Charles McKellar is sitting on a folding chair in the sparse Cumberland County Democratic Party offices, surrounded by papers and the refuse of a Zaxby’s meal, explaining that outsiders don’t know as much as they think they do.
“This is different here,” the retired Air Force veteran and local party treasurer said. “I’m not going to say the people aren’t friendly to strangers, but I don’t think people are very accepting of strangers, especially if you come in and start trying to dictate how we should do things here.”
“They’re smarter in Orange County and Durham County, you know?” Sharon Johnson, the local party chair and retired U.S. Treasury special agent, chimes in sardonically. “Don’t forget Mecklenburg.”
The sentiment is common here—the people of Fayetteville don’t much appreciate what the rest of North Carolina has to say about them—but as the general election nears, there’s a pointed subtext. McKellar, Johnson, and other Fayetteville Democrats have been hearing the same arguments about one of their state Senate candidates since March.
What’s happening in District 19 is very local, but started with a very notable outsider: Gov. Roy Cooper. After the current Senator, Democrat Kirk deViere, broke ranks with his party during last year’s state budget process, Cooper made the unusual choice of publicly backing his challenger in the May primary, Val Applewhite.
Applewhite won by 20 points, but now she’s facing a tough election against Republican Wesley Meredith, who represented the district for four terms before deViere unseated him in 2018. Some Democrats fear the seat is vulnerable.
Though no public polling has been released, the money spent on this race says a lot: Applewhite had raised $229,000 by the end of June (the most recent report available)—nearly four times more than the Democratic candidate in neighboring District 21, which is a toss-up on paper, according to data from Dave’s Redistricting. And after Michael Bloomberg gave $1 million to the North Carolina Democratic Party last week, the party poured an additional $355,000 into Applewhite’s campaign.
“Elections are won and lost in the last week or so,” Applewhite said. “It’s going to be a very close race.”
Many have puzzled over why Cooper would risk complicating the District 19 race at a time when Republicans are only two seats away from a supermajority in the Senate.
“I don’t know what transpired between Kirk and the governor,” Johnson said. “I would love to know. I asked. He didn’t tell me.”
Cooper said he endorsed Applewhite because she “isn’t afraid to stand up to Right Wing Republicans.”
But now his veto power—the key to his governing strategy—is at stake, and District 19 might make the difference.
A Tale of Three Cities
On the surface, Cumberland looks like a familiar blue city/red county story, where conservative rural areas surround Fayetteville’s 200,000 urban residents.
But it’s more complex than that.
To start, much of what is within city limits is actually rural. Since 2005, Fayetteville annexed more than 40,000 Cumberland County residents into the city. Some still don’t even have water and sewer lines, despite paying city taxes. Another 50,000 active-duty military members are based at nearby Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the country, plus nearly 90,000 family members, contractors, and reserve military personnel.
“It’s just a small southeast town,” said Gerard Falls, an Army veteran, Fayetteville educator, and chair of Cape Fear Indivisible, a local progressive group. “It would be Lumberton without Fort Bragg.”
The base brings a diverse and often transient population. White people are a minority in both Fayetteville and Cumberland County, and the area’s voter base skews older since so many of the younger folks are transient military personnel.
“My district is a microcosm of the city,” said Fayetteville city council member Mario Benavente. “There were more people 80 and older that voted than 40 and under,” he added, based on his own analysis of voter records.
Bragg also brings a constant flow of military funding. But its federal status means local governments don’t collect taxes on the area’s main employer, so the benefits aren’t spread across the county. The non-military population is largely relegated to service jobs, and the poverty rate is nearly double the national average.
“There’s a dichotomy in Fayetteville,” said Applewhite. “I think we have extreme wealth for some and extreme poverty. When I was on the city council I used the Dickens quote: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”
Those conditions create complicated politics. Biden won Cumberland County by nearly 17 points in 2020, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 40,000. But more than 70,000 voters in the county are unaffiliated and, thanks to the older demographics, even the Democrats tend to skew conservative.
In 2018, Democrat deViere beat Republican Meredith by less than 500 votes.
The Ties That Bind
Cumberland politics can be equal parts fractious and friendly. Applewhite, deViere, and Meredith exemplify it perfectly.
Applewhite, a 61-year-old disabled veteran and realtor, told The Assembly she was known as “the PTA lady” before entering politics, and that she’s still a woman better known in the community for her sons than her political career. She seems to approach her work more like a passionate citizen than a focus-grouped politician, driving a Jeep adorned with a “you should see me topless” bumper sticker.
“I’m single now,” she said. “It’s a conversation starter. My boys hate it, but I think it’s funny. Probably if I’m running for Senate I might need to take that off.”
