Ray McKinnon is the type of voter assumed to be a solid North Carolina Democrat: African-American, a youth pastor, Hillary Clinton-turned-Barack Obama supporter and lifelong party member. He lives in Orange County, which, with Durham and parts of Wake and Chatham counties, forms the Fourth Congressional District, the most progressive political jurisdiction in the state, and maybe south of the Mason-Dixon line.
In 2006, McKinnon voted for U.S. Rep. David Price, the longtime Democratic incumbent, and likely would have again this fall had he not met B.J. Lawson.
McKinnon was campaigning for Clinton earlier this year in Hillsborough when he met Lawson. The Republican challenger handed McKinnon a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution and shortly afterward, Lawson had a convert.
"I probably would not have considered a Republican, because I don't think Republicans are friends to civil liberties," said McKinnon, who now runs the blog demsforlawson.com and is a Lawson campaign field organizer.
In 2001, Price, like most of Congress, voted for the USA PATRIOT Act, which gave the Bush administration the green light to mow over fundamental constitutional protections, including those prohibiting illegal search and seizure and guaranteeing freedom of speech and assembly. Although four years later Price opposed reauthorizing existing provisions in the act, for McKinnon, Price's original vote was a deal-breaker.
"B.J. and I don't agree on everything, but I agree with him more than Price," said McKinnon, who until recently was unaware of Price's stance on the legislation. "I'm going to vote my principles. And B.J. is the only Republican I'm voting for."
In an election year largely unfavorable to Republicans, Lawson is running an ambitious campaign to unseat an entrenched veteran congressman who, despite voting for many progressive causes in his 20 years on Capitol Hill, has been criticized by some Democrats for representing Washington over his constituents.
An odd amalgam of progressive stances and Libertarianism, Lawson has hammered his opponent on his support for controversial anti-civil liberties legislation, his tacit approval of Homeland Security's proposed National Agro and Bio-Defense Facility and, by extension, his campaign largesse partially padded by defense contractors.
Among Republicans, Lawson is somewhat of an outlier. He opposes the death penalty, a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage and the "unrelenting globalism driven by corporate interests." His viewpoints may appeal to disillusioned Republicans, but they risk alienating the old guard, so much so that in the primary, many party insiders actively supported Lawson's opponent, the far-right candidate Augustus Cho.
Yet Lawson has raised nearly a half-million dollars in campaign contributions, even without major support from the party establishment. Last week, Ron Paul gave him props in an e-mail to his supporters, generating $170,000 in online contributions for Lawson in one day—and in total, $230,000.
Money, charisma and a resonating message: The 34-year-old Lawson is the first GOP candidate to run a viable campaign against Price since Fred Heineman narrowly defeated the Democrat during the Republican Revolution of 1994. (Price reclaimed his seat two years later.)
With less than three weeks until the election, Lawson may not have enough time to get his message across to win. Jack Sanders, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, said that while sometimes Price is "more centrist than some Democrats may prefer," the party faithful will vote for the congressman.
But by peeling off disgruntled members of both parties, plus courting a few protest votes, Lawson could receive more than 37 percent of the vote, the most ballots cast for a GOP candidate since 2000. With those numbers, even a loss would be an enormous achievement for a Republican in the Fourth District.
"B.J.'s on the right side of history," said McKinnon. "I think people are underestimating him."
At the Cary VFW Hall last month, Lawson hosted a Freedom Barbecue and fundraiser. In the parking lot, cars were emblazoned with Ron Paul bumper stickers—and a few McCains—while inside, Lawson supporters wore T-shirts that read "Every Day is Constitution Day."
After a prayer and group sing of "God Bless America," Lawson took the stage. Dressed neatly in a pine-green polo shirt and khaki pants, his hair cut short above the ears, he outlined what he sees as America's greatest challenges—while criticizing mainstream political discourse. "We've been at war since my kids were born. We're $9.6 trillion in debt. We're bailing out Freddie and Fannie and Lehman [Brothers]. And all we can think about is dresses and shoes and lipstick on pigs."
"We have a document," he went on, pulling a copy of the U.S. Constitution out of his pocket, "that tells Congress how to behave. We need to hold our representatives accountable. It's not about putting partisan labels on folks."
The Republican label, especially this year, can be detrimental in the Fourth District. Lawson, while a lifelong member of the GOP, has distanced himself from the party mainstream.
"The biggest problem is the R next to his name," said Marc Conaghan, a Lawson campaign volunteer (a Scottish citizen, he can't vote). "People are judging by party affiliation instead of looking at his principles."
