Dramatic year in politics creates few shifts in power

Veterans Against Madison Cawthorn protesters
MAKING A STAND: Veterans Against Madison Cawthorn protesters line up on Long Shoals Road to show their support for Moe Davis. Photo by Laura Hackett

This year’s campaigning, shouting, marching, speechifying, social media posting, criticizing, commenting, complaining and (finally) voting made some changes to the balance of political power in Asheville and North Carolina. Despite all the drama, however, many things stayed about the same.

Asheville City Council gained four new members over the course of the year — one chosen by Council after the resignation of member Vijay Kapoor, three by voters in the general election — and is now an all-female body for the first time in history. But early indications are that Council’s most liberal members will still be in the minority and the new faces won’t bring about dramatic changes in policy.

Buncombe County voted a little more strongly against President Donald Trump in 2020 than it did four years ago — his share of the county’s vote fell from 40.1% in 2016 to 38.6% this year — but Trump’s grip on conservative voters in the state’s rural and some suburban counties was tight enough to win North Carolina again despite losing the national contest.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won a second term comfortably as Republicans retained majorities in the state House and Senate. As was true before the election, the GOP won’t have enough votes to override Cooper’s vetoes, but Cooper probably doesn’t have enough power to bend Republicans legislators to his will either.

Democrats mounted a much more serious challenge in Western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District than in years past, and a court-mandated shift in the district’s boundaries gave them a better shot at victory. But while Democrat Moe Davis ran ahead of his party’s other recent nominees for the seat, Republican Madison Cawthorn’s win with 54.5% of the vote means the end result was not so different: WNC’s representative in the U.S. House may again be among that body’s most conservative members.

Here’s a further look at some of the factors that determined the course of the year in politics.

City and country

The presidential race was close overall in North Carolina, with Trump getting 49.9% of the state’s votes to Democrat Joe Biden’s 48.6%. The story was much different at the county level. The state’s 10 largest counties collectively gave Trump only 38% of their votes; in the remaining 90 counties, he got 60.2%.

“We used to talk about there being three North Carolinas:” mountains, piedmont and coastal plain, says Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “I think the new cleavage is urban-rural.”

The only mountain counties Biden won were Buncombe and Watauga, home to Appalachian State University. Trump’s vote topped 70% in Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties in the western tip of the state, as well as in Avery, McDowell, Mitchell and a few other counties to the east and north of Buncombe.

One curiosity was Trump’s decline in Henderson County, a Republican stronghold. He still won the county handily with 58.6% of the vote, but that share was down from his 61.6% in 2016.

Cooper says Democratic-leaning voters priced out of Buncombe’s expensive housing are gradually moving into Henderson County and possibly Transylvania County as well.

Black Lives Matter matters 

Following what many regard as a disappointing year for Democrats, a national debate has broken out over whether moves to redirect funding from police departments and promote left-wing policy proposals like universal health coverage hurt the party’s candidates. That debate is happening in North Carolina, too.

Carrboro-based Democratic political consultant and blogger Thomas Mills and John Hood, board chair at the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, both say the defunding movement and its accompanying summer protests dragged on Democratic candidates in North Carolina.

Mills says the issue brought Republican voters to the polls. “They didn’t turn out just to support Donald Trump, they turned out to oppose Democrats. … We are kind of a center-right state, and the activism scares as many people as it excites.”

And Hood says many North Carolina voters worried Democrats would take changes to policing too far. “There is a significant constituency for criminal justice reform. The constituency for defunding the police is far, far smaller,” he says. “When Democrats failed to distance themselves from ‘Defund the police,’ they usually got clobbered in competitive races.”

Two local progressive activists reject that analysis, saying many centrist Democrats faired poorly. “When you look across the country — and North Carolina is really no exception — the Democratic candidates that were running on progressive platforms like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, they won their elections,” says Jenny Andry, co-chair of the Asheville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The Democratic Party in North Carolina pushed its candidates away from progressive positions, argues Victoria Estes, an organizer with Sunrise Movement Asheville, a youth-oriented climate justice organization. That approach, she says, reduced enthusiasm and hurt Democratic candidates. Advocates of a more centrist approach counter that candidates who ran on the most progressive agendas typically represented safe Democratic districts, while centrists ran in more competitive districts.

But Mills says even though the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd hurt North Carolina Democrats at the ballot box, they put the question of police reform on the agendas of public officials across the country. “We’re spending more time looking at police budgets than at any time in our history,” he says.

Floyd’s death was “clear evidence of a pattern that’s been going on for a long, long time. The issues behind that … need to be addressed,” Mills adds.

Mixed Asheville message 

It’s a little difficult to say just what message voters sent Asheville City Council, but this year’s vote probably doesn’t represent a mandate for radical policy shifts. The city’s electorate is undoubtedly liberal, although a switch from holding Council elections in odd-numbered years to even-numbered years increased turnout and likely diluted the influence of more liberal activists. But one of Council’s leading proponents of steps to address racial issues and advance progressive causes, Keith Young, lost his seat, while one of the candidates least supportive of cuts to the police, Sandra Kilgore, was the top vote-getter Nov. 3.

On the other hand, the candidate most aligned with police critics, Kim Roney, also won a seat, coming in third. Both the Sunrise Movement and DSA urged supporters to vote for Roney and no other Council candidate.

