Democratic North Carolina congressman David Price first won election in 1986, the year the last of Durham’s cotton mills closed. With the exception of a single narrow defeat in 1994—the notorious red wave that ousted 34 House Democrats and birthed the modern GOP—he’s held on to the left-leaning 4th Congressional District ever since. 

The district’s heart is the Bull City, but it also encompasses all of Orange, Granville, and Franklin Counties as well as parts of Wake, Chatham, and Vance. Price “is the epitome of a statesman and public servant,” North Carolina’s other longtime Democratic congressman G.K. Butterfield said recently, which certainly rings true. Price, 81, has a well-earned reputation as an effective, no-nonsense lawmaker; he’s cerebral rather than attention-seeking and would rather get things done than stand on ceremony. He’s helped push through education and consumer protection and has secured funding for a slew of state projects from the construction of Raleigh’s Union Station to an EPA lab and headquarters for the North Carolina National Guard.

Last month, Price announced he intends to retire at the end of his term, leaving his seat wide open for a Democratic successor in 2022. The district—which has been recalibrated as the 6th—is one of three precious safe havens for Democrats in the new, heavily gerrymandered congressional map. Republicans would be poised to secure up to 11 seats, giving them nearly 80 percent representation in a state where there are more Democrats registered to vote than Republicans (North Carolina has about 2.5 million registered Democrats, 2.4 million registered Independents, and 2.2 million Republicans). Lawsuits are already challenging the legality of the Republican-drawn maps, and courts will ultimately decide if they stand for the March primary. 

The candidate filing period for the primary doesn’t open for two weeks, but campaigns for the seat are already in full swing. State senator Wiley Nickel, who currently represents Wake County, threw his name into the ring the same day Price announced his retirement and has already amassed a quarter-million-dollar war chest. Last week, Durham County Board of Commissioners member Nida Allam, the first Muslim woman ever elected to public office in North Carolina, launched her campaign and instantly raised $50,000, a figure she’s already doubled. And outside Durham’s North Carolina Central University Monday, air force veteran and small business owner Nathan Click announced he, too, would be vying for the coveted congressional seat.

Several other big-name candidates are rumored to be entering the race, including state senators Valerie Foushee and Mike Woodard and former state senator Floyd McKissick Jr. But the full candidate roster won’t come into focus until the state’s filing deadline December 17. (Editor’s note: Woodard said Tuesday he wasn’t planning to run for the seat, after the INDY went to press; Foushee announced today she plans to run for the seat.)

Price’s district has long been a Democratic stronghold—Price won with 67 percent of the vote in 2020—but the new 6th District condenses it into an even more tightly packed blue district by eliminating the rural areas north of Wake County. It’s now expected to swing 74 percent Democrat, according to a recent analysis by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, making it tied with the 9th District, which covers Charlotte, for having the highest concentration of Democratic voters.

“They made it a safer Democratic seat so they could make other seats more Republican,” says political consultant Gary Pearce, a former advisor to Governor Jim Hunt. “Democrats are looking at a bad year next year and what they need to be looking at is how they are going to dig out of that hole down the road.” 

The question isn’t if a Democrat will win the 6th seat but which, and in turn what brand of progressive politics resonates most strongly with 2022 voters. If Price represents the best of North Carolina Democrats of yore, what type of candidate will represent the party’s future? Will it be a young firebrand progressive, like Allam, or a tried and true establishment candidate with deep political ties and a lengthy history of service, like Foushee? With Butterfield’s district now competitive, could the 6th be North Carolina’s best chance to send a progressive candidate to Washington? 

You won’t have to wait a year for the answer. The district is so packed that a Republican wouldn’t stand a chance against a primate. November’s election will be decided in the primary. 

Just because the 6th is safely blue, that doesn’t mean a lot isn’t riding on it. Midterm elections typically spell mayhem for the party in power—see: the 1994 Republican Revolution following the election of President Bill Clinton and the Tea Party’s sweep of the 2010 midterms after President Barack Obama’s election. If Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election—where Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe—is any precursor, 2022 is poised to be disastrous for Democrats in Congress.

A red wave next year could see Republicans easily take control of the House, which Democrats hold by a mere eight seats, and the currently deadlocked U.S. Senate. With Republicans controlling the legislature and Supreme Court, President Joe Biden would be effectively muzzled and at the mercy of a runaway GOP train. The most pessimistic prognosticators believe the subsequent descent into fascism will be swift and unrelenting. 

This makes the 6th Congressional District all the more critical.

“How are Democrats going to guard against fascism? That’s the essential challenge Democrats are going to be grappling with for years to come,” says Blair Reeves, cofounder of Carolina Forward, a progressive nonprofit. “Someone who casts a vote and stays out of the fray, that’s not really going to cut it anymore.”