In one breath, his principles echo the free-market right: the elimination of federal income tax and "onerous" regulations, and the establishment of health care savings accounts instead of universal health insurance. Yet, at times, Lawson sounds like a true blue progressive, opposing the war in Iraq—and the war on drugs—and calling for local, sustainable communities.
Former Democrat Donald Van Beveren of Chapel Hill is supporting Lawson and attended his fundraiser. "He has strong stands on the war, the monetary system, civil liberties," said Van Beveren, who is registered as unaffiliated.
Several elected Republicans attended Lawson's shindig—Cary Town Councilman Don Frantz, Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears and state Rep. Marilyn Avila—but it's well known that many traditional party operatives have withheld their support.
Martha Jenkins, Fourth District Congressional chairwoman for the Republican Party, declined to be interviewed for this story. According to Lawson, she told him not to run for office. In Durham, Melodie Parrish resigned as GOP chair after Cho lost the primary.
"I have a lot of hostility toward the misguided ideas and people who are pushing the Republican party off the cliff," Lawson said. "But I look at this pragmatically. I'm a Republican. I want to make a difference, and we're in a two-party system. I want to reform from within. "
Some Republicans are taking note. Wake County GOP Chairman David Robinson said his group endorsed Lawson unanimously. "B.J. has new ideas and his message has matured over time. His focus is very much on limiting the federal government. He's energized a younger crowd, and that's good for us."
David Smudski, who replaced Parrish as Durham County GOP chair, offered guarded praise. "He's not traditional, but he is different than what a Democrat would offer."
Lawson grew up in Lakeland, Fla., one of two children. His family is solid Republican, and Lawson phone-banked for the elder George Bush in the late 1980s. In 1992, Lawson enrolled at Duke University, in part to be closer to his high school sweetheart, JoLynn—now his wife—who was attending Furman in South Carolina. After receiving his bachelor's degree in biomedical and electrical engineering, he was accepted into Duke medical school. During his training, Lawson became frustrated with the difficulty of getting timely and accurate patient data, and six months into his neurosurgery residency, he left. On New Year's Eve 2000, Lawson handed over his patient cards to the chief resident at Durham Regional Hospital and went on to co-found a hospital software company, MercuryMD. The software delivers patient information to a doctor's or nurse's PDA or other handheld device.
"He left the security of residency for the freedom of what he wanted to do," said Galen Wagner, an associate professor of medicine at Duke. "He went from engineering to medicine to politics. It takes courage to say, 'I'm going to take the risk for the freedom to follow my own interests.'"
Lawson and fellow ex-resident Alan Ying sold MercuryMD to Thomson, a Canadian company, in 2006. The next summer, Lawson and his wife traveled to China, where he re-read the U.S. Constitution on the Internet from his Shanghai hotel.
Lawson had already experienced a political epiphany by watching a YouTube video of Ron Paul in the South Carolina debate, but in rereading the Constitution "in the context of being in China and as a thinking adult," Lawson said, he realized how far America had strayed from its founding documents.
Back in Raleigh, he joined other Paul supporters in compiling "Liberty Packs"—copies of the Constitution, Paul DVDs and printouts of position statements—and distributing them at the state fair. "It was so amazing to see how easy it was to give someone a copy of the Constitution. People are hungry for an honest discussion."
Last fall, Lawson decided to run for office and chose Price as his target. "He gets 65 percent of the vote without trying, and the Republicans never mount a challenge," he said. "But I began to realize Price is not serving the people."
Mark Granville, who left SAS to join MercuryMD and still works for the parent company, said Lawson "isn't a typical politician, and that's frightening to people if it's not their style." A lifelong Republican, Granville is disillusioned with the GOP, and this year, his votes will show it: "B.J.'s the only Republican I'll vote for this time."
A line tailed outside the room at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, where Price was hosting a Town Hall meeting with his constituents. But on this summer evening, the crowd was angry. They called for Price to lead the legislative charge to end the war in Iraq—he had voted against it—and to impeach Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. They wanted an explanation of Price's stance on the NBAF and his vote on civil liberties legislation, including HR 1955, the cumbersomely named Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007.
Its intent is ostensibly to establish both a 10-member commission to "examine and report upon the facts of ... homegrown terrorism" and a Center for Excellence at a U.S. university to study the roots of terrorism and to "conduct a survey" of foreign countries' methods of terrorism prevention. However, the bill's language is nebulous, leaving open what qualifies as an extremist belief system, and implying that the Internet is a dangerous pipeline for terrorist-related propaganda, raising concerns about censorship and surveillance. U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, also known to carry the Constitution in his pocket, calls it the "thought crimes bill" because it focuses on what people might do, rather than what they have done.
