Hurricane Sandy

“I have been assaulted by my mom,” the 17-year-old wrote to a Lenoir County court on July 11, 2012, asking for a protective order against her mother.  

The assaults had happened “on multiple occasions,” the girl continued, most recently two days earlier, when an argument about her mother’s demand that she join the military turned violent. “She pushed and shoved me, she slapped me, pulled my hair, pulled me to the ground and sat on me. She held me down by my hair and punched me in the face with a closed fist.”

The girl, who The Assembly is not naming because she was a minor at the time, described her home life as an escalating nightmare. She was “constantly” called a “slut, bitch, cunt,” and other slurs. She’d been kicked out and had run away. 

She wrote that the Department of Social Services had been called to her Kinston, North Carolina, home three times, and sheriff’s deputies nine times. (The Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to The Assembly’s requests to verify this claim.) 

“I just need your help because I need to live in a stable environment,” she told the court. 

A decade later, her mother might be headed to Congress.

The girl was the third person to accuse Sandy Smith of domestic violence. Her father and former stepfather have also said Smith assaulted them. But those allegations didn’t stop Smith from winning a bitter Republican primary in the 1st Congressional District, in northeast North Carolina, in May.  

Several state media outlets have covered the domestic violence claims, including WRAL and The Carolina Journal. But this article goes beyond what’s already been reported, drawing on additional court documents and public records; an extensive review of Smith’s Twitter activity; podcast and television conversations; and interviews with more than 15 political operatives, elected officials, researchers, and people who know Smith to provide the most comprehensive look to date at the congressional nominee.

Smith won by campaigning as an unabashed MAGA champion. She banked endorsements from Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, and other Trump-aligned notables. She bragged about attending the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021. She posted photos of herself with election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell and QAnon sympathizer Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. 

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Smith called school mask mandates “child abuse” and promised to “protect the children from the groomers.” She attended gun shows and boasted about owning an AR-15. She called people who support abortion rights “despicable” and said she opposes abortion without “any exceptions.”

Most years, a hard-right candidate would face long odds in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. But this isn’t most years. 

President Joe Biden’s popularity has collapsed. Inflation is raging. Republicans believe that culture-war issues like abortion, transgender rights, and police funding have driven a wedge between urban progressives and rural Democrats. And longtime Democratic incumbent G.K. Butterfield isn’t seeking reelection. 

Smith, 47, will face Don Davis, a Presbyterian minister, veteran, educator, and moderate state senator from Snow Hill, a small eastern North Carolina town, this fall. While even some conservatives admit Davis is a strong contender, the North Carolina Republican Party thinks it can snag a seat it hasn’t held since 1883. 

Michael Whatley, chairman of the state GOP, told The Assembly the 1st District is “absolutely in play.”

Butterfield, who has represented the district since 2004, agrees. 

“She can win this election,” Butterfield told The Assembly. “There will be millions of dollars coming into the district to support her, and I think that will lead to Trump getting involved. And when he gets involved, it’s going to be a very close race.” 

***

When Butterfield defeated Smith by 8 points in 2020, Smith claimed he cheated. When Butterfield announced in November that he wouldn’t seek another term, Smith claimed credit for scaring him off

In reality, the General Assembly’s gerrymandering plans did it, Butterfield told The Washington Post. 

Read our article on redistricting from earlier this year.

The congressional map the state Supreme Court eventually approved winnowed Democrats’ advantage in the 1st District. But Smith will still need to attract unaffiliated voters and disaffected Democrats to win in November. 

During the primary, some state and national GOP operatives believed Smith was too extreme to do that. They tried to crush her. 

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy controls, targeted Smith with $590,000 in negative advertising. And two weeks before the primary, one of her top rivals, Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson, made public hundreds of pages of opposition research detailing Smith’s divorces, bankruptcy, and alleged violent acts. 

It didn’t work.

“In my mind, the N.C. Republican Party’s voter base is very much behind Donald Trump,” Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said in an email. “It wasn’t surprising to me, therefore, that [Smith] got the nomination, because her candidacy as a MAGA candidate plays to the party’s base.”