Applewhite first ran for city council in 2007. Meredith was already a council member, and guided her through the ins and outs of political work. DeViere ran her campaign.
“I had no clue what I was doing,” said Applewhite. “I didn’t know how to run a campaign, and Wesley Meredith helped me with canvassing and showing me how to do things. It wasn’t a party thing.”
The political connections grew into friendships, especially with deViere. “I knew Kirk was going to ask Jenny, his wife, to marry him before she did,” Applewhite said.
But Applewhite and deViere had a falling out when they both ran in the nonpartisan mayoral primary in 2013. Applewhite finished first, while deViere finished third. “A distant third,” Applewhite stressed.
When Applewhite faced off against the second-place finisher in the general election, deViere and the other three candidates, all of whom were white men, endorsed Applewhite’s challenger, Nat Robertson, a Republican. Applewhite lost by just 260 votes.
They eventually repaired their friendship, Applewhite said, and she endorsed deViere for mayor in 2017. But the 2013 race still clearly stings. “Without any support from anyone, I was first place in that primary, a pretty large first place,” she said. “I was the only woman. I was the only person of color.”
Applewhite beat deViere in the 2022 Democratic primary, and now has to face off against Meredith. Their long shared histories have become fodder for what former Democratic state representative and local politico George Breece calls the “sharp elbows” both are known to throw.
“It will be the most-watched race in Cumberland County,” said Breece. “These are very good candidates who are as opposite as you will ever find.
“They may agree on what day Christmas is,” Breece added, “but beyond issues of motherhood and apple pie, you’re not going to find those two agreeing on much of anything.”
Outside Fayetteville, deViere has been largely understood as a moderate Democrat who lost to a more liberal Black candidate in a majority-minority district. There’s some truth to that: Before joining the Democratic Party in 2016, he had switched his party allegiance from Republican to nonpartisan to Democrat and back again.
But the fact that some of Cumberland’s most progressive activists are ardent deViere supporters shows it’s a more complicated story. He voted against a bill that would have outlawed teaching LGBTQ+ issues in kindergarten through third grade, and sponsored legislation to address water pollution, make expunging criminal records easier, and prohibit wage discrimination based on gender.
DeViere told The Assembly he prioritized finding common ground in the state Senate: “Too many times nowadays we just have people that want to stand and yell at each other and nothing gets done.”
But if deViere is moderate, so is Applewhite. Local progressives still lament her opposition as a council member to a moratorium on police consent searches and a police review board, as well as her vote to raise bus fares. She has described herself as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.”
“The notion that Val Applewhite is more progressive than Kirk deViere is absurd to the point of making my head explode,” said Falls, the Indivisible chair.
DeViere curried favor among local progressives, and many others, by building relationships. “The difference I see is who is going to effectively get things to the goal line,” said Benavente, the councilmember. “In the primary, I voted for Kirk because at least I’ve seen it done from him.”
Many noted deViere’s ability to bridge communities.
Adam Beyah, chair of the Cumberland County Democratic Party’s African American Caucus and a former imam, recalled inviting elected officials to the local mosque for an event.
“Most came and said something and left. Kirk stayed the whole time,” Beyah said. “The perception is: He’s one of us.”
Straw That Broke The Donkey’s Back
If a compromising approach won deViere fans in his district, it also made an enemy of Gov. Cooper.
Their public conflict began when deViere broke ranks with his Democratic colleagues and voted for a Republican state budget in 2021. Though the final negotiated budget eventually passed with broad bipartisan support and Cooper signed it, it didn’t include Medicaid expansion, one of the governor’s major priorities.
The stalemate over Medicaid had left North Carolina without a new budget for two years, and Cooper had hoped to keep pressure on Republicans to get it done. But deViere took a more conciliatory approach.
“Everybody on the Democratic side would have loved to see Medicaid expansion in there,” he said, “but it wasn’t in the cards.”
The final package included $412 million in funding for Cumberland County, which deViere points to as a success. “We could not go another two years without a budget,” he said. “I told anybody and everybody that would listen to me that we have to find a compromise.”
DeViere argued that he and the three other Democrats who voted for the Republicans’ initial proposal gained necessary input in the ensuing negotiations.
But Democratic leadership believed that input came at the expense of the party’s leverage. Within weeks, some voters in the 19th District received a questionnaire from Public Policy Polling, a firm with close ties to the Democratic Party, about which candidates would be favored against deViere. One of the options was Val Applewhite.
Applewhite had left politics after a second failed mayoral run in 2015, saying she was fed up with the influence of big money. But she’d gotten active in an effort to block a proposed $60 million Civil War museum in Fayetteville. While deViere had never been a particularly fervent backer of the project—he told The Fayetteville Observer in 2020 that the General Assembly “should be investing in closing the gaps of racial inequality that are even more highlighted now due to COVID-19” rather than focus on the museum—the funds were included in the budget that he voted for.
