As a young congressional aide, David Price witnessed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from the Senate gallery. He remembers the dramatic moment when Senator Clair Engle of California, dying of a brain tumor and left unable to speak, was wheeled in to cast a decisive vote.
Price watched the South drift away from Democrats in the years afterward, and he has stuck around long enough to see his party win slices of it back as the region’s demographics have shifted.
He spent much of that time as a professor of political science at Duke University, and then as an improbable member of the very institution he studied — even writing a book on “The Congressional Experience.”
Now 81 and in the twilight of his career, Price is retiring from Congress after more than 30 years representing his North Carolina district, which includes the Research Triangle. He is one of the longest-serving lawmakers in Washington and an especially keen observer of how the place has changed.
And he does not like what he sees.
Over his time in office, Price has grown alarmed at how Congress has become nastier and more partisan — a trend he traces to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, whose “more aggressive and more militant approach” to politics, as Price put it, fundamentally transformed the institution.
“I’m appalled at the direction the Republican Party has taken,” Price said in an interview in his House office. “And I don’t, for a moment, think that the polarization is symmetrical. It’s asymmetrical.”
Many of today’s hardball political tactics were pioneered in North Carolina, a state characterized by bitter battles over the very rules of democracy.
In 2016, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina turned heads when he declared that the state “could no longer be classified as a democracy.” The State Supreme Court has often stepped in as an arbiter between the two parties — most recently when it threw out maps that were heavily gerrymandered by the G.O.P.-led Legislature.
Price first ran for office after trying and failing, as a political strategist, to oust Jesse Helms, the deeply conservative, pro-segregation North Carolina senator. Price took some satisfaction in the fact that the Senate recently confirmed the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
In today’s politics, Price sees ominous echoes of the 1994 campaign, when the mood of the country shifted sharply against President Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party.
“My town meetings became very turbulent,” he said, recalling how his campaign had to request police protection.
Price became a temporary victim of Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in 1994, losing his seat in that year’s red wave. He made a comeback two years later, and would serve in the House for the next 26 years.
Behind the scenes
Cerebral and reserved, Price prefers to work carefully and quietly on a few priorities at a time. He does not clamor for MSNBC hits or post viral videos of his speeches from the House floor.
“I’ve never been a tweeter,” he said, somewhat ruefully.
Instead, Price has exerted a significant, behind-the-scenes influence over causes like promoting democracy abroad and pushing changes to federal campaign finance laws. You know that tagline at the end of political ads — the one where candidates say they approved this message? That was his idea.
“He’s got his fingerprints all over a lot of things,” said Thomas Mills, a North Carolina political strategist and blogger.
Price hasn’t lost the youthful idealism that brought him to that Senate gallery in 1964. “You’re not going to find me taking cheap shots at government,” he said.
But he agonizes about how dysfunctional Congress has become, to the point where compromise is growing impossible. “Some degree of bipartisan cooperation is essential if we’re going to run our government,” he said dryly.
He warned that some Republicans want to roll back the civil rights agenda that brought him into politics in the 1960s — to the point where, he said, the U.S. is in “real danger” of entering a new Jim Crow era.
In 2013, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, freeing states with a history of racial discrimination from requirements that they clear any material changes to their voting laws with the Justice Department.
The ruling immediately set off a wave of laws in Republican-led states that restricted voting rights. In 2016, a federal judge said that G.O.P. lawmakers in North Carolina had written the state’s voter I.D. law with “almost surgical precision” to discriminate against Black voters.
“The evidence just couldn’t be clearer that months after preclearance was gone, it was ‘Katie, bar the door,’” Price said.
If you can’t join them …
The only reliable way to defeat such efforts is for Democrats to win elections, Price argues.
Last year’s infighting over the Build Back Better Act, a mammoth piece of legislation that was rejected by two Democratic senators, didn’t help.
“We can never make a binary choice between turning out our base and appealing to swing voters,” he said. “We will not succeed if we don’t figure out how to do both.”
Part of the Democratic Party’s problem, he said, is the discomfort many on the left feel about promoting the party’s successes when there’s always more work to do.
“I often think about how Trump did this,” Price said. “He just bragged about his achievements, however illusory.”
Understand the Battle Over U.S. Voting Rights
Why are voting rights an issue now? In 2020, as a result of the pandemic, millions embraced voting early in person or by mail, especially among Democrats. Spurred on by Donald Trump’s false claims about mail ballots in hopes of overturning the election, the G.O.P. has pursued a host of new voting restrictions.
Why are these legislative efforts important? The Republican push to tighten voting rules has fueled doubts about the integrity of the democratic process in the U.S. Many of the restrictions are likely to affect voters of color disproportionately.
Will these new laws swing elections? Maybe. Maybe not. Some laws will make voting more difficult for certain groups, cause confusion or create longer wait times at polling places. But the new restrictions could backfire on Republicans, especially in rural areas that once preferred to vote by mail.
“I’m not suggesting we do that,” he hastened to add. “But I do envy the ability to do it.”
As he leaves Congress, Price worries about what might happen if Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, takes over as speaker, given “the kind of forces he’s going to be beholden to” on his right flank.
“I want to see a healthy, right-of-center Republican Party,” Price insisted. “So much of it just seems nihilistic these days.”
But for now, he said, “We just have to beat them.”
A Democratic tradition: donating to long-shot challengers
Every election cycle, at least one Democrat seems to rise to national prominence despite having very, very little chance of actually winning.
Friday was the final day for congressional candidates to file their quarterly fund-raising totals with the Federal Election Commission, and some of the biggest numbers came out of a district that’s nearly impossible for Democrats to flip: the seat in Georgia held by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Marcus Flowers, a Democrat and Army veteran who is running against Greene, raised $2.4 million in the first three months of the year, twice as much as Greene raised in the same period.
It’s part of a longer trend of Democrats raising money to unseat their least favorite Republicans — even when those Republicans are running in safe districts.
Greene won her district by 50 percentage points in 2020, and while the lines changed in redistricting, she remains the overwhelming favorite in this deep-red area of rural northwestern Georgia.
Flowers is explicitly running as the candidate to defeat Greene, centering her in his messaging. His campaign has spent more than $2 million on digital ads, according to AdImpact. Those ads are more likely to be viewed in California, New York or Florida than in Georgia, though he has also run ads on local television.
“Now, American democracy itself is under attack because of our congresswoman,” he says in a TV ad airing in northwest Georgia.
In 2020, Democrats took out their frustration with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, at the time the majority leader, by donating to Amy McGrath, his Democratic opponent. McGrath raised $96 million for that Senate race and lost it by 20 percentage points.
In 2018, Democrats rallied around Randy Bryce, a Democrat who campaigned on ousting Speaker Paul Ryan. Bryce raised nearly $9 million and lost by 12 points — but to a different Republican, Bryan Steil.
Ryan didn’t end up running.
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