Bo Hines, a Trump-endorsed 26-year-old with a thin résume and no local ties, also won in the neighboring 13th District, which political observers consider a toss-up in the midterm. He, too, will face a mainstream state senator, Wiley Nickel. 

Herein lies perhaps the biggest obstacle to a red wave this fall: In competitive districts, GOP primary voters have nominated candidates who are expanding the boundaries of the far-right, turning likely wins into question marks. 

Experts say polarization and gerrymandering have made candidate quality less important. Races are less competitive, and most voters back their party regardless of the candidate. 

That has empowered Trump’s base, said Jonathan Weiler, a UNC-Chapel Hill political scientist and co-author of the book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.

“Because we are so polarized, people like [Smith] are viable,” Weiler said. “The fact that Trump was successful in the way that he was creates the conditions for the right to put up more extreme candidates.”

But less important isn’t unimportant. In a close election, Weiler said, candidates do matter. And the Trump-like qualities that made Smith successful in May might turn fatal in November. 

***

One night last September, Emily Goranson woke her father with a phone call. “You need to turn on The Daily Show!” she told him. 

Emily, then 20, was watching a segment on anti-mask protests in Johnston County when, for just a few seconds, the camera cut to a face she hadn’t seen since elementary school. 

Emily never imagined her former stepmother—whom she says she mostly remembers yelling a lot—delivering a political speech from the back of a flatbed truck, denouncing “a governor here who thinks that it’s OK to have [critical race theory] in the classroom.” 

Eric Goranson, who hosts a home-improvement radio show in Oregon, said he was equally shocked to learn his ex-wife had entered politics. The subject didn’t seem to interest her when they were together, from 2007 to 2009, Goranson says. She wasn’t conservative, he adds, and she never attended church. 

He reached out to Butterfield’s campaign and offered to help with opposition research. (He told other media outlets—and, initially, The Assembly—that Butterfield’s campaign contacted him, but he says now that wasn’t accurate.) After Butterfield announced his retirement, Goranson contacted the conservative Carolina Journal and pointed its reporters toward information on Smith’s background. 

Retiring Rep. G.K. Butterfield

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who has represented the 1st District since 2004, is retiring after this year. (Photo by Travis Dove)

Soon, Goranson says, Republican campaigns started calling him. 

Her top opponent, Roberson, compiled a dossier on Smith, uploaded it to a public Google Drive, and tweeted the link on May 4. The next day, The Carolina Journal published its story

In court records, Goranson said Smith bashed his head with an alarm clock while he was sleeping, bloodying his face. He said in an interview that the alleged attack was retaliation for intervening when he saw Smith drag her daughter by the hair across their Seattle-area house. (In court documents, Goranson did not mention this incident, although he referred to "physical altercations” he said he witnessed between Smith and her daughter.)

“She would hit [her] all the time,” Goranson told The Assembly in an email, “but it was more of a spank-type situation.” He said this was the first time he saw Smith “completely out of control.” 

In divorce filings from 2009, Smith said that Goranson “crushed my arm” while trying to take her purse during an argument. She said the wounds on his face were self-inflicted.   

The police arrested both of them for misdemeanor assault. Prosecutors dropped all charges days later.

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Smith’s first husband, Randy Auman, has told WRAL and The Carolina Journal that Smith tried to run him over with his Mustang while they were married. 

“You couldn’t always tell what was crossing her mind,” Auman told WRAL in late May. “I wouldn’t have put it past her that the thought crossed her mind to flatten me.”

Auman also said Smith slapped and tried to punch him. He denied, however, that Smith hit him in the head with a frying pan, contradicting a claim in Roberson’s campaign ad.

On Twitter, Smith called the allegations “#FakeNews”: “I never ran over anyone with a car and I never hit anyone in the head with a frying pan. If I did that don’t you think I would be in jail?”

The Assembly’s attempts to reach Auman for an interview were unsuccessful. 

***

Sandy Smith declined multiple interview requests for this article. In early June, her campaign manager asked The Assembly to email questions, but Smith never answered them. 

Smith has avoided mainstream outlets. “Why would I talk to the communist #FakeNews?” she tweeted after The Carolina Journal and The Wilson Times reported on the allegations in Roberson’s file. 

On May 27, she blamed the “Soros Media” for spreading “smears”: “My children and I are domestic violence survivors and not the other way around.” 