The cost, Applewhite said, “didn’t make sense. This city is falling apart. If I were a legislator, the last thing I would do is put that $60 million in a Civil War museum that is already dividing the community along racial lines.”
She points to the museum funding as the beginning of her decision to reenter politics. It was “a deal-breaker for me,” Applewhite said.
When the new 2022 electoral maps placed Applewhite’s home in District 19, she sensed an opportunity.
Because deViere told Applewhite what happened between him and Cooper, Applewhite says, “I knew there was a strain between Senator deViere and Governor Cooper, so when I started to make my decision to run, I knew there could possibly be an option there to get support.”
DeViere declined to relitigate the primary. “There will be a time and place to have a deeper discussion on it, but not now. There is too much at stake in our community, state and nation and I want to be responsible in my words and respectful of the democratic process,” he wrote in an email. “I will just say that it is disheartening to see Governor Cooper and many candidates now talk about the importance of working across the aisle, when just a few months ago putting partisan politics first over the people in our communities and state served as a type of loyalty test for Democrats.”
In any case, Applewhite was right about the opportunity, and Cooper publicly endorsed her in March. Major Cooper allies lined up behind her campaign. Nexus Strategies, a consulting firm run by Cooper advisers Morgan Jackson and Scott Falmlen, stopped working with deViere and began working for Applewhite. Donors followed too.
Though deViere raised almost as much money as Applewhite during the first half of the year—$208,000 compared to her $229,000—the sources were much different. Over half of deViere’s donations came from Fayetteville donors. For Applewhite, it was less than $8,000. She brought in the maximum legal donation of $5,600 from Cooper allies and major state party donors spread across the state, including Raleigh residents Jackson and Falmlen, former Cooper adviser Ken Eudy, and major donor Dean Debnam who runs Public Policy Polling.
The additional $355,000 Applewhite netted from the North Carolina Democratic Party this month via Bloomberg’s donation was a huge sum for a state Senate race. Applewhite also received the maximum donations from supporters better known for backing Republicans, including South Carolina-based casino magnate Wallace Cheves and several Florida-based businesspeople. Cheves’s other 2022 donations include $2,900 to Republican Senate candidate Ted Budd and $39,200 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Cooper said he backed Applewhite because she’s a trusted ally. “Right now, our state needs members of the State Senate focused on one thing – delivering for all North Carolinians,” his endorsement read in part. “I know Val and trust her to do what is best for North Carolina.”
That message was central to Applewhite’s primary campaign. She criticized deViere for being too allied with Republicans, backed by locally infamous mailers from the NC Futures Action Fund, a political action committee Debnam leads. But in the past, Applewhite has made the opposite criticism of deViere: not that he would put local needs above Democratic priorities, but that he wouldn’t.
DeViere would be “unable to deliver anything for Fayetteville under Republican leadership,”she wrote in a 2019 Facebook post, a screenshot of which Falls provided. Applewhite went so far as to imply that Meredith, who is now her opponent in the Senate race, would have been a better choice.
“It’s hard to figure out where I was with that thinking,” Applewhite said when asked about the post. “That was several years ago, but I think the thought behind that is that I recognize that you have to walk across the aisle.”
The more likely explanation for Cooper’s decision is that it was never about ideology or shared priorities. It was about the central cog in the Democrats’ governing strategy: his veto.
Since Democrats broke the Republican supermajority in 2018, Cooper has vetoed 47 bills, and Republicans haven’t overridden any of them. It’s given Democrats a way to force negotiation.
But Democrats’ hold on Cooper’s veto power is fragile. In that context, having a state Senator with an independent streak like deViere is too much of a risk.
“While Governor Cooper, with his skills, can win twice for governor statewide, Democrats are more behind the eight ball than people realize—because of gerrymandering, but even after gerrymandering, the way the vote is concentrated we are at a disadvantage in the legislative context,” said Mac McCorkle, a longtime political consultant and professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
“If it was six or seven votes and there was a wayward person, OK,” he added. “It is a two-vote margin in the Senate, and if he thought this person would not sustain his vetoes, that’s going to be a real problem.”
Cooper only had to look at the U.S. Senate, where wayward Democrats Joe Manchin and Kristen Sinema ground President Joe Biden’s agenda to a halt, to see why.
But that same logic makes replacing deViere just as risky, if not more so. Incumbents have a built-in advantage during elections, especially when they are as well-liked locally as the Cumberland state Senator.
“First and foremost,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College and state political observer, “when you’re stacking the front lines of any trench warfare, you want people that have been in the trenches before.”
