It was a terrible night for Democrats, unless you happened to be one in Buncombe County.
On an evening where political pundits contemplated a Republican wave sweeping the country, representation for the greater Asheville area became awash in shade of deep Democratic blue.
By the time polls closed, most of the county’s GOP faithful had not arrived at their party’s victory bash, held at Off the Wagon Dueling Piano Bar on Market Street. But as the room slowly filled, attendees were greeted with less than welcome news—many of their candidates were getting thumped in early voting returns.
Across town at The Mill Room, Democrats and their supporters stuck to their smart phones and a flat screen TV, nervously watching the latest numbers roll in. Early on, several people in the room said they were guardedly optimistic. Those close to campaign workers in the field felt they at least had a shot at a couple of upsets.
At the Republican gathering on Market Street, brief applauses welcomed state Rep. Nathan Ramsey (District 115) and commission candidate Christina Merrill as they arrived, but cheers quickly faded as groups huddled around phones and laptops, watching results trickle in.
“They usually get us in early voting,” one person said, referring to Democratic efforts to encourage voters.
Variations of the line were repeated across conversations. No one seemed worried. State Rep. Tim Moffitt (District 116), who also trailed his Democratic opponent Brian Turner in early voting, was nowhere to be seen.
The conversation at the Holiday Inn Biltmore West in Enka, where Turner and his supporters gathered, centered on the positive impact that early voting had for Democratic candidates. The leads – in the range of a couple thousand votes or less – were slim. Could they hold as results poured in?
As Ramsey made repeated trips outside to check his phone and make calls, it became clear the outlook was bleak.
“If it’s good news, tell us,” one man said, as another prepared to relay the latest set of numbers from his phone to a group. “If it’s bad, don’t even look at it at all.”
“Moffitt’s lost,” another man said, as results became apparent.
Turner, surrounded by family members and campaign workers, was swept into a side room as they received the news. “The Citizen-Times has called it? They’ve called it!” one supporter told Turner, who turned and tightly hugged his wife, Katina. Turner appeared stunned, at one point turning around amid the knot of people around him and announcing, “I don’t know what to do.” Ten minutes later, he walked into the hotel lobby to an energized crowd cheering his name.
When the news arrived back at the piano bar that U.S. Reps. Patrick McHenry and Mark Meadows, both Republicans, had won re-election to their respective seats, there were no cheers or sighs of relief—focus was instead completely placed on races at the state and county-level. Reactions were muted as races were called.
The mood became dispirited, as candidates fielded by the Buncombe County Republican party failed to win a single seat in races against their Democratic opponents.
Miranda Debruhl, who ran against independent Nancy Waldrop for commission District 3, was the only winner in the room.
“The people have spoken. So be it,” one woman said.
“The people?! The people of Asheville,” another replied.
There were no speeches. Instead, a piano player struck up “America the Beautiful,” followed by sing-along hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Take on Me.” No one sang along.
Outside, Ramsey juggled calls between radio hosts and supporters. The outgoing representative wished his opponent John Ager the best, and added that he wasn’t surprised to have been defeated in a race where outside groups poured money in support of Ager’s campaign.
“You get outspent 7-1 in a district that’s 50-50, you’re gonna lose,” Ramsey said. “Unless you’re an incredibly talented person who can walk on water. And I can’t.”
In Enka, Turner stepped upon the dais set with a podium and a big banner bearing his name. “Buncombe has a new voice in Raleigh, one that is accountable and has no strings attached,” he said. Volunteers and friends clapped Turner on the back, hugged him and turned to one other as they savored the take-down of Moffitt, a one of the most controversial members of the Buncombe delegation of state House members in recent memory.
At The Millroom on Asheland Avenue, Democrats reveled with enthusiasm over the night’s results.
Democratic candidates had been victorious in contests across the board—Ager for House District 115, Turner for House District 116, Terry Van Duyn for Senate District 49, Ellen Frost in commission District 2, Todd Williams for district attorney, Van Duncan for sheriff and Steven Cogburn for clerk of superior court.
“What a night!” a man screamed as craft beer flowed and Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” blared.
A line of people waited to hug Ager, who said he was “giddy” at the night’s outcome.
“We’ve got work to do,” another supporter said.
The room, buzzing with celebration, eventually thinned as the night grew late.
Jake Quinn, a long-time Democratic Party activist, said earlier in the night that if Buncombe Dems could knock off two state House incumbents, the results would put the mountain county squarely back in the center of the universe of statewide – and possibly national – Democratic Party politics.
“In two years, we’ll have a presidential election and we’ll have to find someone to run agains (U.S. Sen. Richard) Burr,” Quinn said. “Maybe it’s about time folks look west to find the right candidate who can win.”
Remaining supporters eyed the incoming results of the narrow U.S. Senate race between Thom Tillis and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, which would have been icing on the cake for the group had Hagan won. In the end, it was Tillis who eked out a victory in a bitter campaign that now ranks as the most expensive race ever for U.S. Senate seat, with both candidates spending a total of $100 million.
But no matter—the group’s gains on the local level were reason enough to whoop it up.