GOP strong in Haywood election
As the dust settled in the 2012 election and local political seers were crunching numbers, it became clear Haywood County had more Republican votes than any other time in its history.
Even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in Haywood, 19,449 to 12,580, there’s a growing number of unaffiliated voters, a number that stood at 11,002 for the November election.
About half of all the Republicans and Democrats voting in the November election chose the straight party ticket option.
“It’s a little surprising,” said Republican County Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who easily won re-election, leading the ticket for the county board race. “I’ve been running since 1998, and I think this is the biggest Republican year I’ve ever seen.”
For president, there were 3,800 more votes cast for Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney in Haywood than President Barack Obama. The trend continued down the line, with Republicans gaining large wins in both the 10th and 11th Congressional districts, as well the governor’s seat and a solid majority in the General Assembly.
Perhaps the biggest surprise locally was the 118th legislative district where Yancey County commissioner and business owner Michele Presnell defeated 10-year legislative veteran Ray Rapp.
“I am dumbfounded beyond belief that Ray Rapp lost,” said Janie Benson, Haywood County Democratic Party Chairwoman. “There is not a better man. There is not a person who has worked harder for Haywood County than Ray Rapp, and my heart hurts that we lost that race and we lost him. However, we will always stand behind Ray Rapp. He is good for Haywood County.”
The retired Mars Hill College administrator was a highly visible legislator who could be spotted at many Haywood County functions, from sporting events to fire district awards ceremonies to virtually any parade held in the county.
Rapp said he was surprised at the results, which he chalked up to a vigorous and effective campaign waged by Presnell as well as new district boundaries. While Rapp’s previous district had a 51 percent Democratic majority, changes that included removing a number of Haywood precincts dropped the Democratic majority to 45 percent.
Rapp didn’t want to address specifics in the steady attack ads, phone calls and mailers that painted him in a negative light.
“I kept my campaign positive, and I’m going close it positive,” Rapp said. “I congratulate Ms. Presnell for her victory, and I wish her the best. I left her a voice mail saying I instructed my legislative assistant to help prepare the transition and to assist her in any way she can. Hopefully it will be a smooth, orderly transition.”
Presnell said she is “overwhelmed and humbled” by her win.
“I thank all the people that worked so hard to get me in,” she said, adding her priority has been and will continue to be jobs.
“We need jobs and in order to do that we need less regulation,” Presnell said. “Since we’re are in control down there (in Raleigh), I’m hoping we can get some things accomplished and work for the people. I think we’ll see North Carolina is in a better position in the next couple of years.”
However, the 119 District went to Democrat Joe Sam Queen, who defeated Mike Clampitt to return to Raleigh. Queen formerly served in the state senate, but was defeated two years ago in a district that no longer includes Haywood.
“I prefer to win rather than lose,” Queen said, “It’s a challenging time, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve again in the General Assembly.”
Queen said he believes voters supported his commitment to education and economic development.
With a now Republican-controlled House and Senate, it will be more important than ever to bring a spirit of cooperation to the table, which Queen said he is hoping he will encounter when he returns to Raleigh.
“I’m just looking forward to going down and working with whoever will join and get the job done,” he said. “The strategy is to be open and engage. They will now have to govern, and it’s going to be a challenge. It will depend on how much cooperation we can get going, and I’m certainly open to that. We’ll have both sides working for the people.”
He said he appreciates the confidence of the people in his district and will work hard with state and local governments to achieve the best outcomes for everyone.
In Senate District 50, Republican Sen. Jim Davis was the victor, defeating Democrat John Snow for a second time. Davis first defeated Snow two years ago.
“I’m just really honored to win the election. I’m very grateful for all the people who voted for me and had enough confidence in me to want me to serve another term,” he said.
What gave him the edge, he believes, was his focus on the economy and jobs.
“I think we made a compelling case that unless we get North Carolina’s fiscal house in order and lesson the tax and regulartory burden on businesses, it’s going to be very difficult to recover from this recession, and I think that’s what they responded to,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting to work.”
Benson, however, thinks campaign spending made a difference. In the Senate District 50 race, Davis raised nearly $900,000 according to the third-quarter and 48-hour campaign finance reports as opposed to Snow's receipts of less than $100,000.
"I think it's a new day for elections in our state and that consideration should be given to how much money candidates spend in one race," she said. "I think that money was a big factor, and my concern is that much of it wasn't even money from North Carolina. Somehow it all seems skewed."
However, Don Kelly, head of the Haywood County Republican Party countered by saying he didn't think campaign finances had much to do with their success this election cycle.
"On our end, it was just a lot of legwork and knocking on doors," he said, adding "a lot of hard work" went into getting the Republican message out to the public.
Kelly noted that in Haywood County, the Republicans beat their Democrat opponent in every one of the state races.
"Even though this trend did not play out across the state returns, it may be evidence that the century old control of the Democrat party in Haywood County is beginning to lessen," Kelly said.
Kelly said issues such as reducing government regulations, protecting second amendment rights, religious freedom and budget reductions all were factors in this year's elections.
"All of these issues led to Republican wins in North Carolina this year," he said. "People of Haywood County are interested in the big picture and voted for free markets, sensible regulations and less debt… because it just makes sense."
Ensley, a land surveyor, attributed his strong showing to the mood of the country and a depressed local economy.
“I think the local economy is really depressed, especially in the housing market and don’t think a lot of people see it getting better,” he said. “That’s what I take from this election.”
Ensley spoke of the days in Haywood when there were fewer Republicans in the county and how difficult it was for a Republican to get elected to a local position. Late business owner Robert Forga broke the ice when we served two terms as a Republican county commissioner, as did two-term Republican commissioner Carlyle Ferguson, Ensley said.
In addition to their trail-blazing, Ensley said an increased presence at both early voting precincts where volunteers handed out pamphlets identifying Republican candidates, along with full coverage at all precincts on Election Day, helped elect members of his party.
Republican commissioner candidate Denny King waged a vigorous campaign, but Commission Chairman Mark Swanger kept his seat in a race that was separated by half a percentage point as precinct results trickled in.
Swanger, who did little campaigning for a position he’s held for eight years, admitted the closeness of the race was a surprise. The final tally showed a .74 percent difference between Swanger with 13,025 votes and King, who received 12,645 votes.
“I’m pleased with the outcome,” Swanger said. “A win is a win. I thank those who supported me. Regardless of who voted for who, I represent everybody.”
King could not be reached for comment.
Ensley, who is a self-confessed "numbers geek," said an analysis shows that Swanger should have lost if the other voting trends in the county held true in the commissioner race.
"He was the best finishing Democrat on the whole slate," Ensley said. "It's remarkable how well he did considering the tidal wave."
Robert Inman, Haywood County elections supervisor, said the voting process went smoothly. Voters are increasingly showing a preference for early voting, he said. There were 14,736 individuals who personally cast votes at one of two early voting sites that opened three weeks before the election. On Election Day, 12,213 voters showed up at polling sites across the county.
None of the local races appear to be within the 1 percent margin where a recount could be called for, Inman said, though there could a recount called for on a statewide race.
The only irregularity Inman said happened on Tuesday was the appearance of teams at five precincts who said they were with an organization called ORCA. They had letters saying they were certified election observers.
The precinct judges called Inman, who instructed that the organization members be asked to immediately leave the voting area as the required procedures to be observers had not been followed.
Editor Vicki Hyatt contributed to this article.