Addressing the protective order her daughter sought in 2012, Smith called it “some teenage drama that was actually a cry for help from the abuse she endured at the hands of [Goranson] a few years earlier.”

Court records show that Smith’s daughter dropped her request for a protective order six days after she asked for it. According to Smith’s website, the daughter later joined the Marines. Smith’s campaign did not respond to The Assembly’s request to make her daughter available for an interview, and The Assembly was unable to reach her independently.  

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Goranson denies hitting Smith or her children. “If I had even left a mark on her or her kids, she would have used that against me in court,” Goranson said in an email. 

But Smith did accuse Goranson of abusing her daughter in a petition for a protective order she filed in a Washington state court three days after they separated in 2009. 

“Eric has been threatening [my daughter] that he was going to kick her ass,” Smith wrote. “My daughter told me that when I would leave, he would hit her and punch her.”

A Child Protective Services investigator later wrote that Smith’s daughter “expressed grave fear that her stepfather Eric ‘was going to return to the home and come and kill me and my mom,’” according to court records. “... She expressed fear regarding some weapons that Eric has and that he would use these weapons [against] her and her mother.”

Smith also noted that a previous girlfriend had obtained a protective order against Goranson in 2005; in her petition for a protective order, that woman described Goranson as “very vindictive, spiteful, and retaliatory.”

Emily Goranson told The Assembly her father never hit her or her older brother, and she doesn’t believe he hit Smith or her daughter, either. “My dad is definitely one of the last people to resort to violence ever,” she said. 

A court in Pierce County, Washington, granted Smith a protective order, which under federal law prohibited Goranson from possessing firearms for as long as the order was in effect.

On June 22, as Congress was considering a gun bill that barred more people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns, Smith tweeted: “The Republicans and Democrats who are voting to take away our rights should be ashamed of themselves!”

***

Smith’s refusal to speak with mainstream journalists has obscured details of her life that might shed light on her qualifications for Congress. But she has spoken at length with conservative and religious shows.

Within these friendly confines, she hasn’t been challenged on her calls on December 1, 2020, for the “arrests of the perpetrators of this fraud”—Trump’s 2020 defeat—and “trails [sic] and executions for those found guilty of treason,” as well as for Trump’s immediate reinstatement. (“Don’t wait for 2024,” she tweeted on May 10, 2022. “He is the true president.”)

She hasn’t answered questions about why she failed to file financial disclosure statements either time she ran for Congress—a violation of federal law—or whether she would abide by ethics rules if elected.

And no one pressed for details when Smith asserted, “I have an extensive business background, [with] focuses in accounting and finance.”

According to Smith’s North Carolina voter file, she was born in California. She registered to vote in Kinston in 2011 and, in 2013, bought a house in Winterville, in Pitt County, property records show.

Smith married her third husband, William Smith, in 2016, and earned a degree in university studies from East Carolina University in 2017. In 2020, she listed her job as the chief financial officer of her husband’s business, Green Power NC, a Greenville, North Carolina-based solar equipment supplier. (Though Smith often talks about oil production, she has said little about clean energy.)

The Smiths paid $570,000 for a house in Rocky Mount in January.

In November 2018—four months before she first declared herself a candidate for Congress—Smith and her husband incorporated Smith Family Farming Inc., according to state records. In May 2018, the Smiths bought 138 acres of agricultural land in Pitt County, property records show. 

Smith has called herself a farmer on the campaign trail. Goranson says she had “zero” experience or interest in agriculture when they were together. 

In addition to being the CFO of Green Power, president of the farm, and a congressional candidate, Smith appears to have earned at least $100,000 a year as an independent management consultant, based on Paycheck Protection Program loans she received in May 2020 and February 2021

Each of Smith’s loans was for $20,833, the maximum for a sole proprietor who reported six-figure earnings. Green Power also took out PPP loans in July 2020 and April 2021, both for $20,800, the maximum for one employee’s salary. Like most PPP loans, they have been forgiven.  

But Smith has criticized the program, telling The Wilson Times in September 2020, “There was way too much pork and waste in the previous pandemic bills.”

Her résume before moving to North Carolina is spotty. 

