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October 25, 2021

Alexander H. Jones: Charles Graham launches strong challenge to Dan Bishop

By Alexander H. Jones

State Rep. Charles Graham is drawing strength from history in his effort to make history.

Announcing his challenge to U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, Graham invoked one of the most inspiring moments in the 500-year history of Native resistance: the Battle of Hayes Pond. In this episode from 1958, a group of Lumbee Indians routed a band of Klansmen who had hoped to rain terror on the Sandhills’ Indigenous community. Graham has defined his campaign as the next step in North Carolina Native Americans’ battle for equality.

The excitement Graham’s video caused on the progressive internet both makes sense and counts as a little ironic. Graham has been the only Native American in the North Carolina legislature for years — and the most conservative Democrat in the House. Five years ago, he was one of about a dozen House Democrats to vote for HB2. Now he’s running against the bigot who wrote that piece of legislation, Bishop, who represents North Carolina’s Ninth District. Since launching his campaign, Graham has officially apologized for his vote on HB2 and promised to learn from the episode.

But on the whole, Graham presents as a strong candidate to win in that district. His Lumbee identity should help him win back the very culturally conservative Native voters who backed Bishop against Dan McCready. In a right-of-center district, his relative conservatism places him close to the center of gravity that most local voters occupy. His strength, furthermore, is in the rural, eastern part of NC-09 that delivered a narrow victory for Bishop in 2019. Assuming continued Democratic trends in the western component of the district, Graham’s crossover appeal in places like Robeson County provides the raw material for a winning coalition.

Furthermore, Bishop is arguably the weakest Republican incumbent in the state’s Congressional delegation. A recent poll found his approval rating below 40%. After barely defeating Dan McCready, he had to put up a fight against challenger Cynthia Wallace in 2020. Bishop is a flamboyant provocateur who wields a particularly nasty brand of politics, two qualities that endear him to the far right but hardly appeal to middle-of-the-road voters (who, to be sure, lean right in that district). He loves the spotlight and loves offending people.  History clearly shows that he’s vulnerable to a strong challenger.

Graham should be able to win the primary with relative ease. With the greatest name recognition and a powerful campaign kickoff, he is well positioned to win the Democratic nomination and launch a strong challenge to one of the most egregious far-right provocateurs in Congress. Political geography, personal identity, and ideological proclivity all tend toward Graham’s being a strong nominee for the party in this red-leaning district.

He has the potential to excite Democratic donors across the country. No political mad scientist could have invented a better foil for a Native American Democrat than Dan Bishop. Graham’s announcement video shows that he clearly has the pulse of Democratic activists. But he’ll have to mend fences. The LGBTQ community in particular will have to decide if it accepts his apology for HB2, and judge whether he deserves their support today. Even still, Bishop should be a little more nervous today about the future of his political career.

Alexander H. Jones is a Policy Analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill.

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