Five takeaways from Buncombe’s 2022 primaries

East Asheville Library ballot box
WHAT'S IN THE BOX? A receptacle awaits completed ballots at the East Asheville Library. Photo by Jennifer Castillo

Buncombe County’s busy primary season drew to a close May 17, with about 27,700 Election Day voters joining the nearly 26,200 citizens who had cast their ballots by mail or at one-stop early voting sites. The approximately 26.4% turnout of registered county voters far exceeded that for Buncombe’s two most recent midterm elections in 2014 and 2018 (about 15% and 16%, respectively) and outpaced the statewide turnout of roughly 19.7%.

The county Board of Elections won’t officially certify the results until Friday, May 27, after all eligible mail-in ballots have been counted and provisional votes considered. The N.C. Board of Elections will issue its own certification Thursday, June 9. But even with those steps still to come, there’s plenty to learn from the unofficial results.

Below are five key takeaways from primary races for offices that represent Buncombe County residents. (All vote totals were current as of May 23.) More details are available through Xpress’ election night coverage at avl.mx/blj, with updated vote totals available through the NCBOE at avl.mx/bll.

A farewell to Cawthorn

The Republican primary for U.S. House District 11 had attracted national interest thanks to the polarizing figure of Rep. Madison Cawthorn. On the incumbent’s side were name recognition and the endorsement of former President Donald Trump; arrayed against him was the candidate’s own litany of controversial behavior, as well as establishment Republicans such as North Carolina’s U.S. senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.

That opposition coalesced around one such establishment Republican, state Sen. Chuck Edwards, who captured 29,399 votes (33.42%) in the eight-way race to edge out Cawthorn’s 28,046 (31.88%). Although Cawthorn was the top candidate in 12 of the 15 counties comprising District 11, Edwards placed second or third in all of them, and he dominated populous Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania counties — all of which he has represented in the state legislature. No other candidate received more than 9.5% of the vote.

“How great is it that we have become so energized that folks are willing to get out in a primary and select someone to represent the party in Washington, D.C. I think that is a true testament to the country we live in and the belief that we have in our system,” Edwards said at a campaign celebration in Flat Rock. “In spite of the problems that we have, it’s a sign that we have not given up, and we’re more determined than ever to take control of our own destiny.”

Edwards will face Democrat Jasmine-Beach Ferrara in November. The current Buncombe commissioner won a comfortable victory on the Democratic side, with nearly 60% of votes cast.

Independents are flexible

Unaffiliated voters in North Carolina have the option to vote in primary elections for either major party. In Buncombe County, those independents were divided almost evenly, a striking change from 2020’s primaries.

This time, nearly 4,700 Buncombe independents took the Republican ballot in early voting, while about 4,500 took the Democratic option. By contrast, in 2020, over 10,300 unaffiliated Buncombe residents voted Democratic, with about 2,100 choosing the Republican ballot.

Some Democratic activists, including former U.S. House District 11 candidate Moe Davis, had encouraged registered Democrats to become unaffiliated this year so they could vote in the Republican primary against Cawthorn. Party leadership, including Buncombe County Democratic Party Chair Jeff Rose, did not endorse that strategy.

Divided on justice

The Democratic primary for Buncombe County District Attorney — which, given the lack of any Republican candidate, will almost certainly decide the seat — showed county voters to be of three different minds on criminal justice.

Those in favor of the status quo appear to have narrowly prevailed, with incumbent Todd Williams taking 10,851 votes (34.74%). But Courtney Booth, who campaigned as a “reform DA” opposed to capital punishment, cash bail and mass incarceration, trailed him in the provisional results as of May 23 by just 123 votes. (North Carolina law allows candidates to ask for a recount when the margin of victory is less than 1% of all votes cast. As of press time, Booth had not conceded the race and said she was waiting for the county canvas of votes May 27.)

Doug Edwards, who campaigned on his prosecutorial record and positioned himself as tougher on crime than Williams, also ran a strong race, earning 9,258 votes (29.64%). In 2018, a two-way Democratic DA primary between Williams and Ben Scales had the challenger receive 11,418 votes (46.75%).

Incumbents are sticky

Several races for positions in county government and the state legislature showed high levels of support for current officeholders. The night’s biggest margin of victory, for example, went to Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller, who bested challenger David Hurley in the Democratic primary by over 72 percentage points. Miller will face Republican Jeff Worley, who took 10,690 votes (58.43%) to beat Ben Jaramillo. (Over 2,200 voters cast ballots for Adrian (AJ) Fox, who died April 3 but still appeared on the Republican ballot.)

Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides also won a decisive Democratic primary victory over Bill Branyon. The challenger had attracted support from many progressives in the pages of Xpress due to his criticism of county subsidies for aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. But Whitesides said most voters he had encountered were more concerned with local issues such as homelessness, prekindergarten access and affordable housing. Whitesides’ Republican opponent in November will be Anthony Penland, chief of the Swannanoa Fire Department and a former District 2 commissioner.

In the Republican primary for N.C. Senate District 46, which covers much of eastern Buncombe County after redistricting by the General Assembly, incumbent Warren Daniel won with 12,391 votes (61.32%) over Mark Crawford with 7,816 (38.68%). Crawford, a resident of Black Mountain, did beat Daniel in all of the district’s Buncombe precincts, but Morganton-based Daniel exceeded Crawford’s total support with the votes he earned in Burke County alone. Democrat Billy Martin of Marion will face Daniel in November.

And state Sen. Julie Mayfield emerged with 16,033 votes (68.28%) in a Democratic primary for N.C. Senate District 49 that saw her repeatedly attacked by challenger and Asheville City Council member Sandra Kilgore. Republican John Anderson of Candler will run against Mayfield in the general election.

“We don’t have a lot of negative campaigning in Asheville, and I feel like this race got that way a little bit, which was surprising,” Mayfield told Xpress. “I understand I’m the incumbent, I have a target on my back, but I still expect people to be honest and truthful and not mislead.”

Asheville’s future stays female

City of Asheville voters first picked a City Council of all women in 2020, and if this year’s primary results are an indication, that gender balance isn’t likely to change in 2022. Of the six candidates advancing to the general election, only one — Andrew Fletcher, who finished in sixth with 4,389 votes (7.68%) — is male.

At the top of the Council pack, with 9,603 votes (16.79%) was Maggie Ullman Berthiaume, whose campaign focused on her municipal government experience as Asheville’s first sustainability director. Incumbents Sheneika Smith and Antanette Mosley finished second and third, respectively, while Allison Scott and Nina Tovish rounded out those qualifying for November’s ballot.

In the mayoral race, Mayor Esther Manheimer and current Council member Kim Roney will go on to the general election after beating out three male candidates. With 8,808 (42.29%) and 6,964 (33.43%) votes, respectively, the two finished much closer than did Manheimer and challenger Martin Ramsey in the 2017 primary, where the incumbent had a nearly 6,800-vote margin of victory.

Women also led polling in the first election for the Asheville City Board of Education. The top three vote-getters were Amy Ray, Sarah Thornburg and Rebecca Strimer; the top male candidate, in fourth place, was Pepi Acebo. Liza English-Kelly, Jesse J. Warren, William (Bill) Young Jr. and Miri Massachi round out the eight-person field from which voters will choose four to sit on the board in November.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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