Schandevel’s win sets the stage for competitive House race
Haywood County Democrat Rhonda Schandevel will pose a formidable challenge in her bid for the N.C. House of Representatives this fall if her overwhelming victory among Haywood voters in the primary is any indication.
Schandevel hopes to unseat N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Spruce Pine, come November, but had a Democratic primary to clear first.
Schandevel pulled out a resounding primary win over her opponent Reece Steen from Madison County, thanks to voters in her home county supporting her by a 3-to-1 margin.
“It sends a strong message we are going to win our district back,” Schandevel said. “The support I have in Haywood is overwhelming, and that will carry through to November. I am putting Michele Presnell on notice I will be this district’s next representative.”
The House seat held by Presnell is considered one of the most vulnerable for Republicans, who currently control the legislature. There’s a lot riding on whether Democrats can take the seat back.
Democrats hope to pick up enough seats in the House to undermine Republicans’ veto-proof majority. That way, if Democratic candidate for Roy Cooper unseats Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, Cooper can veto Republicans without being overridden.
The House seat in play spans three counties: Yancey, Madison and part of Haywood (essentially everything other than Waynesville and Lake Junaluska.)
Schandevel won Haywood with a whopping 74 percent of the vote. Schandevel tied her primary opponent in Yancey and lost in Madison, but was carried to an overall victory with 58 percent of the vote thanks to her big win in Haywood.
The results followed a consistent pattern: the candidate who wins Haywood wins the district. No successful candidate for House 118 has won without winning Haywood.
So goes Haywood, so goes the race?
Haywood is the biggest prize in the House race. Haywood voters accounted for 42 percent of the ballots cast in the three-county House race in 2014.
Presnell has been in office four years, with two elections under her belt.
Both times Presnell won, she lost in Madison and Yancey but was carried by a large win in Haywood.
“Haywood is what pulled her through,” said Kenneth Henson, chair of the Haywood County Republican Party.
Presnell has never faced a Democratic challenger from Haywood. In 2014, Presnell carried Haywood by 55 percent of the vote but won overall by just 51 percent — a lead of less than 700 votes.
It’s not a huge number of votes to pick up, but Schandevel will nonetheless need to convert voters to her column who have supported Presnell in the past.
Democratic Party leaders who recruited Schandevel believed in would take a candidate with a home turf advantage in Haywood to have a chance at beating Presnell.
Schandevel was widely viewed as the party’s favored candidate in the primary. Although parties refrain from officially backing one candidate over another in a primary, Schandevel garnered widespread endorsement behind the scenes from party leaders as the candidate most likely to beat Presnell.
“I think Haywood County is very ready to mobilize behind Rhonda,” said Myrna Campbell, chair of the Democratic Party in Haywood.
Presnell wouldn’t predict whether Haywood voters will stick with her now that they have a candidate from their own county on the ballot.
“I think I will let the voters decide on that. I feel like I have done a very good job,” Presnell said.
Whether the loyalty of Haywood voters to Schandevel in the Democratic primary will translate to the general election in November remains to be seen, of course.
“I think that is wishful thinking,” Henson said.
Henson said he thinks voters will weigh the issues, not a candidate’s home county.
At the end of the day, voters are indeed motivated by a candidate’s ideology over geographic affiliation, said Chris Cooper, a political analyst and director of the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute.
Cooper questioned the theory that a conservative-leaning voter would choose a Democratic candidate from their own county over a Republican from a different county.
“Party I.D. is a much stronger and more reliable indicator than which county you live in,” Cooper said.
Cooper said county-of-residence could be a factor for the truly independent voter, but there are very few of those. Most voters registered as independents actually lean one way or the other.
But Schandevel’s campaign believes her name recognition in Haywood is critical. Presnell’s opponent two years ago didn’t have any name recognition in Haywood, but Schandevel not only grew up in Haywood but has served on the school board four years.
“I knew in my heart the people of Haywood County would support me,” Schandevel said.
Schandevel said that she has already seen a surge in donations following her big win in the primary.
“They saw that I am the candidate to win,” Schandevel said.
Democratic primary, N.C. House 118
Rhonda Schandevel Reece Steen
Haywood 3,267 1,143
Madison 1,417 1,864
Yancey 1,265 1,304
Rhonda Schandevel, a dental hygienist in Haywood County and member of the local school board, prevailed in the Democratic primary and will take on N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Spruce Pine, in the race for N.C. House seat 118. It includes all of Madison and Yancey counties and part of Haywood, namely a horseshoe shape that runs from Maggie Valley up through Crabtree, across Beaverdam and Canton, and around to Bethel and Cruso — essentially everything except Waynesville and Lake Junaluska.