NC elections highlight the importance of the West
There’s a strong, long-held sentiment here in rural Western North Carolina that the region is often overlooked when balanced against the state of North Carolina as a whole, but unofficial results from the March 3 Primary Election show that the counties that make up this rugged, mountainous region are more important politically than ever before.
How the West was won
Looking first at the Democratic Presidential Preference, former Vice President Joe Biden ran away with it, garnering more than 43 percent of the vote in what was at the time really just a four-person race thanks to last-minute withdrawals by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Biden won 96 of the state’s 100 counties. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won only four, but they were all in the west — Madison and Mitchell, Watauga (home to Appalachian State University) and Buncombe County, further cementing Asheville‘s reputation as the state’s most liberal, progressive city.
Former New York mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg, who entered the race late and withdrew after the March 3 Super Tuesday elections pulled almost 13 percent of the North Carolina vote, just ahead of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 10.5 percent.
On the Republican side, President Donald Trump’s Primary Election victory was never really in any doubt. Trump won all 100 counties against former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, both of whom got about 2 percent, and both of whom lost to the “no preference” option, with 2.5 percent.
While some may see Trump’s 93.5 percent total as a small measure of dissatisfaction among Republicans, it’s important to note that the last time an incumbent president ran for reelection in North Carolina — Barack Obama in 2012 — he earned just 79 percent of the primary vote, with the “no preference” option pulling a hefty 21 percent.
There’s a similar phenomenon at play in the Republican Primary Election for U.S. Senate; while incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis did win all 100 counties, he did it with only 78.1 percent of the vote, but the last time a sitting U.S. Senator from North Carolina faced a Primary Election — Richard Burr in 2016 — he earned just 61.4 percent of the vote.
For the Democrats, U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham took 57 percent of the vote, even with a Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell-linked PAC spending money to promote his opponent Erica Smith, who ended up with 34.8 percent of the vote. Smith won 19 counties, mostly in the northeastern part of the state. Cunningham won every other county, and the other three candidates in the race didn’t win any.
Gov. Roy Cooper won all 100 counties, as did his November opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Cooper counted 87.2 percent of the vote in his favor against little-known, oft-running Ernest Reeves, and Forest did slightly better against Rep. Holly Grange, with 88.9 percent of the vote.
Perhaps the biggest story of the Primary Election is the emergence of Republican Mark Robinson, one of nine Republicans hoping to follow Forest into the lieutenant governor position.
Running his first campaign, Robinson kind of came out of nowhere but wasn’t exactly an unknown — his fiery speech on Second Amendment rights before the Greensboro City Council in 2018 went viral on YouTube, helping him coast to victory with 32.5 percent of the vote.
Robinson won 94 counties and earned more votes than his next two opponents combined. Both of them, Sen. Andy Wells and current State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, had far more experience running and winning than Robinson did.
Democrats also saw a crowded field in their lieutenant governor primary, and that’s led to a runoff because the winner, Raleigh Rep. Yvonne Holley, didn’t get past the 30 percent threshold.
Buncombe County Sen. Terry Van Duyn came in six points behind Holley with 20.44 percent of the vote, but hadn’t yet called for a runoff as of press time on March 10. Van Duyn won 20 counties, but Holley won more than double that, including the western counties of Cherokee, Clay and Swain although those three counties only earned Holley less than 1,000 votes against her total of more than 306,000.
Republican attorney general candidate Jim O’Neill won 85 counties and all of Western North Carolina except for Polk County.
Incumbent Democrat and longtime state auditor Beth Wood won all 100 counties in her primary, and will face Republican nominee Anthony Wayne Street, who took 56.18 percent of the vote over Tim Hoegemeyer, winner of Macon, Buncombe and Transylvania counties.
Jenna Wadsworth, who was at one time the youngest elected official in the state, took the Democratic agriculture commissioner nomination over 2016 nominee Walter Smith and newcomer Donovan Watson. Smith won 39 counties, including Graham.
Rep. Josh Dobson took 40.3 percent of the vote in his race for the Republican labor commissioner nomination and won only 42 counties, but they were larger than opponent Chuck Stanley’s 54 counties (including Haywood). Pearl Burris Floyd had incumbent commissioner Cherie Berry’s endorsement, but it didn’t help her much — she won just four counties and had about half as many votes as Dobson.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey won 99 counties in his Republican primary, good for 64.6 percent of the vote.
Commercial real estate developer E.C. Sykes won almost all of the state’s eastern counties in his Republican secretary of state primary, but only defeated second place finisher Chad Brown by five points. Michael LaPaglia, the 2016 nominee, came in third with 19.1 percent.
