On the left is Wiley Nickel, a 46-year-old two-term state senator who worked as an advance man for Vice President Al Gore and President Obama. On the right: Bo Hines, a 27-year-old ex-college football player and former Senate intern with dreams of returning to Washington as a “MAGA warrior.” In the middle: control on the House of Representatives for the next two years.
Nickel and Hines are running against each other in a race to represent North Carolina’s 13th district. If every district in America were ranked in order from most Republican to most Democratic, it’s the one that would land dead-center. That makes it an almost laboratory-perfect setting for a race pitting a flame-throwing Trump-endorsed political neophyte against an experienced, if anodyne, Obama-era Democrat. In an election where Democrats are clinging to a thin majority, it is one of the races most likely to decide whether the country will continue its doom spiral, reliving the 2016 election every few years for the rest of our lives.
“If we can’t get a House majority of people who care about fair maps and ending gerrymandering, we may not have another chance,” Nickel says. He is the kind of guy who posts painfully earnest TikToks urging his followers to care about the latest Supreme Court case threatening the fabric of democracy. His opponent, Hines, is the kind that declares he was “inspired” by the “American patriots” who demanded “their voices be heard” on January 6th. Nickel says he wants to caucus with the neoliberal New Democrats; Hines is poised to join forces with GOP grandstanders Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz.
They’re competing in a newly redrawn district, part of a map created by a panel of judges after the one drawn by North Carolina’s Republican-dominated General Assembly was thrown out as unconstitutional. In the old version, 10 of the state’s 14 Congressional districts would have been Republican; in the new one, there are seven likely GOP districts, six likely Democratic ones, and one true swing seat: NC-13.
The boundary of North Carolina’s 13th cuts through the center of downtown Raleigh, before extending to the exurbs, suburbs and acres of rural farmland south of the state’s capital. Donald Trump won this area with 49 percent of the vote in 2016. Four years later, Biden defeated Trump here, 50 percent to 48.3, according to analysis by the Cook Political Report.
Election handicappers give Republicans an edge in this year’s House race: 538 has Hines with a 75 in 100 chance of winning, Cook calls it a Republican Toss Up, Sabato’s Crystal Ball says the district “Leans Republican.”
But Hines’ age and virtually empty résumé — he graduated from law school in May and, according to campaign disclosures, his only source of income is a trust fund — are liabilities in some corners of North Carolina, where he’s drawing unwelcome comparisons to another Trumpy young firebrand, Madison Cawthorn, who self-immolated before the state’s eyes this year. (Comparisons to Cawthorn, one conservative outlet reported this summer, were creating “challenges raising money” for Hines.)
Like Cawthorn, Hines harbored political ambitions from an early age. Five years ago, when he was 22, Hines — a wide receiver who played for NC State his freshman year, before he transferred to Yale — detailed plans to run for Congress one day in North Carolina’s 9th district. He went on to seek Cawthorn’s endorsement when he campaigned in the 5th district last year. After Cawthorn threw his weight behind the incumbent in that race, he dropped out and registered to run in NC-13, moving to the district just a few weeks before primary day. Rivals accused him of carpetbagging, but with an endorsement from Trump he clinched the GOP nomination in May.
Nickel, for his part, thinks the Cawthorn comparisons are unfair. “To call him a Madison Cawthorn clone is an insult to Madison Cawthorn,” he says. “He is much worse. He is just everything that’s wrong with our country wrapped up into a 27-year-old trust fund kid.”
Hines has been mocked for Palin-esque moments in interviews and appearances, like when he seemed to think an interviewer who used the term “banana republic” was referring to the retailer. Or when, bemoaning inflation on the campaign trail, he declared, “My wife and I can’t afford to give up one month’s salary, we have bills to pay, we have rent to pay” — before a reporter pointed out that Hines has no salary.
There have been more substantive blunders too: Asked in a recent TV interview to clarify his position on abortion, specifically whether he supported exceptions for rape and incest, Hines said, “It boils down to an individual basis … I think you have to look at each case individually.” Hines’ campaign did not respond to an inquiry from Rolling Stone about whether, in the system he is proposing, he would personally be reviewing each woman’s individual request for an abortion, or if someone else would. (Hines previously said abortion should be “illegal throughout the United States. No exceptions.”)
Nickel’s pitch to voters includes a “30-point plan” to address inflation, ideas to combat escalating housing costs in Raleigh and its suburbs, and a promise to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade. But it’s hard to escape the sense that, at the end of the day, this race is a referendum on Donald Trump’s brand of politics and a test of the lingering imprint he has left on the Republican Party via the army of telegenic opportunists aping his style.
Whether Hines himself wins or not, his success to this point has proved it is a dynamic that is not fading anytime soon. “The bottom line for me is: I can go to Washington, and I can work with the party of Ronald Reagan, and we can have a functioning democracy if that’s who I’m working with on the other side. But with the far-right extremist MAGA Republican Party and Donald Trump? You can’t,” Nickel says.
High as his hopes for bipartisanship may be, Nickel going to have a hard time finding many ‘Ronald Reagan Republicans’ left in Congress should he win in November and make it to Washington.