Democratic Rep. David Price, who was elected in 1986, lost in 1994, and won again in 1996, announced Monday that he would not seek an 18th term next year in North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District.
Price’s constituency, which currently includes the Durham and Chapel Hill area, backed Joe Biden 67-32. The Republican legislature has drawn up the 4th to be safely blue turf in each of the three maps it passed over the last decade so that it could strengthen its hold on other constituencies, and the new version of Price’s district will almost certainly remain heavily Democratic.
Price’s departure will end a long career in both politics and academia. The Tennessee native, who went to North Carolina for college, first arrived on Capitol Hill in 1963 as an aide to Alaska’s first U.S. senator, Democrat Bob Bartlett. Price went on to get his doctorate in political science and teach at Yale in Connecticut, where his wife successfully ran for local office, before returning to the Tar Heel State in 1973 to teach at Duke. He concurrently worked for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 state campaign and served as North Carolina Democratic Party executive director.
Price was state party in 1984, a disastrous year for the party that included the loss of three House seats, and he’d later recount that “I made a fairly quick decision to try to recapture one of those seats.” Price did just that in 1986 when he went up against Republican Rep. Bill Cobey, a freshman who had narrowly defeated a Democratic incumbent two years before. Price won the primary 48-32 ahead of an ugly general election against Cobey, who apologized in September for his fundraising appeal arguing the Democrat wouldn’t “take a strong stand for the principles outlined in the word of God.”
Price dispatched Cobey 56-44 and had no trouble holding on until the 1994 GOP wave hit him hard. His Republican foe that year was Fred Heineman, who stepped down as Raleigh police chief to run and dealt Price a 50.4-49.6 defeat. The ex-congressman went back to teaching but was hardly done with politics, and he soon sought a rematch with the new incumbent.
Heineman turned out to be a bad fit for his Democratic-leaning seat, and he made news early in his tenure for declaring, “When I see a first-class individual who makes $80,000 a year, he’s lower middle class. When I see someone who is making anywhere from $300,000 to $750,000, that’s middle class. When I see anyone above that, that’s upper middle class.”
Price made use of those comments in a 1996 spot titled, “Earth to Fred,” and the Democrat made sure to tie the incumbent to Speaker Newt Gingrich’s hardline policies. Heineman himself was also forced off the campaign trail for weeks after being hospitalized for a serious fever, and he barely made any public appearances during the remainder of the race. While both sides saw a close race just weeks ahead of Election Day, Price ended up reclaiming his seat in a 54-44 landslide.
Price never had another tough race for the rest of his career. It looked possible this could change in 2012 after the GOP legislature placed fellow Democratic Rep. Brad Miller into Price’s district, but Miller decided to retire rather than go through a primary where he acknowledged he’d have been the “the underdog.”
Price himself would continue to write political science texts from Congress, including his 1992 work “The Congressional Experience: An Institution Transformed.” Price, who published the fourth edition of that book this year, explained, “A political science colleague persuaded me that I should keep a journal and at some point write up what it’s like to get elected and get situated in an institution. And so I reluctantly did that [and] found out that I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would.”