“The great debate among Democrats is: Do we want to appeal to the center or do we simply want to fire up the base? And it’s always hard for me to understand why people even have that debate because to win at politics you’ve got to do both,” Pearce says. “It may be easier to win running as a fire-breathing progressive, but what we need in this country and what this district ought to be in the lead in sending to Washington is someone who has progressive views but is able to get some things done in Congress.”

The challenge in this election will be standing out in a crowded field, with viable races for Democrats and so many great progressive candidates packed into one district, says Maggie Barlow, one of the most sought-after Democratic campaign strategists in the state. Barlow thinks candidates of color and women will have a competitive edge, but they’ll need to appeal to urban progressives and highly educated voters. 

“Female candidates represent our best opportunity in a lot of these electoral environments,” Barlow says. “It’s going to be someone who can really put together a strong operation very quickly and raise a lot of money by having a lot of institutional support.”

Pearce is quick to point out that Black women are the most reliable Democratic voters. In terms of demographics, he agrees a woman of color would have the best chance at winning the seat. Of the major candidates running or rumored to run, all but Nickel and Woodard are Black or people of color. And, Pearce says, if 2020 proved anything, it’s that North Carolina’s old model for electability is broken. Cal Cunningham, your typical white, middle-aged lawyer, was the perceived safe bet in 2020 Senate primary. His campaign tanked amid a sex scandal weeks before the election, all but handing Republican Thom Tillis back his seat. 

“The lesson of all that is there’s a hunger for younger new blood,” Pearce says. 

Allam, 27, certainly fits that bill. If elected, Allam would be the second-youngest person in Congress, behind Madison Cawthorn. In some ways, she’s Cawthorn’s inverse: Cawthorn fabricated his origin story—lying about the car accident that paralyzed him, falsely claiming he was accepted into the Naval Academy—while rallying supporters of President Donald Trump with fearmongering over socialism and liberal indoctrination. 

Allam also has a unique origin story, but hers is real. She was driven toward local politics after three of her best friends were gunned down in a racist attack in Chapel Hill in 2015. She sees herself as the progressive Democrat poised to not only inspire young voters but take swift and meaningful action on the issue that matters most: climate change. 

“This is our chance for North Carolina to elect a progressive fighter and not just a status quo Democrat,” Allam says. “I’m the candidate in this race that understands the urgency of this moment, our moment, because our generation and the next is going to have to live with the repercussions.”

Nickel, 45, has a lengthy résumé that includes working under Vice President Al Gore in the nineties and in the Obama administration. He says his experience is what separates him from the pack. 

“I’ve worked for two White Houses, held two terms in the state senate, and having that national experience—I’ve flown on the planes, helicopters, I’ve been on the motorcades—I know what we need to do to make change,” Nickel says. 

While Nickel may have the financial backing needed to run an effective campaign, Reeves thinks he will face an uphill battle because most of his base is in Wake County. Nickel disagrees, noting about 40 percent of the voters in the 6th District are in Wake. Allam, on the other hand, has a lot of name recognition in both Durham and Orange Counties. 

A slew of political newcomers will surely join the race in the coming weeks, but most of the major candidates interested in the seat have deep party connections, including Allam who served as vice president of the North Carolina Democratic Party. Nickel has ties to Washington, and the names Foushee and McKissick are legacies in their own right.

“Party politicians consolidate behind one of their own,” Reeves says. “Especially given the contours of this district, we don’t think a lot of them really have their finger on the pulse of the district.

“This is a much more liberal area now and it needs a representative who is going to reflect that,” he continued. “I think people are going to raise a lot of money, but it’s really going to come down to who excites the liberal base more. Right now, I’m seeing two candidates who can kind of do that, and one who can do it better.”

The 6th might not be Price’s district—it’s smaller, more urban, and younger—but Durham will continue to be its crux. Mayor Steve Schewel believes Bull City voters are looking for candidates that embody the city’s core values, with racial and economic justice being at the top of the civic agenda. 

“I think that voters everywhere want somebody with a good strong record of achievement who has bravely represented the values of this community and has achieved victories for this community over time,” Schewel said. “Durham, in particular, wants a good, strong progressive who is going to go and fight for our values.”

After three decades–plus in Washington, Price said in a statement that despite his many accomplishments, retirement won’t bring a complete sense of closure. Democracy, more fragile than ever, “remains a work in progress.”

“Looming over it all is the frightful legacy of the last four years and urgent questions about the future of our constitutional democracy,” Price said. “So while it is time for me to retire, it is no time to flag in our efforts to secure a ‘more perfect union’ and to protect and expand our democracy.” 

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