Goranson says she grew up in Southern California and previously worked at Disneyland. Court records show that she married Auman in 1995, and Roberson’s investigative file indicates that she had a Washington state real estate agent license registered to the home she shared with Goranson. 

Smith has said in interviews that she was “an original dot-commer” and a top seller on eBay when the company “first started.” eBay launched in 1995, but court records indicate that as of 1997, Smith was managing a CiCi’s Pizza in Georgia. 

In 2001, Smith started a company called Kyoto International in Port Orchard, Washington, according to a background report in Roberson’s dossier. It’s not clear what that business did. But in 2005, Smith declared bankruptcy after running up more than $126,000 in debt. Court records show that she owed nearly $54,000 to American Express for “business and personal” expenses and $20,000 to a California man.

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Smith was then a sales director for a medical device company in Washington state until March 2009, when she quit after her boss told her to document the work she said she was doing from home, according to emails included in divorce records. Smith claimed her position had been eliminated, unsuccessfully requested three months’ severance, then cited her lack of income to seek spousal support in her divorce from Goranson months later. 

In 2018, Smith incorporated Lillian Fox & Co. in North Carolina. The business has an “under construction” website that says it will sell wigs, hair extensions, and accessories. 

Its domain name, lillfox.com, was first registered through GoDaddy in 2003. As of 2007, in addition to wigs and hair accessories, the site also sold items such as “Bow Lace open crotch bodystocking with ruffle top” and “Lycra V-Front thong,” according to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

The Assembly could not confirm that Smith has owned the site since it was first registered. But in court records, Goranson said Smith tried to start a “web design company” called LillFox Studios. He told The Assembly that Smith sold lingerie and wigs on the site out of their Washington home, often to drag queens. 

As a candidate, Smith has called LGBTQ people “perverts.”

***

Of North Carolina’s 14 congressional districts, the 1st has the highest percentage of registered Democrats (48) and Black voters (40)—on the surface, positive signs for Democrat Don Davis.  

“But we experience higher rates of racially polarized voting in rural communities, and you’ve got to factor that into the conversation,” Butterfield, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Assembly. “The more a candidate appears to be aligned with the interests of the African American community, the less likely they are to get white votes.”

The racial divide traces back centuries. Most of the district lies in the Black Belt, a stretch of land from Virginia to Texas whose fertile soil gave rise to plantations that exploited African American labor through slavery and sharecropping. 

The area is still home to persistent poverty, low educational attainment, poor health outcomes, and lagging infrastructure. Between 2010 and 2020, all but two of the district’s 19 counties lost population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, even as the state added nearly 1 million people.

Butterfield says the economic stagnation has fostered racial animosity.

“There’s a lot of resentment among some right-wing conservatives that African Americans and Latinx Americans are taking their jobs and taking their place in society,” Butterfield said. “They just want to turn back the clock to where we were 30 years ago. 

“And so the Sandy Smiths and the Donald Trumps tap into this anxiety that a lot of rural whites have that people of color are taking their place in society.” 

But Robbie B. Davis, the Republican chairman of the Nash Board of Commissioners, offers a simpler explanation for Smith’s primary victory: She started running in early 2019 and never stopped. She yoked herself to Trump and never wavered. 

Robbie Davis said that it didn't hurt Smith when Roberson unloaded his opposition research. If anything, it helped.  

“The Republicans in our area are very hardworking people that have earned what they have, and they do not like dirty politics,” he said. 

How her supporters’ loyalty will translate to the general election is an open question. 

Smith earned 31.4 percent of the primary vote, just enough to avoid a runoff. She’ll need to broaden her coalition to win in November. 

The redrawn 1st isn’t the same district Butterfield won 10 times without breaking a sweat, but it still leans Democratic. According to Dave's Redistricting App, it broke 54-44 for Democrats in elections between 2016 and 2020. Most political prognosticators give Don Davis a slight advantage this fall. 

A source familiar with Roberson’s campaign says his internal polling had him a few points ahead of Don Davis. But Roberson, the white Republican mayor of a majority-Black town, was a mainstream candidate who could argue that he had cross-party appeal. Smith is not. 

