With additional reporting by Able Allen and Virginia Daffron
Despite his own victory, Robert Pressley was not in a particularly celebratory mood toward the end of the Republican election night watch party at Twisted Laurel on New Leicester Highway. “I’m happy I won — I don’t want to say I’m disappointed,” said the incumbent Buncombe County commissioner for District 3. “I guess I’m lost for words right now.”
Pressley, who defeated Democratic challenger Donna Ensley by fewer than 700 votes (after winning his 2016 race by almost 5,500 votes), was referencing his position as the sole Republican candidate to win a county race in the hotly contested 2018 midterms. “We lost the sheriff [race], we lost [Board of Commissioners] District 2, and I don’t know what else,” he explained. “This is really devastating to Buncombe County that this has happened.”
At Highland Brewing Co., Buncombe County Democratic Party Chair Jeff Rose expressed considerably higher spirits as he watched the results roll in. He said the party’s unprecedented midterm voter outreach — and the resulting turnout of 118,910 voters throughout the county, an increase of more than 30,000 over the 2014 midterms — had helped propel Democratic candidates to wins in nearly all local races.
“We put a lot of work into getting our message out there; the candidates put a lot of work into it,” Rose said. “We had volunteers at every single polling location. We’ve been canvassing and phone banking every single weekend. … It just speaks to how well organized we were and how strong the county is overall.”
However, Buncombe County’s “blue wave” wasn’t sufficient to sweep Democratic candidates into federal office. Incumbent Republicans Patrick McHenry in U.S. House District 10 and Mark Meadows in District 11 both held onto their seats, defeating bids by respective Democratic challengers David Wilson Brown and Phillip Price.
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners
Together with Pressley’s District 3 win, the night’s results maintained a 4-3 Democratic majority on Buncombe County’s governing body. In the race for the District 2 seat soon to be vacated by Democrat Ellen Frost, Republican Glenda Weinert carried more than 4,000 fewer votes than Democrat Amanda Edwards. In 2016, Republican Mike Fryar eked out a 317-vote win over Democratic challenger Nancy Nehls Nelson in the district, which has traditionally been considered one of the most closely divided in the state.
Incumbent Democrat Al Whitesides ran unopposed for the District 1 seat.
Edwards attributed her success to connections with voters over issues of trust in county government, which has flagged over the past year in the wake of federal corruption and embezzlement indictments involving former County Manager Wanda Greene and other senior administrators. She said she hopes to “reach across the aisle” and “put those letters [D and R] away” for the greater good of her constituents.
Weinert had emphasized a message of fiscal accountability, with a focus on “making sure that we take good care of the money that they entrust us to do.” Saying she had visited 20 polling locations throughout the county on Election Day, Weinert concluded, “All you can do is work as hard as you can … and see what the voters decide.”
Standing against corruption was also a core theme of the Angry Buncombe Taxpayers political action committee, which raised over $50,000 from local conservatives to fund advertisements in favor of the Republican Board of Commissioners candidates. Mike Summey, the group’s treasurer and one of its co-founders, expressed frustration that voters hadn’t seen fit to overturn the long-standing Democratic majority on the board.
“We did all we could to educate the voters. They must be happy with what they’ve got,” Summey said. “When you’ve got the situation we have, the proven corruption and stuff that’s gone on, and the voters want to keep the people that all that happened under — I mean, what do you do?”
Buncombe County Sheriff
The race to fill the role of Buncombe County sheriff, to be vacated at the start of the year by three-term Democrat Van Duncan, revealed a strong preference for Democrat Quentin Miller over Republican Shad Higgins and Libertarian Tracey DeBruhl. Miller earned over 61 percent of the vote, eclipsing Higgins’ share by nearly 30,000. DeBruhl, whose unconventional run included campaign signs “Paid for by Christ,” earned just over 3,500 votes.
Miller, who will become the county’s first African-American sheriff, associated his victory with his dedicated campaign team. “They’ve really made this as smooth as it could possibly be,” he said. “The volunteers, the people who phone banked, the people who canvassed, the people who stood beside us when it didn’t seem like we had a lot of support.”
When asked if the Sheriff’s Department itself — many members of which supported Lt. Randy Smart, Duncan’s own pick in the Democratic primary — would stand by him once he assumed office, Miller seemed optimistic. “It’s one agency. Again, it’s our agency; it’s the people’s agency,” he said. “The reason we come [to this agency] is to protect and serve the people of Buncombe County, and I don’t think that’s going to change because I’m the sheriff. At least I would hope that it doesn’t.”
Two of Miller’s former opponents, Daryl Fisher and Chris Winslow, were at the Democratic celebration, both heartily endorsing the sheriff-elect. Smart and Duncan were absent, as was Rondell Lance, who ran as a Democrat.
Before the results came in on election night, Higgins said his campaign as a Republican had been about restoring accountability to law enforcement. “You’ve got to hold people accountable. And when I say accountable, I don’t mean not helping them, whether with a substance abuse problem or whatever,” he explained. “I want to help everyone. By doing that, we’ve got to hold them accountable to give them some help.”
But Higgins was not available to provide comment after his defeat: He and his campaign team rushed out of the Republican watch party to respond to rumors of a fire outside his Weaverville tire shop. The shop had previously burned on Oct. 26 under uncertain circumstances, and the State Bureau of Investigation is currently looking into the fire’s cause.
Outside Higgins’ shop, Xpress learned that the reports were a misinterpretation of an emergency medical call.
