Analysis: Low turnout impacts primary

With the electoral dust finally settling over the 11th Congressional District's Republican primary, the picture is becoming clearer as to just how voter turnout — and the lack of it — affected the race.

The overall numbers were down from 2008, when 40,855 Republicans voted in a three-way primary featuring Carl Mumpower, Spence Campbell and John Armor. And though that was a hot year for politics all around — the November general election saw the highest participation in four decades — the relative lack of voter interest is not unusual for an off year with no presidential contest. In the May 4 primary, 34,815 Republicans voted in the 11th District, which includes Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania and Yancey counties.

They're not evenly spread out, of course. The lion's share of the district's Republicans live in Buncombe and Henderson counties, which claim 47,735 and 31,447 respectively. Typically, the key to winning a GOP primary in the 11th is to control one of those two counties and to split off enough votes in the other. But this was not a typical year.

First of all, the field was unusually crowded. Six candidates were seeking the nomination: Dan Eichenbaum, a Murphy ophthalmologist; Jake Howard, retired from the Broward County, Fla., Sheriff's Office; Ed Krause, an attorney who lives in McDowell County; Jeff Miller, a Henderson County businessman; Greg Newman, an attorney and former mayor of Hendersonville; and Kenny West, a Macon County insurance salesman.

Miller prevailed, with just enough votes (14,032) to capture the nomination. In races with more than two candidates, one of them must achieve at least a 40 percent plurality to avoid a runoff and declare victory under North Carolina law. Miller narrowly managed this, garnering 40.3 percent of the vote. Unless a high number of irregularities are discovered (improbable) and the nearly 200 or so uncounted provisional ballots across the 11th district are 1) mostly Republican, 2) are not thrown out due to error, and 3) they trend virtually all against Miller (very improbable), it's extremely unlikely that a runoff will be necessary or that the outcome will change. Eichenbaum finished second on May 4 with 11,893 votes (34.16 percent); Newman collected 4,084 votes (11.73 percent); West secured 2,767 (7.95 percent); Krause received 1,250 (3.59 percent); and Howard mustered just 789 votes (2.27 percent).

What's particularly interesting is how and where local Republicans turned out to vote. Henderson County led the pack with 10,526 voters, or 34 percent. Buncombe County, which boasts the district's highest concentration of Republicans, managed a mere 14 percent turnout, edging only Jackson County, which was dead last with 12.4 percent.

Those dynamics had an enormous effect. A superior Republican Party organization in Henderson County, coupled with Miller's favorite-son status, amplified the county's impact on the outcome. In many ways, Miller put Henderson County on the map a few years back when he founded HonorAir, a program that flies aging World War II veterans to Washington. For his efforts, Miller was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal — one of only about 100 people to receive the award in the last 40 years.

Buncombe County's abysmal Republican turnout can be attributed to its relatively weak party organization and inability to raise money for get-out-the-vote efforts. And while Eichenbaum carried Buncombe and seven other counties to Miller's six, the numbers simply weren't high enough to make a difference. But if more Buncombe Republicans had voted, Eichenbaum, not Miller, might well be the nominee.

What support Eichenbaum did achieve in Buncombe County was directly attributable to the work of the local Tea Party group, which endorsed him early on and campaigned on his behalf. But in the end, they were outmaneuvered by Miller's campaign, which spent money on a barrage of top-notch television commercials over the last few months and, most significantly, in the race's final days. Eichenbaum did run one ad, but it came too late, was poorly done and he spent a mere $30,000 — not enough to ensure adequate airtime. If the campaign had devoted a larger proportion of its budget to well-placed television ads early on, the outcome might have been different.

The aftermath finds an 11th District Republican Party that, by many accounts, is bitterly divided. Miller will have his work cut out for him as he tries to unify the party and woo Tea Party supporters in his bid for Rep. Heath Shuler's seat this fall. It won't be easy: There are 172,277 registered Republicans in the 11th District, compared with 243,943 registered Democrats. And with $1.3 million in the bank, Shuler is the best-funded congressional candidate in the state.

Michael Muller can be reached at mmuller@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 154.

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