Midterm elections typically favor the party that does not hold the presidency. High inflation and the president’s dismal approval ratings are only making it worse.
The decision has puzzled political analysts since March, but one possible explanation for why Cooper decided to take the risk is that it looked much less risky when he made it. The electoral maps Republicans proposed last year gave Democrats a 32-point advantage in District 19, according to Dave’s Redistricting—a head start large enough to survive any Republican electoral swing, no matter who the candidate was. Once those maps were struck down in February, the Democrats’ advantage was reduced to 11 points, but the wheels may have already been in motion.
Without public polling on the race, Democrats aren’t clear how nervous they should be. But the whispers around Fayetteville are persistent, adding a local complication to an already complicated election year.
Democrats hope that this summer’s Supreme Court decision striking down federal protections for abortion rights will galvanize voters and counteract Republican advantages—especially since Cooper’s veto is the only barrier should Republicans decide to push for more stringent abortion restrictions next year.
Applewhite told the The News & Observer that “there should be no restrictions on abortion,” while Meredith supports “policies that protect and respect the lives of unborn babies and pregnant mothers” while allowing “clear exceptions for rape, incest, protecting the life of the mother, and compassionately caring for fetuses with catastrophic deformities who cannot survive outside the womb or have already died.”
Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson who focuses on reproductive politics, likens it to the 2018 “blue wave” set off by Trump and Brett Kavanaugh. “My question is, can the Supreme Court Dobbs decision equal the same thing and get people to the polls?” she said.
Ultimately, she’s pessimistic about Democratic prospects. “I would be shocked if the Republicans don’t get that veto-proof majority,” she said.
Where The Wave Crests
Democratic Party officials in Cumberland County are tired of hearing about Cooper and the primary.
They held a series of unity events after the vote was counted. They brought deViere and Applewhite’s teams together and asked them to put aside their differences and get behind their candidate.
“Everybody outside had commentary about what was going on in Cumberland, but in spite of that I think we’ve managed to move forward,” said Johnson, the local party chair.
They’ve tried to focus on local issues, like defeating a referendum that would make all Fayetteville city council seats at-large seats, and on bond issues. They want to talk about issues like voting and abortion rights.
“All of those things are sufficient enough to get our electorate out to vote,” Johnson said.
And anyway, Johnson adds, the race in District 19 is not about Cooper. Applewhite deserves her due. “Maybe this is the woman in me, but I find it very offensive to think she only won because of that influence,” she said.
In a way, Applewhite’s critics agree: It is about her—her council record, her public statements, and the support she received in the primary.
“I want Val to win,” Benavente, the city councilor, wrote in a text message. “Still, the road to this point can’t be ignored or understated.”
The way the District 19 race has been run is part of the rub for both progressives like Benavente and the moderate deViere. Benavente said he wasn’t even invited to the party’s unity events; he only found out they existed when he filled in for the mayor at one.
“These are grown people,” Johnson said in response. “All events are posted on Facebook. We don’t restrict anyone.”
The hazards for Applewhite’s campaign comes from both the left and the right.
“There are a lot of white, conservative Democratic men in Cumberland County who wouldn’t vote for Val Applewhite for anything, and it’s because they’re racist and they’re misogynistic,” Falls said.
At the same time, there’s a concern that many younger, more progressive and engaged Democrats will give Applewhite their votes, but not much else. Indivisible, a notable presence in the county for their volunteer canvassing work, isn’t supporting Applewhite’s campaign this year. Though Falls clarifies that it’s because they chose to focus on toss-up districts instead, he seemed glad for the excuse.
“If they blow a 10-point lead, that’s on them,” he said.
DeViere, for his part, said he’s been canvassing for local Democrats. He declined to state if Applewhite was one of them.
The Applewhite campaign’s financial might could help overcome any lagging enthusiasm. But it could cost Democrats elsewhere. “You can only spend a dollar in one place,” said Bitzer. “A dollar spent in the 19th, do you need that in the 18th or the 17th, these neighboring areas that are much more competitive in terms of the fundamentals?”
And even if they win Cumberland County, Democrats may yet lose the veto.
The week before Election Day, Applewhite said she wasn’t thinking of any of that. She’s just thinking about Cumberland County voters.
“I’ve got to know no matter how this election turns out, on the morning of the 9th, I can look myself in the mirror and say, ‘Val, you didn’t leave anything on the court,’” she said. “I have to look in the mirror when no one else is there.”
Ultimately, national trends, not individual races, will determine whether a Republican wave materializes on November 8. But as the state knows all too well, the local landscape goes a long way in determining where the wave crests.
Matt Hartman is an Assembly contributing writer based in Durham. He’s also written for The Ringer, Jacobin, The Outline, and other outlets.