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There's a tight House race in a new North Carolina swing district

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Voters in this fall's elections are choosing 435 members of the House of Representatives. But of all those races, fewer than three dozen are competitive. Voters in those few districts will determine which party controls the House. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith visited one.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: North Carolina's 13th Congressional District runs from the city of Raleigh all the way out into two rural counties. And it's in the fast-growing suburbs in between where Democrat Wiley Nickel was knocking on doors this past Saturday.

WILEY NICKEL: Hey. How are you? Wiley Nickel. I'm your state senator.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK.

NICKEL: Running to be your congressman.

KEITH: Nickel, who is also a defense attorney, is aiming his pitch at registered Democrats and people with no party preference listed. At one house, a man answers the door who says he used to be a Republican but changed his registration because of Trump. He's already voted for Nickel, who walks away energized.

NICKEL: And it just takes, you know, a smaller group of folks, you know, in the center, center-right to say, we're tired of it - and we win this race.

KEITH: Bo Hines, the Republican candidate, is a 27-year-old Trump-endorsed former college football player who describes himself as a MAGA warrior. He spoke last month at a rally the former president held in the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BO HINES: We need conservative fighters that will go on offense, take ground back, just like President Trump did during the course of his administration.

KEITH: The Hines campaign declined to comment for this story. Outside of early voting sites in the district, a trend quickly emerges in interviews with voters. Voters, even those not registered with a party, are casting their ballots through a partisan lens. Take Jim Miller, who describes himself as fiercely independent and yet says he couldn't imagine sending another Republican to Washington.

JIM MILLER: Hell no to Bo.

KEITH: That is a tagline in one of the ads.

MILLER: Yes, I know. That's why I said it. But, you know, what qualifications does he have? Really, he's just a young guy (laughter). Really, I think he's got a lot of growing up to do.

KEITH: Ted and Judy White voted for Hines.

JUDY WHITE: Inflation, schools, the wokeness of what's going on, the - all of the people with the violence. Everything's just out of control.

KEITH: They see Democrats as a threat.

J WHITE: Now, I have voted in the past for Democrats.

KEITH: Yeah.

J WHITE: But not this time.

TED WHITE: Not this cycle.

J WHITE: (Laughter) Not this cycle, no.

KEITH: The candidates aren't shying away from this division. They're leaning into it. Here's Hines in an interview that aired on CBS 17 in Raleigh earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HINES: This is more than just a political fight. This is spiritual warfare. It's good versus evil. I think that you're seeing Republicans come together.

KEITH: Nickel, the Democratic candidate, also gives a stark warning about the stakes in this election.

NICKEL: Democracy is on the ballot, and the right to choose is on the ballot and is especially important in this race. You know, I've - you know, served my state in the Senate. And on the other side, you know, we've got an election denier who says he's 100% pro-Trump.

KEITH: Hines has said he will accept the results of this election, but he's noncommittal about whether Joe Biden won in 2020 fair and square, which he did. Even in a swing district like this one, there just aren't that many swing voters, says Mike Rusher, a former Republican Party operative in the state who now works with corporate clients.

MIKE RUSHER: You would have thought that candidates might focus more on those swing voters to make persuasive arguments. As we approach the finish line, in hindsight, you know, I think people can see why maybe that's not needed in a year like this.

KEITH: A year when turning out base voters is the key to winning.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Raleigh, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic, breaking news about global vaccine sharing and plans for distribution of vaccines to children under 12.