Lawson approached the mic. "I'm your Republican opponent. Do you read these pieces of legislation before signing them?"
"This is not a political event," Price replied sharply. "Of course I've read the bills. And I've voted for amendments on some and against others."
Civil liberties have become a litmus test issue for voters. Margaret Misch, a member of the Orange County Bill of Rights Defense Committee and a prominent civil liberties watchdog, has met several times with Price about such legislation. And most of the time she's been disappointed. "I'm holding my nose and voting for David Price," she said. "He's not the worst one, but he's not always been where we needed him to be."
After voting for the PATRIOT Act, in 2005, Price opposed extending several of its provisions, which were due to expire. He opposed retroactive immunity for telecom companies that, with Bush's blessing, helped spy on Americans.
However, Price voted for HR 1955, which would cost an estimated $24 million through 2012 to implement. Civil liberties protections are included in the bill, but are subject to internal review, not independent oversight.
Campaign spokesman Phil Feagan said the bill merely sets up a commission and "is not setting forth law."
Misch is unconvinced. "He defended his vote and dismissed our concerns about the First and Fourth Amendments." She read from a letter Price wrote her. "He justified it as simply attempting to 'foster our understanding of the process by which individuals in the U.S. are or might be led down the terrorist path.'"
Price's centrist stances may stem from his need to cater to conservative and moderate Democrats in western Wake County, where Lawson lives.
"Price is extremely cautious," Misch added. "He will not be out front where it's conspicuous to take a stand."
Yet even in Wake County, many people oppose the bio lab proposed in Butner—including U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, who reversed himself after public outcry about the project. Dozens of people turned out at Price's town hall meeting to complain about his support for Homeland Security's proposal. A month earlier, the department had issued a 1,000-page environmental analysis of the proposed sites, a document rife with missing data. NBAF opponents pummeled Price with questions, and in return, he gave mushy answers: "I'm going to ask very tough questions about NBAF. But I'm not going to develop a firm opinion about it until the facts are in."
David Krabbe, who lives near Rougemont, has fought the NBAF for more than a year. "I'm furious with David Price over his support for this facility. He's clueless," Krabbe said, adding that last month Price erroneously stated in a town hall meeting the number and type of diseases that would be studied at the facility. "Homeland Security doesn't have a monopoly on information. I will vote for B.J."
Price has a powerful position holding the purse strings as the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcomittee on Homeland Security. He's used his leverage to lure a $15 million Homeland Security grant to UNC to study natural disasters in coastal areas, but his coziness with the department and at least $59,000 in campaign contributions this election cycle (as of June 30) from the defense industry have prompted some constituents to wonder about insiders' influence.
Feagan justified Price's stance by saying he "has to walk a fine line and reserve judgment" as the subcommittee chairman. "He takes his role as chairman very seriously, and it's not for him to advocate or oppose any specific site."
Price's conflict only feeds criticism that he favors Washington—in this case, the subcommittee and its interests—over those who elected him.
"He's taken honorable positions in the past, but he's siding with big business," Krabbe said. "He has taken his base and district for granted."
Krabbe is so disgruntled with Price that he is voting for Lawson despite their differences on abortion; Krabbe is pro-choice. Lawson is not and, like many Republicans, supports overturning Roe v. Wade. He has said abortion rights should be a state issue, not a federal one.
"I disagree with B.J. about abortion," said Krabbe. "I'm disappointed with that. But he's really intelligent and I have a lot of respect for him."
"Abortion is the most effective splinter issue we have," Lawson said. "Because I might believe life begins at conception, that doesn't mean I want helpless women dying from back-alley abortions.
"What I object to is that the Supreme Court exceeded its constitutional authority to set a blanket ruling over a very personal issue. But as a physician, my goal is not to have the government in every exam room."
However, critics point out not only that the court's decision has held for 35 years, but there are logistical and civil rights issues facing women living in states where abortion would be illegal.
It is on a few key progressive issues on which Price has been strong—abortion, health care and federal funding of social services—where Lawson risks losing voters he would need to beat him.
"I disagree with B.J. in that I believe it's very important not to think that the free market can handle anything," said McKinnon, the Orange County Democrat and Obama supporter.
But as a pro-life Democrat, he often votes for candidates who hold opposite views on abortion; he's not a single-issue voter. "I'm not going to give my vote just to pro-life candidates. I'm for a candidate who is going to represent me, who is accessible. I think David Price is a great guy, but it's time to move on."
Editor's Note: A debate between B.J. Lawson and David Price was happening at press time. Check our Elections section for debate coverage, candidate questionnaires and updates on campaign finance reports.
Don Frantz' name was misspelled in the original story.