Whoever wins that primary, they’ll face an uphill battle against a popular, powerful and nationally recognizable figure at the vanguard of the conservative movement in America today.
Liberal pundits predict a “Blue Wave” of nationwide Democratic gains in response to President Donald Trump’s first half-term, and lingering disputes over gerrymandered districts could still change the 11th District significantly, but what’s also unclear is if any of it will be enough to aid anyone in unseating Mark Meadows.
Asheville-area Democrat Matt Coffay became the first candidate to declare his intention to run against three-term incumbent Meadows in April 2017.
Although Coffay unexpectedly dropped out of the race shortly thereafter, his early declaration was perhaps indicative of the mood of national and local Democrats still smarting from the stunning November 2016 loss by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Phillip Price became a candidate around that same time; born in Atlanta, he moved with his family at a young age to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, attended high school in Nashville and then moved to Western North Carolina before going on to study at Western Carolina University; from there, the singer-songwriter moved to Chapel Hill to focus on music and touring the East Coast with his band.
Returning to WNC, he got his real estate license, which he said inspired him to open “a small recycling business with a mission to preserve a piece of the past, by reclaiming and re-using old growth lumber from structures that would otherwise by demolished or left to deteriorate.”
Price has since been joined in the race by two other candidates.
Scott Donaldson performs urological surgery in Hendersonville, but has practiced from Burlington to Raleigh and New Orleans to New Zealand. He’s currently the Chief of Staff at Pardee Hospital, serves on the board of directors and chairs the Medical Executive Committee, all after a 12-year stint as an assistant professor of urology at Duke.
Donaldson is also an author and radio personality heard four times a day Monday through Friday on Hendersonville’s WTZQ, where he shares anecdotes about and reflections on “patients he's treated and people he's met,” according to his website.
Dr. Steve Woodsmall isn’t a medical doctor like Donaldson, but he does have a master’s degree in business administration and a Ph.D. in organization and management. A career Air Force officer who retired at the rank of major, Woodsmall serves on the Transylvania County Planning Board and as an assistant professor and program coordinator of business and organizational leadership at Brevard College.
Woodsmall’s campaign manager is fellow Brevard College professor and Town of Canton Alderman Dr. Ralph Hamlett.
The three candidates come from disparate backgrounds, but they seem to share a similar motivation and a common cause.
“I’m running because, as I tell people, I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore,” Woodsmall said. “I learned in the military that if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem, and it’s time for people to step up and be part of the solution.”
“I’m running for Congress because I’m sick of being lied to by the current congressman and our current Congress, and I feel like I can do a lot better,” said Price.
“I’m running for Congress because I believe health care is the principal problem we’re seeing in this nation. It’s certainly something I hear every day, and we just need to create in our system, in our nation, something similar to what every other nation has, and that’s a single-payer system,” said Donaldson.
Meadows, they say, earns bad marks for the job he’s done representing the people of Western North Carolina.
Donaldson’s chief complaint is that the recently passed Trump tax bill neuters Obamacare while also adding almost $2 trillion to the deficit, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
“I think the most recent thing, the $1.7 trillion gift that was given — you drag $1.7 trillion through a boardroom, it’s just amazing what people will say,” he said. “I think this concept of fiscal responsibility, meaning that you can deprive people of education and health and these types of things due to fiscal restraints, doesn’t seem to work when you’re willing to give them money for very dubious profit stakes.”
Price, too, lists Obamacare as his chief inspiration in opposing Meadows.
“He’s been trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act which has provided health insurance for over 44,000 people in the 11th District — including myself, who otherwise didn’t have heath insurance,” he said.
Woodsmall took a slightly different tack when asked for his biggest reason for running.
“It’s hard to name one,” he laughed. “I will tell you the one thing that I first noticed about him was when he was in Brevard last year at a Chamber of Commerce event and he took some Q&A and every question, I think three questions he was asked and the answer to all three was, ‘We need to find conservative solutions to these problems.’ Where I come from, we don’t look at problems as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ or that sort of thing, we try to look at the evidence and we try to come up with the best solutions.”
The common themes that pervade the campaigns of Donaldson, Price and Woodsmall — tax cuts, Obamacare and partisanship — didn’t arise simply out of happenstance; Democrats around the country are eyeing the opportunity to pick up seats in Congress this year based on the perceived unpopularity of such measures.
“This election is about health, it’s about health care,” Donaldson said. “It’s affecting more and more of us on a daily basis. It’s affecting me as I stand here, with my daughter who just had surgery. This is what I’ve done my entire life, which is health care.”