“This is the best year we have had in a while and probably will have in a while of running a congressional race and getting some Democrat votes, just by virtue of the president being so unpopular,” said a 1st District Republican official who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “So those Democrat votes were out there for the taking. But I’m afraid we threw that away with the candidate we chose.”

The national GOP has been surprisingly ambivalent about its candidate given the district's competitiveness. For two months after North Carolina’s primary, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) appears to have ignored Smith. 

Finally, on July 15, the NRCC added her to its list of “On the Radar” candidates. It had previously bestowed that designation on Christian Castelli and Pat Harrigan, long shots in North Carolina’s blue-leaning 6th and 14th Districts, respectively. 

The NRCC has deemed Hines a “Young Gun,” a high priority for the fall election. 

In a press release, McCarthy said Smith was part of a “record-breaking class of Republican House candidates.” The release did not mention that McCarthy’s PAC spent more than a half-million dollars trying to keep her out of this class. 

The NRCC did not respond to The Assembly’s requests for comment. 

Smith seems to understand how the party’s bosses view her. “The swamp desperately DOES NOT WANT SANDY SMITH,” she tweeted in May.

***

Sandy Smith stood in the parking lot of a Wilson, North Carolina, barbecue restaurant, in front of an RV emblazoned with a giant image of her face superimposed over a flag. To her right was a pickup truck with a Confederate flag on one door and a “Sandy Smith for Congress” sign affixed to the front wheel. 

Sandy Smith at a campaign event

Still from campaign video of Republican candidate Sandy Smith speaking at an event.

She ticked off a laundry list of conservative grievances: critical race theory, abortion, gun rights, gas prices, undocumented immigrants, the “experimental vaccine,” and “liberal radicals” who want to “fundamentally destroy our country.” 

“We’ve got so much to fight for this time,” Smith told the few dozen supporters who’d gathered for her campaign kickoff rally in March. “We did very well last time. We know there was shenanigans. We’re gonna finish the job this time. We’re gonna beat ’em by even more so they cannot steal this election in 2022!”

Smith isn’t the only North Carolina Republican to dabble in election-fraud conspiracies. 

A Washington Post analysis found that 13 of North Carolina’s 14 Republican congressional nominees and Senate nominee Ted Budd have either denied or questioned the results of the 2020 election or made “election security” a centerpiece of their campaigns. All but one Republican in the state’s current congressional delegation, Rep. Pat McHenry, objected to certifying Biden’s victory. 

Democrats say this shows that pro-Trump extremism has overtaken the state’s GOP. 

There’s evidence to support this view: Last year, the state party censured Sen. Richard Burr for voting to convict Trump for his role in the insurrection. The state House’s far-right Freedom Caucus has grown from five to 27 members over the last two years, giving ultraconservatives clout to shape legislation. GOP voters have backed several candidates—including Budd, Hines, and Smith, as well as U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson—who might have been seen as fringe or unqualified not long ago. 

But there’s also evidence that this view is simplistic. Several political observers pointed out that Smith, Hines, and Rep. Madison Cawthorn earned about the same vote percentage. The races’ idiosyncracies determined their outcomes. 

Cawthorn faced a well-known conservative challenger and high-powered opposition; despite being an incumbent, he lost his primary. Hines needed Club for Growth’s largesse to push him across the finish line. Smith edged out a crowded field because the party’s establishment failed to coalesce behind an alternative. 

“My opinion is that sometimes the media writes it too much that Trump has taken over the party,” said the 1st District Republican official. “I think there’s a Trump wing of the party. It’s a very strong wing. It’s about a third of the party. And when you’re running in a multicandidate race, a third can get you a win.”

Polling indicates that half of Republicans—especially the younger and more educated—are ready to move on from Trump. 

Sandy Smith isn’t one of them. 

She hasn’t watered down her positions or toned down her rhetoric, and she’s not interested in reaching across the aisle. “I think [Democrats] actually hate this country,” Smith told an interviewer at a Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in June. “They hate everything about it.” 

Smith doesn’t want to join the Republican mainstream. She wants to conquer it. 

First, she’ll need to conquer the 1st District. 

***

Jeffrey Billman reports on criminal justice and politics from Durham. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week. Tips: jeffreybillman@protonmail.com.