Voters go right, Democrats wonder what went wrong
Even though both parties appeared confident about their candidates moving into Election Day, there were a lot of white knuckles and nail biting as results started to pour in across North Carolina last Tuesday night.
The vibes emanating from the Haywood County Republican Headquarters were palpable — a room full of passionate supporters and candidates rallying together as results trickled in. Cheers sounded as the NBC anchor called another state for Trump.
The Haywood County Democrat Headquarters was quite the opposite — just a handful of volunteers sitting around a big screen TV. It was quiet and calm since Democratic candidates decided to hold their own watching parties throughout the county.
The enthusiasm at those Democratic watching parties quickly evaporated when they witnessed the Democratic candidates on the local, state and federal level being defeated one-by-one by Republicans.
Haywood County native Rhonda Schandevel was unable to unseat incumbent Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, for the District 118 House seat; Jane Hipps, D-Waynesville, was once again unable to beat incumbent Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin; and probably most surprising to some, incumbent Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, was defeated by Republican challenger Mike Clampitt of Bryson City.
“I can’t say I was totally unprepared for the results, but I was surprised that some Democrats lost by such wide margins,” said Myrna Campbell, chairwoman of the Haywood County Democrats.
Frank Burrell, chairman of the Jackson County Democrats, said he still wasn’t over the election results a week later and didn’t know if he’d ever get over what he witnessed.
“It was not a typical election like we’ve always seen in the past and none of the strategies that we used in a regular election worked in this one,” Burrell said. “Mr. Trump said things that appealed to five or six different groups of people and when they all came together it was enough to carry him to victory.”
Burrell said state and local candidates then benefitted from riding Trump’s coattails all the way down the ballot.
Campbell said Queen’s loss came as a shock since he was up in the early voting numbers, but it was the Presnell-Schandevel race that gave her a real sense of personal loss.
“I worked with House Democratic Caucus leaders to develop the profile of a competitive candidate and Rhonda possessed all those traits — a hometown girl who had a compelling personal story to tell and had been actively involved in the community for over 20 years,” Campbell said.
Schandevel won the primary election in March with 75 percent of the vote, but lost Haywood to Presnell by more than 1,800 votes. Presnell also carried Yancey and Madison counties.
“I'm struggling to understand how is it that Rhonda only got 45 percent of the vote in Haywood County last week? Did something happen to change the minds of those Primary voters or did they just not show up for the Nov. 8 election?” Campbell wonders. “I know many Democrats crossed over and voted for Trump, but I expected them to support down ticket Democrats and it does not appear that they did.”
Even on the local level, two Republicans — Kevin Ensley and Brandon Rogers — were the top vote-getters for Haywood County Board of Commissioners while the two Democrat candidates trailed significantly behind.
Swain County elected a Republican to the Board of Commissioners for the first time in years, two Republican challengers beat out Democratic incumbents in Jackson County and two Republicans were elected to the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
With a Republican majority on the Jackson County commission now, Burrell said he has some concern over the future direction of county policy. However, throughout the years he’s seen the board be able to work together productively whether the board was mixed, solid Democrat or solid Republican.
Despite the results, Campbell doesn’t think the Democratic Party did anything wrong per se. She felt the party had strong candidates, dedicated volunteers that have worked since March to get out voting and candidate information. They did a mass mailer targeting 9,000 Democrats in the county.
“Many have described the final outcome as a Trump tidal wave that left few Democrats standing, but despair is no answer for our party. Republicans did not outwork us in this election — we simply underestimated the level of public discontent and fiery rhetoric ‘trumped’ the strong ground game we put in place,” she said.
While Republicans have made gradual gains over the past few years, there are still about 5,000 more registered Democrats in Haywood County. Campbell said there are those within the party that didn’t support Hillary Clinton and either stayed home or voted for Trump.
“I view their alignment with Trump as short term and expect they will realign with the Democratic Party, especially after Roy Cooper becomes our governor,” she said.
Burrell said he didn’t think the Republican leaning trend would continue in Jackson County.
“The Clinton factor played into it this year — some people in these mountains still don’t want a woman in that position. I hate to say that but it’s true,” he said. “But if Democrats can get reorganized and restructure themselves and get leadership in certain places we can get our message across to the people we like to think we represent and look after.”
Local Republican leaders say they weren’t surprised at all by the results from the top of the ticket to the bottom.
“I wasn’t surprised at all — all the candidates associated with Jackson County worked very hard,” said Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party.
He specifically pointed to the victory of Micky Luker and Ron Mau to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. The two challengers — who ran as a team — defeated Democratic incumbents Mark Jones and Vicki Greene.
“From day one they have been very active — they’ve attended every commissioner meeting for the last 16 to 18 months,” Slaughter said. “They’ve used Facebook and social media to tell the people what happened at the meetings and the history of Jackson commissioner spending.”
Slaughter said he didn’t want to downplay the importance Donald Trump played in getting Republicans elected in North Carolina.
“Jackson County was no different. He helped bring out the voters here who haven’t voted for the last eight to 16 years,” he said.
Kenneth Henson, chairman of the Haywood County Republicans, said Trump’s victory did more than get Republicans out to vote — he said it changed people’s perception of what it takes to run for office whether it’s the presidency or county commissioner.
“It’s been grilled into our brains that you’ve got to have experience to run for office, but what has experience got us?” he said. “I feel like we’ve gotten off track on what it takes to run this nation, state or county — to run this country, it has to come from the heart. You have to have a love and appreciation for what this country stands for and a burning desire to want to stay free.”
Now with two Republicans on the Haywood County Commission — Rogers and Ensley — Henson hopes the board will become more conservative when it comes to spending money.
“I hope this time Kevin (Ensley) will be a lot more conservative with his spending — that’s the only problem we have with him and I hope Brandon (Rogers) can help him with that,” he said. “And that will give the Democrats a sign of what’s coming and maybe they will be more conservative with spending.”
As for the state Republican candidates, Slaughter said they were successful because they had plenty of opportunity to make their positions known at forums and debates held at Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College.
“They clearly stated their purpose or what they want to continue to do,” he said.
He said Mike Clampitt, who ran against Rep. Joe Sam Queen for the third time this year, was able to defeat Queen this time around because of his persistence and presence in each county.
“Mike studied his issues and made excellent comments to voters,” Slaughter continued.
Henson agreed that Clampitt worked hard to get the word out in the district.
“People are tired of the same thing going on in Raleigh — they know Joe Sam is a liberal and they’re ready to go a different direction and take a chance on someone else,” he said.
Slaughter and Henson think this year’s election trends will continue into the future and perhaps change the Democratic hold on Haywood and Jackson counties.
Slaughter said the audiences at the WCU and SCC debates this year were more Republican than Democrat — something Slaughter hasn’t seen in the last 10 years he’s been chairman of the party.
“We’ll never be as large as the Democrats or unaffiliated but I think in 2018 we’ll be able to take the other two seats on the commission board,” Slaughter said.
Since the election, Henson said at least eight people have told him they’re changing their party affiliation to Republican. Now that Republicans in Haywood who haven’t voted in years are becoming involved, he hopes the trend toward the right continues into the next election as well. And the local party intends to hold its candidates more accountable to Republican values this time around.
“What’s happened before is we’ve gotten someone elected and didn’t keep up with it,” he said. “We’re keeping up with it this time and will hold them accountable and let them know certain things aren’t going to fly.”