An NC state senator is exploring a bid for a seat in Congress that doesn’t exist. Here’s what he’s betting.
WASHINGTON — How do you run for the U.S. House in a district that doesn’t exist? Well, former Obama staffer and North Carolina state Sen. Wiley Nickel is about to find out.
Nickel, a 44-year old Democratic lawyer heading into his second term representing western Wake County, filed paperwork on Friday forming an exploratory committee to run for Congress in 2022.
A state senator filing paperwork to explore a campaign might seem like ho-hum news, except that Nickel filed to try out that bid in the mysterious “House District 00.” That district, of course, doesn’t exist, and the district where Nickel lives is already represented by a Democrat. But it wasn’t a typo, Nickel assured Policy Watch.
He’s placing an early bet that when North Carolina redistricting is all said and done, the legislature (or courts, if it comes to that) will have drawn a brand new congressional district right in his backyard because of surrounding population growth. North Carolina is expected to gain a district as a result of the 2020 census, Election Data Services has projected.
That officially makes Nickel the first declared potential candidate for the yet-to-be-drawn, potential 14th Congressional District of North Carolina.
“We wanted to put 14 on there but I don’t think they would let us,” Nickel said in a phone interview, referring to campaign finance regulators. “There’s been a ton of growth in western Wake County, and wouldn’t it make sense to put a new seat in the place where there’s been the most growth?”
It’s not a bad bet; the Raleigh-Cary metropolitan area saw the 10th-fastest percentage population growth of any county in the nation over the last decade, according to census figures. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region has almost enough of a population to support three congressional seats alone, so political observers believe a new seat may well pop up in that area.
And it’s the kind of bet that’s worked for Nickel in the past. He started his first campaign for his North Carolina state Senate seat more than a year before the election and before he even knew for sure which district he’d be running in, according to Raleigh’s News and Observer.
The exploratory committee allows Nickel to raise and spend money to ask for support and even advertise for a potential federal race, none of which he’d legally be allowed to finance through his state-level campaign committee.
Interestingly, Federal Election Commission rules don’t force speculative candidates to create exploratory committees or disclose donors until and unless they actually launch campaign activity.
So a candidate can raise small sums to test the waters by doing things like conducting polling, traveling or making phone calls, all without ever having to be public about it. But Nickel said he decided to file the paperwork with the FEC anyway to be forthright about his donors and his intentions.
“We just figured that the best thing to do was actually just do it, so there’s full disclosure of donors,” Nickel said.
There might be an ulterior motive too, said Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political science professor.
He said the very public entry into a race that’s two years away in a district that doesn’t exist coming only two weeks after the last election might be strategic, especially when open seats in North Carolina have tended to draw a dozen or more candidates into primaries. Amassing a big war chest and peppering your donor roll with some big-name contributors could send a signal to other potential candidates to beware.
“Letting it leak out early is a smart idea if it acts as a gun behind the door, a sort of threat to someone else who might be thinking about running,” Cooper said.
Nickel has been an able fundraiser, hauling in around $400,000 for each of his last two state Senate races. And he has at least some ability to self-fund; he’s donated tens of thousands of dollars to his own North Carolina campaigns, according to state election finance records.
And he does have some big supporters: In 2018, he drew the high-profile endorsement of President Barack Obama, for whom he worked during his first presidential term as an advance staffer. He did the same work for the presidential campaign of Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) and for then-Vice President Al Gore. When soon-to-be first lady Jill Biden visited a Cary polling site on Election Day this year, Nickel was right there by her side.
Then again, he’s also a relative political newcomer, and there might be a backlog of prominent candidates interested in running in a state where Democrats are finally facing more politically advantageous districts, after courts struck down gerrymandered maps last year. And though he’s lived in North Carolina since 2009, Nickel also isn’t originally from the state, but rather from California, where he once ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate.
So not so fast, said Paul Shumaker, a North Carolina-based GOP political consultant. There’s a lot of runway left between now and a new map.
He said the smarter move for ambitious young politicians might be to keep their powder dry, lest they make themselves a target in a redistricting process that is going to be led, at least initially, by Republican legislators who have no political incentive to draw a safe seat for someone positioning himself as a political threat.
“If I was advising somebody who wanted to run for a potential seat, and I’m sitting in the legislature, the last thing I would do is want to tell people that,” Shumaker said. “Why tip your hand? It’s a political rookie mistake from my perspective.”
Of course, if the last few years are any indication, the redistricting process will be a long one and will have many twists and turns and court battles before a new map is approved.
The news that Nickel is eyeing the new district might come as somewhat of a relief to local Democrats. At first glance, his filing papers might have given people the wrong impression that the self-described progressive plans to take on a sitting Democratic incumbent.
Nickel’s state Senate district, after all, is wedged right inside North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District and right at the edge of the 4th District.
Any exploration of running in those districts as they’re currently drawn would be an exploration of potential political suicide against popular Democrats: Either U.S. Rep. David Price, the 80-year-old dean of the North Carolina delegation, or Rep.-elect Deborah Ross, who was the party’s standard bearer in a very close Senate race against Republican Sen. Richard Burr in 2016.
But Nickel made clear that none of that is in the works.
“I have no plans at all to run against David Price or Deborah Ross,” he said. “My plan is to run for reelection to the state Senate, but if there’s an open seat [for Congress] we’ll strongly consider it.”
Cooper noted, though, that throwing a hat in the ring early might be advantageous from another standpoint. Price is getting to the age where retirement talk is more of a when than an if, and for her part, Ross may well choose to reprise her candidacy for the Senate in 2022 when Burr steps down. Either scenario would leave an open seat in Nickel’s region, one his exploratory committee would be open to explore, too.
“Exploratory committees are well-named, right?” Cooper said. “The fact that you don’t have to be specific is clearly to his advantage.”
Daniel Newhauser reports for the States Newsroom network, of which NC Policy Watch is a member.