When Thomas Mills grew up in Wadesboro—a rural town in Anson County two hours southwest of Carrboro whose biggest claim to fame is that Evil Dead II was filmed there—its population numbered around four thousand. In the forty-plus years since, it's gained only fifteen hundred more people, and over the last five years the town's population has actually fallen.
The town has gotten poorer, too. According to the most recent census, Wadesboro has a 33.8 percent poverty rate, more than double the statewide average. In fact, former textile counties throughout the Eighth Congressional District (which used to but no longer contains Wadesboro) and across the state have all fallen on hard times.
"When I was growing up, most of those rural counties were driven by textile economy. They also had some cotton farming and some other things," Mills says. "Some of the agriculture is still there. It was like the district was a patchwork of crossroads and small towns that had thriving business districts. It's built around a textile industry that is no longer there. And they don't have the tools to compete. The workforce isn't trained for high-tech jobs. There's no incentive for businesses to locate there. And it's hard for businesses to get started down there"
The fifty-three-year-old is seated at a table on the lawn of Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, where he's lived for the last twelve years. He's unassuming, a regular guy, with curly brown hair that is starting to gray and blue eyes obstructed by eyeglasses.
In local political circles, Mills is best known as a Democratic operative with an acute grasp of the state's political climate. He's worked on campaigns ranging from city council members to presidential candidates—most notably for the 2004 Kerry-Edwards presidential ticket, but also for Elaine Marshall's 2010 bid for U.S. Senate and Bev Perdue's gubernatorial race in 2008.
This fall, however, he has a new client: himself. Mills is an unlikely candidate for North Carolina's Eighth Congressional District, which is nowhere near his current residence. There, he's up against incumbent Richard Hudson, who won nearly 65 percent of the vote two years ago in a heavily Republican district.
In the most optimistic scenario, Mills has but an outside chance at winning, and he's smart enough to know it. But that's not the point. The point is that somebody had to run—and, if he wanted to practice what he was so loudly preaching, it needed to be him.
Some background: earlier this year, Mills was on a crusade. He looked around at North Carolina's map—one unapologetically gerrymandered so as to practically guarantee Republicans ten out of the thirteen seats—and saw a host of Republicans who were getting a free pass. No Democrats were willing to challenge them.
This, he thought, wasn't right.
"And I had seen a series of election cycles where a large number of races were uncontested, for all kinds of reasons—because of gerrymandering, because of too much money, because whatever reason they weren't being contested," Mills explains. "I started arguing that all races need to be competitive, need to be challenged, for a whole host of reasons," Mills says.
Last summer, he began a series of blog posts on politicsnc.com, the website he founded in 2013, on the necessity of long-shot challengers. "Take the fight to the Republicans," he wrote in August 2015. "Let people know what they've done to our state and our children. But don't wait until September next year. Money will follow competitive races. To make these districts competitive, you have to change the dynamics, and to do that, you need to start closer to this September than next."
With the filing deadline fast approaching last December, Mills noticed that three Republicans still didn't have challengers. He worked his connections and convinced Josh Brannon to challenge Virginia Foxx in the Fifth District and Adam Coker to run in the Thirteenth. (Coker eventually lost the Democratic primary.)
That left the Eighth— a district in which he had political roots, in which his father had been a superior and district court judge and his uncle had been a legislator. And so, a few days before Christmas, Mills signed up to run.
His theory is that anything can happen in politics, and sometimes just being an alternative is good enough. "We've seen this happen, where scandals happen in the middle of a campaign and the guy that is scandalized, whether it's Democratic or Republican, has no opponent, so they get reelected," he says.
No scandals have engulfed Hudson, but Mills did catch a break of sorts. In February, a federal court ruled that North Carolina's congressional districts amounted to an illegal racial gerrymander and ordered them redrawn. The new Eighth District was more streamlined; instead of including parts of eleven counties, it now has seven. And instead of being a blob, it's shaped more like a witch's shoe, pointed toe and all.
Mills crunched the numbers and determined that the district could be competitive. Hudson, a two-term congressman, won with 53 percent of the vote in 2012 and 65 percent in the more GOP-friendly 2014. And while most analysts see the Eighth as a Republican stronghold, Mills sees the redrawn version as slightly more Democratic.
"So now I've got a district that I would argue is at least marginally competitive," he says. "And, in a year like this, is quite competitive."
By that, he means a year in which Donald Trump may bring the Republican Party to ruin. In fact, his campaign's best hope is that Trump gets routed so badly, or that enough Republicans give up and stay home, that underdogs like him can squeak past the post. Months ago, Mills was predicting an October Trump collapse. Now he's hopeful that Trump's devolution might just drag Hudson down with him.
"This year ended up being a good year, because of what is going on with the presidential contest," he says. "I think Donald Trump is going to melt down, and it offers Democrats all over the country a huge opportunity."
Indeed, Democrats are projected to pick up ten to twenty seats in the House—enough to dent, but not overcome, the Republican majority. In this case, however, Mills's assessment might be overly optimistic, if only because his district leans Republican, and, in presidential years, that's what matters.
"A lot of people in presidential elections are really just there to vote for the top of the ticket," says Michael Munger, director of the philosophy, politics, and economic program at Duke University. "That's really going to hurt the Democrats generally."
Even so, Mills doesn't see his campaign as quixotic. If anything, it's an exercise in nostalgia, an attempt to reestablish the vibrancy he remembers from his youth within his native Wadesboro and neighboring areas.
Mills is astute enough to know that, if he somehow emerges victorious next week, it will have precious little to do with him or Richard Hudson. More likely, it'll be because a healthy contingent of GOP-leaning citizens throw up their hands in disgust and stay home.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Operative"
Correction: Due to an editing error, this story incorrectly stated that the Eighth Congressional District includes Wadesboro. Following the court-ordered congressional redistricting, that is no longer the case. We also misstated the counties in the Eighth; they are Rowan, Cabarrus, Stanly, Montgomery, Hoke, and Cumberland.