“We considered her the only true progressive candidate,” says Andry of Roney. “By getting her 100% of our vote instead of 33% of our vote, we were hoping to boost her chances of getting elected, and I think it worked.”

Young led all candidates in the 2015 race for Council, but local voters seem to sour on City Council members more quickly than on other politicians. Some progressives felt that Young’s votes sometimes did not reflect his rhetoric. Questions over his commitment to the city after he bought a house in Arden — and in 2018 ran for a U.S. House seat representing Charlotte — may have also hurt his candidacy.

Maps and migration 

One elected body where significant change did occur was the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. The 2020 general election left Democrats with a 6-1 majority over Republicans on the board, up from a previous 4-3 split.

Democrats’ momentum had been building as new residents of the county likely leaned Democratic and Trump turned off many moderates. After the GOP-controlled General Assembly imposed district voting on commissioner races in 2011, Republicans easily took two District 3 seats on the board, representing western and southern parts Buncombe, in 2012. The GOP won one of the District 2 seats representing eastern Buncombe that year and fell only 19 votes short of winning both, which would have given the party majority control.

But in 2018, Democrat Amanda Edwards handily won a District 2 seat, while Republican Commissioner Robert Pressley only narrowly retained his District 3 job.

A state Supreme Court decision that struck down some legislative district lines — coterminous with commissioner district lines in Buncombe — as partisan gerrymanders accelerated Democrats’ gains. The old lines had concentrated many of the county’s Democratic voters in a district centered on Asheville, leaving the other two districts competitive for Republicans. The lines used in 2020 more evenly spread Asheville voters among all three districts.

The result? No GOP commissioner candidate got more than 42.2% of the vote in this year’s general election.


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8 thoughts on “Dramatic year in politics creates few shifts in power

  1. Roger

    The issues that might make a real, verifiable difference to a lot of “Unaffiliated” voters…not just in the State, but across the country…is the matter of opening up the system so that we finally get beyond a two-party system that uses toxic issues to divide the People, instead of uniting us. Lee Drutmann’s 2020 book about how the two-party system is destroying our County gets to the heart of the real issue. But why journalists don’t spend more time investigating why so many citizens are leaving the Democrat and Republican parties to become Unaffiliated is a mystery. I admit that I’ve been preaching about this for years now, but apparently that makes me an outsider, even though the number of Unaffiliated members of the electorate continues to increase, while the number of those loyal to either one of the “mainstream” parties grow smaller. A majority of citizens do not believe that this political cycle was about them. It was all about career politicians and billionaires who will do anything to win, even if it means rigging the system. Of course, one doesn’t expect that mainstream media could give a rat’s behind about what a growing number of citizens are concerned about: the toxic, crooked business of two-party politics.

  2. Wncguy

    Any particular reason you failed to mention that jasmine ferrera won the late mike fryar’s seat and that Parker Sloan took out incumbent Joe Belcher.

    • Mark Barrett

      Wncguy, maybe you didn’t read all the way to the end. Look at the section with the subhead “Maps and migration.” It begins, “One elected body where significant change did occur was the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. The 2020 general election left Democrats with a 6-1 majority over Republicans on the board, up from a previous 4-3 split.”

      • Wncguy

        I did but my question is why didn’t you mention the wins specifically by name? You name Amanda Edwards and Pressley in 2018 but not the candidates that won in 2020?

        • Mark Barrett

          Wnc guy, it may help to remember this is a news story, not a list of award winners or a letter of congratulations. It doesn’t include all the winners of Asheville City Council seats, legislative seats or other offices either. The story mentions Edwards and Pressley because their margins of victory in 2018 illustrate the trend toward Democrats we’ve seen in commissioner races this decade, not because I wanted to give them a shout out. There’s no slight intended to Beach-Ferrara or Sloan. The idea behind the story, successful or not, is to identify trends from 2020. I’m not trying to list the winner of every race in an election held about seven weeks ago.

          Also, the assignment came with a limit on length, reasonably so. Listing all winners would leave less space for observations from those I interviewed.

          I hope this helps.

  3. bsummers

    Surprising no one, Cawthorne signs on to the coup attempt to reject the will of the voters and install Trump for a second term:

    “And so, because of that, on January 6, as the people of western North Carolina sent me to Washington to do a job, I will be contesting the election.”

    Great. This is the “job” you were sent to Washington to do… This nonsense was thrown out by the conservative Supreme Court twice. Continuing to push this marks you as a fascist or a moron or both.

    • Roger

      Last time I saw a reputable poll, a majority of those polled believe that the system is rigged and that noted irregularities from this cycle are real. The two-party system awards hyper-partisan members of both parties who spew hate and illogical reactions to any other citizen whose view varies from that partisan with righteous views and toxic remarks. I agree with author Lee Drutmann who warns that the two-party system is destroying our country. The two-party system appointed the judges, the bureaucrats, and those who are employed by the government. Washington is full of career politicians and legal “experts” who help keep the system closed to the Unaffiliated members of the electorate who want to see changes, including ones that will stop the system from being rigged. Hyper-partisan members are irrational and vicious.

      • NFB

        The two party system is a direct result of our winner take all system. Countries that have more proportional representation systems — such as parliamentary systems— are much more likely to have viable parties beyond just two.

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