Mark Johnson’s loss in the Republican lieutenant governor’s primary means there will be a new superintendent of public instruction this fall, and Republicans have put their faith in Western Governor’s University Chancellor Catherine Truitt, who won 89 counties. Her opponent, Rep. Craig Horn, saw strong support in western counties, including Avery, Cleveland, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, Rutherford and Yancey, but fell short of Truitt’s 56.7 percent tally.
UNC-Greensboro associate professor Jen Mangrum will face Truitt on the Democratic side after she beat Raleigh consultant Keith Sutton and three others. Mangrum won most of the west, while Sutton won most of the east.
Ronnie Chatterji didn’t do very well in the west in his bid for the Democratic nomination for treasurer, but still scraped out a narrow victory over Dimple Ajmera, who won 20 counties including Avery, Buncombe, Transylvania, Watauga and Yancey. The third candidate, Wake County resident Matt Leatherman, won 49 counties but they were mostly rural — all of WNC and all of the east coast.
How the West will be won
Aside from the runoff in the Democratic lieutenant governor’s race, there’s only one more of concern to voters in the west, but it’s a big one.
When four-term Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, announced on Dec. 19 that he wouldn’t seek re-election, Maggie Valley real estate agent Lynda Bennett was first out of the gate in the race to replace him.
Her 8 a.m. announcement came three hours after Meadows’ and two hours after an endorsement by the Asheville Tea PAC — long before any other candidate had entered the race and indeed before many Western North Carolina voters had even been roused from their slumbers.
That — and her website’s registration date of Oct. 28 — led to speculation that she was given advance notice of Meadows’ intentions. Meadows’ announcement came with just 30 hours left in the candidate filing period, giving prospective candidates on both sides of the aisle little time to pull the trigger.
A series of Bennett campaign events with Meadows’ wife added to the dismay expressed by many Republicans, including 11th District Chairman Aubrey Woodard, that Meadows had left his own party in the dark.
Then, a 50-second audio clip recorded in 2016 resurfaced. In the clip, Bennett can be heard expressing “never Trump” sentiments.
Big glossy flyers touting Bennett’s comments began to appear in mailboxes across the district, making Bennett’s loyalty — or lack thereof — to the president the Primary Election’s number one issue.
Haywood County GOP Chairman Ken Henson, who’s been heavily involved in Bennett’s campaign, posted a candid defense of Bennett on the county party’s website but was told it violates the state party’s neutrality requirements, according to reporting in The Mountaineer.
When the full 37-minute audio was released just days before the March 3 Primary Election, it seemed to suggest Bennett’s comments were taken out of context, but the new audio didn’t satisfy everyone, and the “never Trump” suspicions still linger, right or wrong.
But that wasn’t even the worst of it for Bennett — on Feb. 22, a Smoky Mountain News investigation into so-called “conservative ballots” handed out by poll workers listing Bennett as the only choice in a field of 11 Republicans revealed that the “Official Conservative Ballot Committee of NC” was just two days old when it made the endorsement.
On top of that, the investigation revealed troubling links to one of Bennett’s campaign vendors, and to the chair of the Asheville Tea PAC, Jane Bilello, who now serves as a paid consultant to Bennett’s campaign. Bennett refused to answer any questions about the situation when reached by SMN on Feb. 24.
Several Republican candidates decried the sham endorsement, as did Woodard, and some mentioned potential litigation or filing formal complaints with the Federal Election Commission and the N.C. State Board of Elections. As those complaints must remain private until adjudication, none have yet been confirmed.
One candidate, Joey Osborne, even called on Bennett to leave the race because her campaign missteps had rendered her unelectable against surging Democrat Moe Davis, who handily defeated four other Democrats without having to resort to a runoff election.
She didn’t, and despite the controversies still came out on top of the crowded field, albeit with only 22.7 percent of the vote.
Not far behind her with 20.4 percent was 24-year-old motivational speaker and real estate investor from Henderson County, Madison Cawthorn.
“I think that when people saw that I had the same conservative principles as a lot of the other candidates, and when they saw how I articulated it with such passion, in such simplistic terms, they realized, wait a minute, this might be the guy that we can use to reach the masses,” said Cawthorn, who’s now made two appearances on the Fox & Friends morning news talk show. “That really motivated a core base of people who have been looking for an opportunity to take our country back.”
Cawthorn has officially called for a runoff, and has the support or endorsement of the majority of Republican candidates who ran — most of whom were upset with the way Bennett entered the race, and the way in which she’s run it so far.
