North Carolina Democrat Under Fire Over Anti-Abortion Votes

Don Davis is locked in a contentious congressional primary against Erica Smith.
State Sen. Don Davis (left) and former state Sen. Erica Smith are both hoping to earn the endorsement of retiring Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.).
State Sen. Don Davis (left) and former state Sen. Erica Smith are both hoping to earn the endorsement of retiring Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.).
Davis and Smith Campaigns

Abortion rights have become a flashpoint in the Democratic primary to succeed retiring Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) as a progressive candidate seeks to outmaneuver a more moderate rival.

The primary for North Carolina’s Democratic-leaning 1st Congressional District, which is scheduled for May 17, pits state Sen. Don Davis, a centrist, against former state Sen. Erica Smith, a progressive.

Butterfield plans to reveal his endorsement in the coming days and is expected to choose either Davis or Smith. (There are two other Democrats running, but Davis and Smith are the top two contenders.)

But as the rival campaigns await Butterfield’s announcement, Smith’s campaign, her allies and some unaffiliated pro-choice Democrats are attacking Davis for several votes restricting reproductive rights.

“Don’s record — defunding Planned Parenthood, working with Republicans to pass anti-abortion laws, and obstructing Governor [Roy] Cooper’s agenda — make it clear that he’s a Democrat in registration only and risks alienating the base that we need to turn out to win this seat,” Smith’s campaign manager, Morris Katz, said in a statement.

Davis’ campaign insists that he supports the fundamental right to choose an abortion. In Congress, he would vote to codify the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, according to his campaign.

Davis told The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday that his support for abortion rights was shaped in part by the death of a family member due to complications from pregnancy when Davis was young.

“This is near and dear and personal, so I really do take all this to heart and I want to be very clear about my support for reproductive health,” he said.

But several of Davis’ votes over the years have elicited criticism from pro-choice groups.

In 2015, Davis — and eight other Democrats in the state Senate — voted for a bill proposed by then-North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) that would have formally banned the sale of fetal parts. The bill also made permanent a provision in the budget denying future state funding for the provision of “family planning” services to groups such as Planned Parenthood that also perform abortions. Smith voted against the bill.

Davis was also one of four Democratic state senators to vote in favor of the 2017 budget, and the only Democratic state senator to vote in favor of the 2018 budget. Both bills allotted at least $1 million to an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center.” “Crisis pregnancy centers” are a euphemism for religious institutions that often use misleading arguments to dissuade people from obtaining abortions.

And finally, in 2019, Davis was one of just two Democratic state senators to vote for Republicans’ “born alive” legislation making it a felony not to treat a baby born in the course of a late-term abortion as a person. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) vetoed the bill on the grounds that existing law protects newborns and the bill was designed to erode abortion rights. Davis was the only Democrat to vote to override Cooper’s veto, providing the deciding vote in the Senate needed to pass the bill into law.

The North Carolina pro-choice group, Lillian’s List, reacted to that vote by publicly soliciting a primary challenger to run against Davis in 2020, a task in which the group was ultimately unsuccessful.

While Lillian’s List has not endorsed a candidate in this congressional primary, the group’s executive director, Sarah Preston, called Davis’ record on abortion rights “spotty” and urged Democrats to think carefully about candidates’ past votes.

“With Roe literally in front of the Supreme Court, and the possibility that we could see it overturned, we need to have champions at every level, who will defend reproductive freedom, who will defend access to abortion, and who will codify Roe at the national level,” she said.

A Democratic strategist familiar with North Carolina politics, who is also not affiliated with either campaign, was more explicit.

“It’s a seat that leans Democratic and should be ours and I don’t know why we should have someone out of the mainstream representing it,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity for professional reasons.

“You have to respect him for that because my grandmother always said, ‘You stand even if you have to stand alone.'”

- Gwen Wilkins, Nash County Commissioner

The Davis campaign declined to address Davis’ reasons for voting for each of the bills or respond to criticism of those votes.

They did refer HuffPost to his vote against a 2015 bill that tripled the mandatory waiting period for abortions, and shared the first page of a 2008 questionnaire that Davis completed while seeking the endorsement of the Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina’s Action Fund. In the questionnaire, Davis said he supports “publicly funded family planning services.”

Davis told the Charlotte Observer that attempts to paint him as an abortion rights opponent are “disingenuous.”

“My record speaks for itself, and particularly I’m not going to allow any of my opponents to distort my record,” he added.

Gwen Wilkins, a Democrat and Nash County Commissioner backing Davis, defended his 2019 vote for the “born alive” bill as a principled stance with which she agreed.

“You have to respect him for that because my grandmother always said, ‘You stand even if you have to stand alone,’” Wilkins said.

Wilkins is supporting Davis because she believes he has helped bring resources to economically disadvantaged parts of Eastern North Carolina.

“There’s an old saying, ‘You should treat the janitor with the same respect as the CEO’ and that’s Don Davis,” she said. “That’s why he’s so loved, so well respected.”

Scrutiny of Davis’ record on abortion rights is flaring up as turnover in the Congressional Black Caucus provides a unique opportunity for warring factions of the Democratic Party to lay claim to open seats in districts where the party has an advantage.

Butterfield, Smith and Davis are all Black. But while Smith would resemble newer, progressive CBC members like Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), Davis would likely be closer to the CBC’s most conservative members, such as Reps. David Scott and Sanford Bishop of Georgia.

The Democratic strategist noted that Butterfield has an impeccable pro-choice record, which suggests that Davis would be to his right on the issue. “I don’t see why we need to go backward rather than forward,” the strategist said.

In addition, Democrats are at odds over the best way to stave off losses in what is expected to be a bruising midterm election cycle. The population in North Carolina’s 1st is majority nonwhite, but it is also heavily rural and Democrats have been struggling in even some rural areas with large Black populations.

Moderate Democrats insist that candidates win in rural areas by being more accommodating to voters with less liberal views on social issues, including abortion rights.

“We have a home for everyone. We value everyone’s opinion,” Wilkins said.

But progressives insist that candidates must excite base voters with strong convictions.

“The working families of North Carolina deserve a champion who will wake up and fight for them every day, and that’s clearly Erica Smith,” said Natalia Salgado, political director of the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Smith.

Smith, a two-time U.S. Senate candidate, has some vulnerabilities of her own, however.

While seeking the Democratic Senate nomination in 2020, a Republican super PAC affiliated with GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spent nearly $3 million in advertising designed to bolster her bid. The move, which Smith denounced, was designed to sow dissension in Democratic ranks after Senate Democrats’ campaign arm had endorsed Smith’s rival, Cal Cunningham, who ultimately won the nomination.

A Daily Kos writer also took Smith to task for endorsing a Republican challenger against state Sen. Toby Fitch (D) in 2020. Smith has explained that she only endorsed against Fitch because she has accused Fitch of sexually and verbally harassing her.

“I will not back down or apologize for standing up to abusers,” she wrote in Daily Kos.

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