Climbing onstage in a Renaissance Asheville Hotel ballroom bedecked with campaign signs, Charles Carter brandished a copy of the Asheville Citizen-Times that proclaimed, “Buncombe GOP Voters Make Gains.”
“Really?” he queried, clearly savoring the “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment. “Let's remember this: Let's remember that our volunteers came out and worked hard to make sure this didn't happen. Buncombe stayed blue!”
The Buncombe County Democratic Party chair had reason to crow: Defying a nationwide Republican resurgence, local Democratic candidates had, for the most part, cruised to victory by comfortable margins (for vote counts, see sidebar, “And the Winners Are ... ”).
True, state Sen. Tom Apodaca soundly defeated Democrat Chris Dixon, and Tim Moffitt ousted Democratic incumbent Jane Whilden in the conservative-leaning 116th House District. But Reps. Susan Fisher (who opened the festivities with a prayer, declaring, “It's been a long, difficult, angry, fear-filled race”) and Patsy Keever (only recently appointed to the House seat she now claimed outright) both won by more than 10 percentage points, besting Republicans John Carroll and Mark Crawford, respectively. State Sen. Martin Nesbitt, who decided to spend the night in Raleigh, completed the sweep, stomping RL Clark.
Sheriff Van Duncan had taken the stage earlier, saying he was looking forward to four more years after the tallies showed he'd crushed challenger Dickie Green.
By this time, Fisher and Keever were embracing and enthusiastically thanking their volunteers, while former county attorney (and longtime party stalwart) Joe Connolly, wearing a white suit and chomping his traditional victory cigar, began making the rounds and shaking hands.
“There were a lot of nonissues in this campaign,” Fisher remarked later. “I think the voters saw through those and chose to make it about real issues like education and jobs.”
An uphill fight
Just down the street at Magnolia's, the mood among the gathering of GOP faithful proved more subdued; amid plates piled high with oyster shells, former Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey surveyed the results pouring in.
“Well, it looks like a Democratic sweep,” he said, adding that he thought the race between U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler and Hendersonville businessman Jeff Miller would tighten (it didn't). “But my predictive abilities will get you nothing,” Ramsey added with a chuckle.
Meanwhile, at a makeshift Buncombe GOP headquarters awash in red-white-and-blue flags, banners and signs, some two dozen supporters huddled inside The Carpet Connection on Leicester Highway, scanning the results on several laptops.
Local GOP chair Chad Nesbitt told Xpress that he took heart in the state and national Republican wave, saying he was proud of the wins by Moffitt and Reynolds District school-board candidate Lisa Baldwin.
"We're in the most liberal county in Western North Carolina: If you look at the maps of Fox and even MSNBC and CNN, it's all red around Buncombe County, and Buncombe County has got a big blue spot," Nesbitt pointed out. "I think we did great, considering we're outrun by Democrats in Buncombe by 4-to-1. … I think everything worked that we did; I can't see anything that we've done wrong. … We certainly energized the party this time around. Everybody was excited."
Only the beginning
Over at Tripps Restaurant in downtown Asheville, Tea Party Chair Jane Bilello agreed that Republican candidates endorsed by her group, such as Green and Clark, had been only the latest victims of a historical imbalance.
"For 100 years, the progressives have really become quite entrenched in our government locally, and they've done a really great job of it. It's going to take awhile; it's not going to take one election cycle," Bilello explained. The movement, she revealed, is already gearing up for next year's City Council races and hatching plans to canvass Buncombe neighborhoods opposed to forced annexation.
"This is the first show, so to speak, the first chapter," Bilello observed as she circulated, handing out pocket-sized copies of the Constitution. "Considering we've only been around a year-and-a-half, we've made some significant inroads. People know that we're here."
Meanwhile, at the Mountain Inn & Suites in Flat Rock, Jeff Miller’s supporters watched their candidate’s healthy early lead slip into a definitive loss. In his concession speech, Miller took pains to remain positive.
Speaking to the national lean to the right, he said: "Now it's our job to keep paying attention. I believe we're on the right course now; we're at a tipping point, but there's a lot of good people that are going to go to Washington, and we've got to support them. But we've also got to make sure they know we're watching them."
Back at the Renaissance, the crowd was eagerly awaiting Shuler, the night's big star, chanting, “Heath! Heath! Heath!” The victorious candidate thanked the trifecta of his family (who joined him onstage), his volunteers and Jesus for securing him a third term in Congress.
“Unbelievable!” he shouted, to raucuous applause. “We'll keep fighting hard for you; I know our support crosses party lines.”
Shuler, however, felt compelled to add: “It's a tough night. I'm seeing a lot of friends leave Congress — good, quality people, and I'll miss them. But I know they'll be back.”
Going forward, Shuler told Xpress, it’s time to “put America first. ... I'm prepared to work across party lines, but I don't want to see the Republicans put out legislation that's political. When they do, I'll call them out on it.”
As an example, Shuler cited trying to repeal health-care-reform legislation (an effort he opposes, despite having voted against the reform bill himself). Given the presidential veto, however, Shuler said he finds such a move unlikely to gain traction.
Organization was the evening’s watchword, with everyone from Carter to Shuler to Fisher attributing Buncombe's trend-defying election results to motivated volunteers and a big get-out-the-vote push. In the campaign’s final months, local progressive leaders rallied hard behind Shuler, shoring up what had been downright anemic support for the conservative Blue Dog among more left-leaning Democrats. That helped turn what had been considered a close race into a nine-point spread, which Shuler acknowledged by embracing Lindsey Simerly, the Asheville activist who ran his volunteer operation, onstage.
Despite their local triumph, however, Democrats now face a difficult political landscape. As the evening wore on, the news emerged that the Blue Dog caucus, of which Shuler is a leader, had been decimated, sinking from 54 to 26 members. And at the state level, Republicans narrowly took control of both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly for the first time since 1898. So when Fisher and her fans departed for a beer at Pack's Tavern, the thrill of victory was already tempered by a sense of the grueling political battles to come.
“I'm trying to be realistic about what to expect in the new House, the new Senate,” Fisher revealed. “I think it will be pretty closely divided; it will be tough. It's really going to be incumbent upon us to try to establish a cooperative coalition to get things done.”
Also present at Pack’s Tavern was political newcomer Bridgette Odom, a local attorney who made a strong showing in her bid to unseat longtime District Attorney Ron Moore. “We came within 6,000 votes,” Odom told Xpress amid a post-election gathering of family and other supporters. “It’s been a great experience, and we’ve now figured out the ins and outs of campaigning. I’m definitely not giving up on politics.”