That premise of course sidesteps the notion that most of the counties in the district outside Robeson, including Bladen, Columbus and Brunswick have been represented by Rouzer since he was sworn into office in 2015. The last campaign cycle Rouzer won those counties with 57 percent, 63 percent, and 64 percent respectively. (GOP Rep. Dan Bishop, who represented Robeson County in 2020, carried the district with 58 percent of the vote.)
Those communities are however not as familiar with Graham.
Perhaps that is why Graham is leaning into his work with conservatives in the state legislature. In his latest broadcast ad, launched Friday, he introduces himself as “an educator and a business owner” who’s been “working across party lines for 12 years,” again, never mentioning that he’s a Democrat.
“Working across party lines” also meant helping to pass the state’s controversial House Bill 2, which barred transgender people in the state from using bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identity. Graham has since apologized for taking that vote—after meeting with members of the trans community—even releasing a statement last year saying “I should have done more research to completely understand the impact of the bill.”
He explains that he was being inundated at the office and at home, hearing from constituents concerned that “a man should not be in the bathroom with my child or my wife.” “My folks were telling me, Charles Graham, to vote in favor of the bill. And guess what Charles Graham did? I voted for the bill because my constituents were saying, ‘You need to do this.’” It’s hard to say if that vote cost him Democratic voters. But with his last campaign, he won by the slimmest majority of his time in the state assembly, another sign that the GOP wave was coming.
He doesn’t mention this in his latest ad, but Graham notes that Rouzer was among the 121 House members who voted against the certification of Biden’s electoral victory the day after the U.S. Capitol was attacked by a pro-Trump mob on January 6—imagery he uses in last year’s “Battle of Hayes Pond” so many months ago.
The insurrection was “another reason that I decided to take this step and get into this fight,” Graham says.
Some fights, though, take money. According to the most recent campaign filings, Rouzer has $1.3 million in the bank while Graham has just under 300,000. And while Democrats offer lip service about recruiting and supporting viable candidates in rural districts, the party is mounting precision strikes with a focus on turning out the vote in urban districts like in Raleigh and Charlotte.
“I’m disappointed that our…North Carolina Democratic Party, the national folks, have not done more,” Graham says. “I think our Democratic Party has, I don’t want to say taken for granted, but…have come up short in promoting what the Democratic Party can do for the economy of our rural communities.”
A campaign stop in downtown Fayetteville one Friday evening, is where Graham’s retail politicking skills are on full display. He’s running as a politician who won’t polarize voters, but he’s one of perhaps the last viable Democrats that has the name-ID to pull off a victory in this reddening district.
He’s popped in at an outdoor festival celebrating Hispanic Heritage. Dance troupes perform on one end of the cordoned off street, while mariachi bands play at the other.
A bit overdressed for the occasion in black slacks and a crisp button down, Graham methodically canvasses the crowd, slowly approaching a few vendors hawking their wares. He lights upon Secia Covarrubias, who’s sitting at a booth promoting her services as a realtor focusing on Latino clients. She happens to be set up just across the street from the Lumbee Guaranty Bank, which is just beginning to light up as the sun disappears behind the three-story building.
Graham, seeing an opportunity, chats her up. And at one point, he pauses to gesture awkwardly at the bank sign, then points to himself as if to say “I’m Lumbee, just like the bank.” Covarrubias smiles politely as she takes the campaign literature he hands her. And with that, Graham is off, disappearing into the crowd.
With no campaign t-shirts or aides carrying signs festooned with the Graham logo, it’s virtually impossible for festival-goers to know they’re in the midst of a candidate who could make history.
Covarrubias says she can’t recall if she’s seen Graham’s campaign signs around—or even if she’d even heard of him prior to their brief chat. But Covarrubias, who typically votes for Democrats, says talking to Graham solidified her vote.
“Actually having a genuine conversation with him and actually getting to see how he treats others, even the way he shook my hand,” Covarrubias says. “He definitely looked me in the eyes. It was a genuine interaction and I definitely got swayed.”
It’s unclear if Graham has had enough of those interactions to flip this district two days from now. For now, though, he is focusing on the history of his potential win, selling his message that he’s the best man to represent a forgotten part of the state, to be what he calls a “Main Street congressman.”
“It would be,” he says, “an honor for me to take the voices of my home county and the voices of southeastern North Carolina to Washington with me.”
JC Whittington contributed to this report.