His anti-KKK ad went viral. His campaign for Congress did not.

This premise of course avoids the idea that most counties in the district outside of Robeson, including Bladen, Columbus and Brunswick, have been represented by Rouzer since he was sworn in in 2015. The latest campaign cycle Rouzer won those counties with 57 percent, 63 percent and 64 percent respectively. (GOP Rep. Dan Bishop, who represented Robeson County in 2020, won the district with 58 percent of the vote.)

These communities, however, do not know Graham as well.

Perhaps that’s why Graham reflects on his work with conservatives in the state legislature. In its last broadcast advertisement, Launched on Friday, he bills himself as “an educator and business owner” who “has worked across party lines for 12 years,” again, never mentioning he’s a Democrat.

“Working across party lines” also meant helping pass the state’s controversial Bill 2, which banned transgender people in the state from using bathrooms that matched their gender identity. Graham has since apologized for taking that vote – after meeting with members of the trans community – even issue a statement last year saying “I should have done more research to fully understand the impact of the bill.”

He says he was overwhelmed at the office and at home, hearing constituents worrying that “a man shouldn’t be in the bathroom with my kid or my wife.” “My parents were telling me, Charles Graham, to vote for the bill. And guess what Charles Graham did? I voted for the bill because my constituents were saying, “You have to do this. It’s hard to say whether that vote cost him any Democratic voters. But with his last campaign, he won by the slimmest majority of his time in the state assembly, another sign that the GOP wave was coming.

He doesn’t mention it in his latest ad, but Graham notes that Rouzer was among 121 House members who voted against certifying Biden’s election victory the day after the US Capitol was attacked by a pro-Trump mob. January 6th. which he uses in last year’s “Battle of Hayes Pond” so many months ago.

The insurgency was “another reason why I decided to take this step and get into this fight,” Graham says.

Some fights, however, take money. According to the latest campaign documents, Rouzer has $1.3 million in the bank while Graham has just under 300,000. And while Democrats are offering lip service to recruiting and supporting viable candidates in rural districts, the party organizes precision strikes with an emphasis on voting in urban districts such as Raleigh and Charlotte.

“I’m disappointed that our … Democratic Party of North Carolina, the national people, hasn’t done more,” Graham said. “I think our Democratic Party has, I don’t want to say taken for granted, but…failed to promote what the Democratic Party can do for the economy of our rural communities.”

A campaign stops in downtown Fayetteville on a Friday night is where Graham’s retail-political talents are on full display. He casts himself as a politician who won’t polarize voters, but he may be one of the last viable Democrats to have the name ID to secure a victory in this blushing district.

He participated in an outdoor festival celebrating Hispanic heritage. Dance troupes perform at one end of the cordoned-off street, while mariachi bands play at the other.

A little overdressed for the occasion in black slacks and a crisp shirt, Graham methodically polls the crowd, slowly approaching a few vendors peddling their wares. He bumps into Secia Covarrubias, who is sitting at a booth promoting her services as a real estate agent focusing on on Latino customers. It happens to be set up just opposite the Lumbee Guaranty Bank, which is just beginning to light up as the sun sinks behind the three-story building.

Graham, seeing an opportunity, discusses it. And at one point, he stops to wave awkwardly at the bank sign, then points to himself as if to say “I’m Lumbee, so is the bank.” Covarrubias smiled politely as he took the campaign materials he handed her. And with that, Graham left, disappearing into the crowd.

With no campaign T-shirts or aides carrying signs emblazoned with the Graham logo, it’s virtually impossible for festival-goers to know they’re in the middle of a candidate who could go down in history.

Covarrubias says she doesn’t remember if she saw Graham’s campaign signs, or even if she had even heard of him before their brief conversation. But Covarrubias, who typically votes for Democrats, says talking to Graham boosted his vote.

“Actually having a real conversation with him and seeing how he treats other people, even the way he shook my hand,” Covarrubias says. “He definitely looked me in the eye. It was a real interaction and I definitely let myself be swayed.

It’s unclear if Graham has had enough of those interactions to topple this district in two days. For now, however, he is focusing on the story of his potential victory, selling his message that he is the best man to represent a forgotten part of the state, to be what he calls a “member of the Main Street Congress”.

“It would be,” he says, “an honor for me to bring the voices from my home county and the voices from southeastern North Carolina to Washington with me.”

JC Whittington contributed to this report.

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