over as head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Watt’s departure has created a lot of interest among Democrats. WFAE's Duncan McFadyen and Tasnim Shamma talk to Morning Edition Host Kevin Kniestedt about the race.
KNIESTEDT: So, seven Democrats running in the May 6th primary?
SHAMMA: Yeah, these opportunities don’t come along often. If you can get elected, you have a good chance of staying a long time, because it’s a safe Democratic district. The 12th is a majority-minority district that snakes through six counties from Charlotte to Greensboro. And it leans heavily Democratic; both President Obama and Congressman Watt received nearly 80 percent of the vote in the district in 2012.
KNIESTEDT: So, what are the candidates doing to try to connect with voters?
MCFADYEN: Frankly, they’re having a hard time differentiating themselves. They’re all fairly liberal Democrats. A few weeks ago, I went to a forum that six of the candidates attended in Greensboro… one of the things they were asked was yes or no, would you vote to allow federal funding for abortions? They all said yes.
SHAMMA: The challenge of differentiating themselves isn’t lost on candidate Marcus Brandon, who says most of the candidates are friends and respect each other:
"The fact that because you’re all Democrats, you pretty much have a lot of the same issues, so really differentiating yourself between people who are like-minded, that becomes a difficult thing."
KNIESTEDT: OK, let’s just go through the candidates here ...
MCFADYEN: Well, we just heard from Marcus Brandon, he's a state representative from High Point. There’s another state representative, Alma Adams of Greensboro. She’s held that seat for 21 years.
SHAMMA: State Senator Malcolm Graham of Mecklenburg County, formerly on the Charlotte City Council.
MCFADYEN: James Mitchell was also on Charlotte City Council until last December. You’ll remember he ran against Patrick Cannon in the Democratic primary for mayor of Charlotte. And recently, he wanted Council to name him mayor after Cannon resigned. In fact, he skipped a 12th district forum on Monday night to be at the City Council Meeting.
SHAMMA: And then there's Curtis Osborne, a Charlotte attorney, and George Battle is the general counsel for the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board.
MCFADYEN: And Rajive Patel, a former mayor of the town of East Spencer in Rowan County. He’s a Vietnam veteran who readily admits he’s not campaigning as hard as some of his opponents. He’s basically telling people to go to his website, read about him, and decide for themselves.
KNIESTEDT: So how are the candidates setting themselves apart?
SHAMMA: Yeah, so I went to another panel, this one in Charlotte, and there was a lot of consensus on many topics. But the candidates do disagree on a new school voucher program that would give low-income parents $4,200 a year to send their children to private schools, including religious schools. Most of the candidates are against them because they think it would hurt public education. The only Democrat for it is Marcus Brandon, who actually sponsored the bill. Here’s what he said at the panel:
"I get in trouble for this answer, but absolutely. I do think that we do have to look at alternative education. We do have to look at private schools."
MCFADYEN: And then there's Curtis Osborne, who served four years in the Army and four more in the reserves. He's the only Democrat at the forum in Greensboro who said he would not vote to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against terrorists.
KNIESTEDT: So, with so many candidates, should we expect a runoff?
MCFADYEN: Well, yes, to avoid a runoff in North Carolina, a candidate has to have 40 percent of the vote plus one vote. But with so many candidates, it’s highly unlikely any of them will be able to do that. And there’s always a chance that the second-highest vote getter could choose not to call for a runoff, but I’d say that’s unlikely in this case.
SHAMMA: And adding to that is that a majority of the 12th district’s registered voters live in Mecklenburg county, but four of the candidates are from here. Marcus Brandon, who’s from High Point, even moved his campaign headquarters to Charlotte’s South End. UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig says all of that focus on Charlotte could give an advantage to a candidate from the Triad:
"It's likely that you'll have a lot of regional voting with the people in one city voting for people from the same city – so that might create challenges for candidates in Charlotte, even though it’s the largest part of the district. If you have multiple candidates from Charlotte and they split the Charlotte vote, somebody say from Greensboro – if they're the only Greensboro candidate, they could consolidate that vote and end up winning with say 25 percent of the vote."
KNIESTEDT: Now despite this being a heavily Democratic district, there are two Republicans running.
MCFADYEN: That’s right. Vince Coakley may be a familiar name and face around here -- he’s a former WSOC-TV anchor and he’s a conservative. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, reduce taxes and limit the size of the federal government.
SHAMMA: And Leon Threatt is a pastor who grew up in Greensboro and preaches in Charlotte at the Christian Faith Assembly. Threatt says he and Coakley are on the same page.
KNIESTEDT: But can a Republican win in November?
MCFADYEN: We asked Catawba College Political Scientist Michael Bitzer, and here’s what he said:
"The answer is no. This is going to be a safe Democratic district. It’s drawn in that nature, and it’s commendable that the two republicans are seeking their party’s nomination, but this is a Democratic district."
MCFADYEN: And, as we said earlier, the Democrat who wins the primary is almost certain to win in November. Then, unless the district lines are re-drawn or there’s some kind of scandal, they’ll likely be able to keep the seat as long as they want it.