Whether they’ll be able to capitalize on those sentiments largely depends on the candidates themselves, and before any of them get the chance to face Meadows in November, they’ll have to differentiate themselves from each other first.
“I think I can elocute that health care for all is an inalienable right and that we all need access to it,” Donaldson said. “We’re all gonna be better once we don’t have to worry about your stinkin’ premiums and copays and all this nonsense every year.”
While Donaldson thinks his boots-on-ground experience at the forefront of the national healthcare debate sets him apart from the others, Price says his actual boots on actual ground in the 11th District are what make him the preferred choice among Democratic voters.
“I think the number one reason [is], I am from this district,” he said. “I’ve lived here for 33 years, and I’ve lived in six counties in this district, including Macon County, Jackson County and Transylvania County, and the other two candidates don’t have that connection.”
Meadows isn’t originally from Western North Carolina, a fact that doesn’t seem to have hurt him a bit during his three previous and successful campaigns.
“I feel like if you’re going to represent a people, an area, then you need to have some roots in that area and know the people, be part of the community,” Price said. “He doesn’t represent us, he represents big money like the Koch brothers, and the other high-dollar donors to his campaign.”
Woodsmall says his experience and education are what sets him apart.
“I’ve been involved in government both in the military and subsequent to that in working on government contracts and in government organizations, so I know how that business works,” he said. “I have a master’s in business and a Ph.D. in management, and between my military experience and my education, those will inform me well in terms of looking at some of the issues and decisions we have to make in Congress.”
Despite an admittedly uphill battle, Donaldson, Price and Woodsmall are all enthusiastic about their chances to defeat Meadows — and each other — in this year’s round of balloting.
Also enthusiastic, albeit in an unlikely place, were those who gathered at the Hudson Library in far-flung Highlands to hear the three candidates speak Feb. 2.
That the gathering took place in Meadows’ proverbial backyard — he made his name and much of his fortune working in real estate in the affluent Highlands and Cashiers area — is notable, as was the turnout of over 60 people on a night calling for dangerous ice and snow.
Also notable is the emergence of Indivisible Highlands, a left-leaning group that, according to co-leader Dave Kukor, has about 100 members.
“We started about a year ago,” he said. “We are a political advocacy group. While we tend to be center or left of center, we try to be non-partisan. We’re trying to make an impact on local, state and national levels.”
The group’s impact remains to be seen, but its very existence could be a sign of eroding Republican support in the affluent mountaintop community nestled southeast of Franklin in Macon County.
But they’ll have lots of work to do to turn Highlands blue; Meadows has seen strong support in the area — and across the district — since his first election in 2012, and his support only seems to be growing.
That year, Meadows bested Democrat Hayden Rogers by 14 percent, earning 59 percent of the vote in Macon County.
In 2014, Meadows defeated Democrat Tom Hill by 26 percent, growing his totals in Macon County to 65 percent of the vote.
In 2016, Meadows beat Democrat Rick Bryson by 36 percent, with a slight uptick to 68 percent support in Macon County.
Reversing those gains will be a tall order for Democrats; even with a projected 10-point swing in some races across the nation, Meadows appears poised to remain safely entrenched despite the supposed coming of the Blue Wave and the historical tendency of the president’s party to lose seats during the first mid-term elections of his term.
But there’s still a lot of time until the May 8 Democratic Primary, and even more could happen between then and the Nov. 6 General Election, so long as Trump remains America’s most unpredictable President.
What’s still uncertain, however, is whether any of it will be enough to help Donaldson, Price, Woodsmall — or anyone else — in unseating Mark Meadows.
Prospective candidates for the 11th Congressional District seat currently occupied by three-term Asheville Republican incumbent Mark Meadows still have until Feb. 28 to file necessary paperwork to run. Here’s how you can learn more about those currently in the mix:
• Scott Donaldson, D-Hendersonville www.scottdonaldsonforcongress.com
• Phillip Price, D-Dyartsville www.price4wnc.org
• Steve Woodsmall, D-Pisgah Forest www.woodsmallforcongress2018.org
• (i) Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville www.meadowsforcongress.com
Voter registration stats by party, NC 11th Congressional District
Democrat, 160,887, 30.1%
Libertarian, 2,889, 0.5%
Republican, 187,942, 35.2%
Unaffiliated, 182,452, 34.2%
Source: North Carolina State Board of Elections, Jan. 1, 2018.