Beginning the evening with a somber group prayer and cautiously guarded optimism, friends, family and other supporters of GOP congressional candidate Carl Mumpower ended the night in banner-waving, balloon-floating joy as their candidate won a close race. Mumpower, 55, now faces the much more daunting task of unseating first-term incumbent Rep. Heath Shuler in the November election.
With all 15 counties reporting and 40,746 total ballots cast in the race, Mumpower had garnered 48.17 percent (19,629 votes), compared with 42.25 percent (17,216 votes) for Spence Campbell, a 27-year Army veteran and former small-business owner who is chair of the Henderson County Republican Party.
Macon County constitutional attorney and author John Armor placed a distant third with 9.57 percent (3,901 votes). Armor also mounted an unsuccessful bid for the nomination in 2006, losing to then-incumbent Charles Taylor. Turnout across the district averaged 33.9 percent; Buncombe’s was 38.06; Haywood led all 15 counties with 40.6 percent.
Turnout and the preferences of unaffiliated voters may loom large in determining Mumpower’s prospects in November. But several factors suggest that the challenger could face an uphill fight in trying to unseat Shuler. For starters, incumbents typically enjoy an overwhelming advantage, although Shuler, a political neophyte, defeated Taylor, an eight-term Republican, in 2006. And though the 11th Congressional District leans conservative, registered Democrats (195,661) significantly outnumber Republicans (166,546). An additional 121,582 voters are unaffiliated, according to the State Board of Elections.
Another big issue will be money. Mumpower has limited his fundraising to individual donors, stating his refusal to take any money with strings attached, such as from the national party or special-interest groups. His campaign manager, Michael Muller, concedes that Mumpower will obviously be outspent in the race.
“We’ve simply got to work harder and reach out to people and convince them that we can do it—that we can take on Shuler just through sheer hard work, through sweat equity. I know it’s a David-and-Goliath kind of thing, but I’m ready for that,” Muller said on election night as Mumpower’s crowd watched Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama‘s Raleigh victory speech on television at One Oak Plaza in downtown Asheville, Mumpower’s campaign headquarters.
When they weren’t glued to a computer screen or cell phone, Muller and Mumpower spent a major portion of the evening scurrying around while a crowd of some two-dozen supporters milled about quietly in the cramped campaign office, watching returns and Dancing With the Stars on TV. Among them were successful Buncombe County Board of Commissioners candidates Joe Dunn and Don Yelton, as well as Asheville City Council member Bill Russell.
Known for his calm, quiet demeanor even when riled, Mumpower appeared almost giddy when it seemed apparent that he would win, though he told Xpress, with a wide grin and flushed face, “I’m not so much giddy as humbled and honored.” While Muller and a WLOS-TV cameraman coached the crowd on how to behave in front of the cameras before interviewing Mumpower, the candidate turned to the assembled supporters and said half-jokingly, “We don’t want it to look too staged,” as the camera lights went on and the crowd went wild behind him.
“We won with no power, no money; we’ve done just like ordinary people do: We’ve had good values and worked hard,” Mumpower told Xpress. “I’m grateful for all the support I had and I’m a lucky, honored man, and I intend to honor the people who supported me by working hard to take it to the next level.”
Mumpower added that what resonated most with voters seemed quite simple.
“I’m a maverick—meaning I’m independent—and I’m principled,” he said. “I really try to do the right thing. I don’t play games with people. I don’t pander to special interests on either side of the spectrum, liberal or conservative. I’m just into it for the average person, and I come from [my heart] on that—and I’ll continue to, and I won’t stop.”
Downcast in Hendersonville
While Mumpower celebrated and looked forward to a May 7 Florida fishing trip (a promise he’d made to his wife to make up for months of grueling campaigning), the mood was decidedly different at The Peddler Steak House in Hendersonville, where a group of about 50 supporters of second-place finisher Campbell had gathered.
“It looks like it didn’t work out like we wanted it to,” Campbell told Xpress. “There’s no guarantee being in politics. … I’m more disappointed for my staff and for my supporters.” The candidate said he will now be able to spend more time with family and perhaps live the life of a retired man, which he hasn’t been doing for the past six months.
Hendersonville resident Jackie Unardoni, an 81-year-old retired schoolteacher who was born in Asheville, said: “I don’t think Mumpower has the pulse of the people like Spence does. But Mumpower has a lot of connections, and being in Asheville, that’s a big help. The people are going to miss out on someone with a lot of integrity and respect.”
Campbell’s finance director, Noah Gibson, tried to take away something positive from the whole experience. “We started in October, when he wasn’t known outside Henderson County,” noted Gibson. “At first, people had no idea who he was: We went from virtually unknown to getting pretty good numbers. It was a success, no matter what the outcome.”