N.C. Senate and House of Representatives
All four Buncombe County Democratic incumbents in the state General Assembly maintained their seats for another term. In Senate District 49, Democrat Terry Van Duyn earned over 63 percent of the vote to defeat Republican Mark Crawford and Libertarian Lyndon John Smith, who earned roughly 34 percent and 2 percent of ballots, respectively.
With over 82 percent of the vote, Susan Fisher, Democratic incumbent for House District 114, earned the most definitive victory of the evening; her opponent was Republican Kris Lindstam. Notably, Lindstam did not respond to the Xpress candidate questionnaire or appear at any public candidate forums. Democrat John Ager, District 115 incumbent, also comfortably bested Republican candidate Amy Evans with more than 58 percent of the vote.
District 116 yielded the most competitive race as Democrat incumbent Brian Turner faced off against Republican challenger Marilyn Brown. Turner carried nearly 55 percent of the vote in his right-leaning district, a result he chalked up to his time building day-to-day relationships with voters over his time in office.
“To really be successful, I need to bring across a large number of unaffiliateds; I need to bring across some Republicans,” he explained. “It’s not just about the party.”
The major issues Turner heard from voters during the campaign, he said, were affordable health care, the environment and public education. He said he was excited to return to Raleigh for a third term and invited constituents to “hold me accountable for what I say I’m going to do.”
For her part, Brown said she hopes to remain involved with the Republican party, particularly on issues of education. As a former teacher, she said, “I wanted to be that voice to the education community here in Asheville, to get stakeholders to the table and understand why teachers are still frustrated,” despite recent raises. That frustration persists, she said, because teachers “don’t feel anyone is listening to them. I think that Raleigh does a lot of research, and then they enact legislation based on research, but they’re not getting the practical application and they’re not giving the local school boards time to implement those policies in a seamless way.”
Republican incumbent Sen. Chuck Edwards, whose District 48 includes part of southern Buncombe County, would have lost to Democratic challenger Norm Bossert if only Buncombe ballots were counted. However, Edwards’ constituents in Henderson County voted largely in his favor, leading to a nearly 11,000-vote margin of victory. “Henderson County gave me a good kick in the you-know-where,” concluded Bossert.
Other county races
Although the race for the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors is technically nonpartisan, the two Democrats in the contest prevailed over three unaffiliated contenders. Incumbent William Hamilton led the count with over 32 percent of the vote, while political newcomer Aaron Sarver finished second with roughly 24 percent.
Hamilton thanked voters for giving him “the trust and confidence” for another term in the supervisor role. “My priorities are to use my position to educate the citizens of the county on what kind of services the district provides and why the work we do is an important public service,” he said. “I also intend to continue to be an advocate for the funding the district needs to be effective in making a difference in the community.”
Unaffiliated incumbent Elise Israel lost her seat with a third-place finish that garnered over 20 percent of votes. Trailing her were first-time candidate Karina Lizotte and perennial contender Alan Ditmore, who received over 13,000 votes on a platform of contraception funding as the only viable path to environmental protection.
All other countywide races were run by unopposed Democratic incumbents. District Attorney Todd Williams and Clerk of Superior Court Steve Cogburn will return to their posts for another term, as will all county superior and district court judges and three members of the Buncombe County Board of Education.
Also on the ballot
The races for the two U.S. House representatives with constituents in Buncombe County revealed a stark divide between voters inside and outside county lines. In the District 10 contest, Democratic challenger Brown earned over 20,000 more votes among Buncombe County voters than did Republican McHenry, but the incumbent emerged with a nearly 52,000-vote margin of victory across the entire district for over 59 percent of the total.
Similarly, District 11 Democratic challenger Price accrued over 54 percent of the Buncombe County vote, besting Republican incumbent Meadows’ roughly 44 percent and Libertarian hopeful Clifton Ingram, Jr.’s 2 percent. Across the entire district, Meadows took over 59 percent of ballots, with Price at roughly 39 percent and Ingram with 2 percent.
Rose pinned those broader results for Democrats on the manner in which the House districts were constructed. “Our voters have had to hold elections in those districts multiple times with unconstitutionally drawn maps,” he explained. “I don’t think it’s a surprise to see a heavy Republican majority, because they were drawn that way.”
Carl Mumpower, chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party, expressed a lack of surprise about the House races as well, but for markedly different reasons. “We recognize that in both cases [McHenry and Meadows], we have hardworking, competent and committed leaders grounded in reason and normal standards of behavior,” he said. “As our regional epicenter of abnormality, who would anticipate Asheville’s majority to embrace two stable, value-driven guys trying to do the right thing?
“The character of an elected official is measured as surely by who doesn’t vote for him or her as who does,” Mumpower continued. “In the minds of most Christian and conservative-minded people still valuing our region’s traditional values, an endorsement by Asheville voters would be cause for alarm.”
Ballot questions on six proposed state constitutional amendments also went over differently between the county and a wider pool of voters. Four of the amendments that Buncombe voters would’ve rejected — protecting hunting and fishing rights, strengthening victims’ rights, capping the state’s maximum income tax at 7 percent and requiring voters to have photo identification — passed muster at the state level.
However, statewide results affirmed the county’s strong “against” preference on two of the amendments, which would have transferred power over judicial appointments from the governor to the General Assembly and changed the makeup of the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement. The former failed by over a million votes across North Carolina, while the latter was rejected by more than 800,000 votes.