Quiet western Primaries signal November's partisan battles, voter frustration

The November General Election is now less than eight months away. File photo The November General Election is now less than eight months away. File photo

While the March 5 Primary Election was relatively quiet in the west — with few races and even fewer competitive races — results from state and national contests not only solidified partisan matchups for November’s General Election but also highlighted growing dissatisfaction with major party candidates. 

Statewide, voter turnout was down substantially from the last Primary Election held in a presidential election year. In 2020, it was 31%, even amidst the chaos of COVID-19 shutdowns and social distancing guidelines. This year, it was 24%.

Former President Donald Trump, who is currently facing 91 indictments for his role in everything from election interference and falsifying business records to mishandling classified materials, won North Carolina’s Republican Presidential Primary with 74% of the vote.

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was a distant second with 23% and suspended her campaign after winning only one of 15 Super Tuesday states.

Haley didn’t win a single county in North Carolina, but overall, her performance was about average, with statewide totals ranging from a low of 12% in Alaska to a high of 50% in Vermont, where she won.

President Joe Biden, facing questions about his age and cognitive ability, won North Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary with 87% of the vote; however, there were no other candidates on the ballot. Nearly 13% of voters chose “no preference” instead of Biden, which like Haley’s performance in North Carolina, is roughly average compared with his performance in other Super Tuesday states.

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North Carolina’s Republican senators aren’t on the ballot this year. Thom Tillis is up again in 2026, Ted Budd in 2028.

Western North Carolina’s first-term incumbent Congressman Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) will go on to face Asheville Democratic Rep. Caleb Rudow in the November General Election after defeating fellow Republican and Hayesville businessman Christian Reagan in the March 5 Primary Election.

Reagan performed better than many expected and ended up with just over 31% of the vote but said he was very disappointed in Donald Trump not weighing in on the Primary.

“No other congressional candidate did more on his behalf,” Reagan told The Smoky Mountain News. “I desperately needed his endorsement and got nothing. People like Steve Bannon are always talking about supporting grassroots candidates. Nothing of any support given.”

Although Reagan said he wouldn’t endorse Edwards or campaign for him, he will vote for him in November.

Rudow was unopposed in the Democratic Primary, the first time that’s happened since incumbent Heath Shuler (D-Swain) ran for reelection in 2008.

Based on performance, political mapping website Dave’s Redistricting puts NC-11 Democratic support in NC-11 at 44%, and interest among Republicans in the NC-11 race seems to be growing.

Just over 96,000 voted in this two-person Primary, while 90,696 voted in the 12-candidate race to succeed Mark Meadows (R-Macon) in 2020. In 2022, an off year, 88,258 voted in the election that saw Edwards defeat then-Congressman Madison Cawthorn (R-Henderson).

North Carolina’s race for governor will be closely watched nationally after Democratic and Republican frontrunners, Attorney General Josh Stein and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, respectively, advanced.

Stein, who approved the $1.5 billion sale of Asheville’s Mission Hospital to HCA in 2019 but is currently suing them over quality of care issues, topped a field of five with 70% of the vote.

Robinson, who came away with 65% of the vote in a field of three that included State Treasurer Dale Folwell, has called LGBTQ people “filth” and promulgated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

If elected, Stein would become the first Jewish governor of North Carolina, while Robinson would be the first Black governor of North Carolina. Neither Stein nor Robinson returned calls for comment from SMN.

Eleven Republicans ran to fill Robinson’s lieutenant governor post. Former Sen. Deanna Ballard, one of just 11 women running in non-judicial statewide races from either party, missed out on second place, running less than a percent behind Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill.  O’Neill, who didn’t return a call for comment, trailed winner Hal Weatherman by nearly four points. Neither broke the 30% threshold for an outright win, so O’Neill will face Weatherman in the May 14 runoff.

Weatherman, who served as former Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s chief of staff, has a long history in North Carolina politics. He previously served as chief of staff for pioneering Republican Congresswoman Sue Myrick and boasts a grassroots strategy.

“We did not run one TV ad,” Weatherman told SMN. “We did not run one radio ad. We did not do one direct mail piece. We fueled our travel around the state and we did do social media, but our social media was just chronicling our travels around the state, our journey. So I think it was a very strong victory, not just for me, that night.”

In early 2023, Weatherman told SMN he would use the lieutenant governor’s seat on the state Board of Education to focus on removing the stigma surrounding technical and vocational education, as well as beefing up the state’s existing apprenticeship program to bolster workforce development — an important component of tourism-driven economic development in the west.

The winner of the runoff will face Sen. Rachel Hunt (D-Mecklenburg), who came away with 70% of the vote in her three-candidate field. Hunt is the daughter of former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.

Every Council of State office was on the primary ballot, with the most high-profile race shaping up between Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) and Republican Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) for attorney general. Although Jackson and Bishop both currently have the same job, congressman, Jackson says there are some pretty clear differences between them. The first is that Bishop’s never been a prosecutor.