That includes Steven Feteke, Jr., Joey Osborne and Dillon Gentry. While two other candidates believe what Meadows did was wrong according to Cawthorn — Jim Davis and Vance Patterson — they’ll both be supporting and stumping for Cawthorn in the runoff.
All that backstory sets up what will likely be a contentious runoff election between Bennett and Cawthorn on May 12. A quick look at how the candidates fared in the March 3 Primary Election shows how that might shake out, if no other scandals or controversies erupt between now and then.
“Almost 80 percent of the people who voted in the Republican primary in Western North Carolina voted against over $600,000 in PAC money, and Mark Meadows’ star power, and this small ruling elite in Washington that says, ‘Hey, you’re not sophisticated enough to pick your leader, so we’ll do it for you,’” Cawthorn said. “Yeah, perhaps she finished 2 percent ahead of me, but that was when she was outspending me six-to-one. I am beholden to the people of Western North Carolina. She is beholden to and enslaved by these special interest groups and people in Washington.”
Cawthorn narrowly edged out longtime N.C. Sen. Jim Davis for second place by winning just three counties of the 17-county congressional district — Buncombe, Henderson and Polk.
Polk is relatively small, and Buncombe is substantially larger. Cawthorn bested Bennett in those two counties by slim margins, but it’s Henderson County where he really cleaned up.
Cawthorn earned almost double the votes Bennett did there, totaling more than 7,300, good for more than a third of his 18,418 votes. Bennett came away with just 3,748 in Henderson County.
If he’s to win, he’ll need to branch out from those three counties.
The same goes for Bennett, who won Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, that part of Rutherford County that’s in the 11th District, Transylvania and her home county of Haywood.
In the counties won by either Bennett or Cawthorn, Cawthorn holds a slight edge with 16,564 votes, about 800 more than Bennett.
Counties now at play include the two won by former Meadows advisor Wayne King, Avery and Yancey, but there aren’t many votes there, meaning that the far west — and Jim Davis — may be the key to victory for the eventual Republican nominee.
Davis won six of the seven counties he’s represented in the Senate for the past 10 years — Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain.
Together, those six counties accounted for more than 19,000 Republican votes cast in the Primary Election. When adding King’s two counties to the total, Bennett holds a substantial advantage over Cawthorn, with almost 3,000 more votes than Cawthorn’s 1,854.
“The reason for that is because Jim Davis and I bring a lot of the same attributes to the table,” Cawthorn said.
With Davis out of the race, how well Cawthorn does in those six counties over the next few weeks — and how much Sen. Davis helps him — will go a long way toward winning the west.
Lynda Bennett did not respond to a phone call and an email request for an interview.
Strong turnout in almost all WNC counties
It can be difficult to compare voter turnout across North Carolina’s Primary Elections because of an ever-shifting calendar that held different primaries on different days for different offices.
For example, during the last presidential election year of 2016, North Carolina held two primaries — one on March 15 that that only featured only presidential, U.S. Senate and judicial contests, and one on June 7 that featured council of state offices and congressional races. In the former, the more high-profile of the two, statewide turnout was 35.6 percent but in the latter, it was just 7.7 percent.
This year, with everything on the same ballot, statewide turnout was 30.96 percent, however in the 17-county western region that makes up the 11th Congressional District, every county except two exceeded that number — some, by far.
Cawthorn calls for forums, Bennett silent
If you’re one of the 90,000 Republicans that voted in the 11th Congressional District primary, chances are good you didn’t vote for either Lynda Bennett or Madison Cawthorn.
More than 50,000 voters had other ideas, but now that their candidates are out of the race, it’s time to learn more about the two that remain in advance of the May 12 runoff. Cawthorn’s eager to appear before voters in a debate or public forum, Bennett not so much.
“I’ve requested that, and there have been requests from several different groups that both candidates show up to a forum,” Cawthorn said. “Ms. Bennett seems extremely unwilling to do a forum. She’s told me no several times.”
Cawthorn has a good idea as to why that is.
“She must have something to hide. It’s the greatest chance for voters to get to see who they want to represent them. You can just put both of us right side-by-side and ask us questions directly. I have no desire to sling any mud at Ms. Bennett, I have no desire to attack her, but I do believe that we should both be able to sit there and have an opportunity to say what we believe,” he said. “If she wants to have the questions written down for her so she can see them beforehand or if she wants to pick what the timeline is, she can have whatever rules she wants.”
There are plans in the works by The Smoky Mountain News to hold just such a forum in Haywood County in the coming weeks.
“I’m willing to debate anywhere, at any time,” Cawthorn said.
Lynda Bennett did not respond to SMN questions regarding her participation in SMN’s forum, or any other forum.