“I think that should matter. I think there’s also a difference when it comes to how we would approach the job that you can see based on how we both approach our current job,” Jackson said. “I think Dan Bishop is Mr. Culture War. I think he sees this job more as a sword to use against some people than a shield to defend them. I think he sees this as a partisan instrument. And that really concerns me.”

Jackson’s top priority for the far west is to crack down on fentanyl and methamphetamine trafficking.

He also wants HCA to know that it’ll receive the same amount of scrutiny from him as from Stein, echoing comments he made to SMN in January vowing to hold Pactiv Evergreen accountable for its responsibilities as it exits the community in the wake of the Canton paper mill shutdown. His next specific priority for the far west — perhaps an allusion to pollution that may be lurking beneath Pactiv’s 185-acre site — is protecting the environment, which drives much of Western North Carolina’s economy.

Bishop did not return a call for comment.

The other relatively high-profile Council of State race is that for Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Democrat Maurice “Mo” Green, former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and one-time superintendent of the state’s third-largest school district, in Guilford County, won his race handily, but intrigues on the Republican side should make for an interesting race.

Incumbent Republican Catherine Truitt lost her one-on-one Republican Primary race by more than four points to Michelle Morrow, a far-right candidate with no experience in public education. Morrow also lost a 2022 Wake County school board race.

On the state level, Western North Carolina’s incumbent legislators — Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon), Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Swain), Rep. Karl Gillespie (R-Macon) and Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) — all enjoyed a quiet night. None of them had Primary opponents. All of them, however, have General Election opposition from Democrats in November.

Cullowhee’s Adam Tebrugge will challenge Corbin in the 50th Senate District (35% Democrat by performance, according to Dave’s Redistricting). Frank Patton Hughes III, of Pineola, faces Hise in the 47th Senate District (36% Democrat).Brevard’s Mark Burrows hopes to defeat Clampitt in the 119th House District, which includes Swain, Jackson and Transylvania counties (43% Democrat). Nancy Curtis, of Andrews, takes on Gillespie, whose 120th House District spans Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties (26% Democrat). Marshall’s Evelyn Davidson opposes Pless in the 118th House District, comprised of Haywood and Madison counties (38% Democrat).

During the 2022 General Election, Gillespie and Hise had a free pass.

Hise’s came by defeating fellow Republican Sen. Ballard in the Primary Election after they were drawn into the same district. Gillespie’s came after no one filed against him in the Primary, making him completely uncontested that cycle.

A number of county offices in Western North Carolina were also on the ballot, but many weren’t.

Haywood County Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley and Vice Chairman Brandon Rogers are both up for reelection this year, however, no other Republicans filed to run against them. Democrats could have fielded two candidates, but could only come up with one, Tausha Forney, a youth mentor at the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center in Waynesville. Voters can — but don’t have to — select up to two candidates to vote for in that contest.

In Swain County, three Republicans faced off for two open county commission seats. There was no Democratic Primary Election as no one from that party filed.

Leading the way was newcomer Tanner Lawson, a youth pastor, with 37% of the vote. Incumbent Kenneth Parton finished second with 34%, and Eric Watson received 28%.

While it’s possible Lawson and Parton may face no General Election opposition, multiple unaffiliated candidates attempted to get the 390 signatures required to appear on the November ballot. Canvassing for those petitions ends this week, and officials expect to know whether any of those unaffiliated candidates meet those requirements next week.

In Macon County, two open seats on the county commission were decided during the Primary Election due to the fact that only Republican candidates filed to run. Both incumbents on the commission ran for reelection, but only one of those beat his challenger (see MACON, p. 4).

Jackson County’s school board is unique in that their election contests are decided during the Primary Election.

This year there were two seats up for election. In district three, incumbent Wes Jamison bested Clint Irons with 56.91% of the vote to Irons’ 42.64%. This will be Jamison’s third term on the Jackson County Board of Education. Jamison is a Jackson County native and has worked for the North Carolina Department of Transportation for over 20 years.

In district one, incumbent Chair Elizabeth Cooper did not seek reelection. Former Jackson County Commissioner Gayle Woody beat out her opponent Rainy Brake by a wide margin, securing 61.5% of the vote to Brake’s 37.59%. Woody is a retired teacher who spent 25 years teaching in Jackson County Schools and served one term on the county commission beginning in 2019.

Bucking the statewide trend, turnout in the Jackson County primary was up about a percentage point from the last election in which school board members were chosen, with 7,801 ballots cast, or about 26% of registered voters participating.

There was also an important judicial race in the west settled the night of March 5.

A newly created District Court seat — which will serve Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties — was up for grabs. Running for the spot on the bench were Republicans Virginia Hornsby and Andy Buckner. Hornsby came away with the victory after securing 52.77% of the vote. Because no Democrats filed to run for the seat, Hornsby (no relation to District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch) will be sworn in at the beginning of next year.

News Editor Kyle Perrotti and Staff Writer Hannah McLeod contributed to this report.

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