By David Forbes
Well, that changes things.
While election night was fairly bleak for Democrats across the state and country, Buncombe County was the site of two major upsets, as incumbent Republican state Reps. Tim Moffitt and Nathan Ramsey both lost by close but clear margins. Democrats Brian Turner and John Ager will take their respective seats, leaving the state house delegation entirely in the hands of Democrats for the first time in four years.
Just before the election, Moffitt was hailed by Senator-elect Thom Tillis as a rising star within the GOP and last year, he was seriously considered a contender for Speaker. Ramsey, a politician with considerable local roots and experience, snagged an endorsement from the Asheville Citizen-Times. Statewide, despite a few upsets, Republican legislators largely held on.
So what happened?
Looking at the vote totals, one interesting fact that immediately leaps out is that while both races were close, the battle between Ramsey and Ager was closer — 493 votes as compared to the 963 separating Turner and Moffitt.
On paper, this would seem unlikely. When the general assembly redistricted Buncombe County’s state house seats in 2011, they made the 114th district (where Rep. Susan Fisher ran unopposed) a safe Democratic seat, Ramsey’s 115th district a swing seat and Moffitt’s 116th strongly Republican. So it would seem that if locals were dissatisfied with the ruling Republicans and had a strong Democratic challenger to back, Ramsey’s district would be far less likely to end up a closer race than its neighbor.
The oft-repeated saw “all politics is local” is often untrue: larger issues and party affilication can trump local ties. But sometimes local factors play a major role, and this is one of those times.
One story illustrates this well. Last year Moffitt and Ramsey both spoke to the Council of Independent Business Owners, one of the most friendly local audiences a GOP legislator could ask for. When asked to stay after and talk with constituents, Ramsey agreed. Moffitt brusquely dismissed the audience, saying “I’ve got a real job to get to.” For a politician of any stripe, that attitude doesn’t exactly win friends or shore up a base.
Combined with Moffitt’s very public fights with local government, his prickly attitude towards the press and, frankly, the petty viciousness some of his most outspoken supporters directed at anyone who didn’t follow their talking points his reputaton ended up on far shakier ground than a typical GOP incumbent. Brian Turner’s campaign, with the help of major organization and funding, managed to take advantage of that, and it certainly played a role in his victory last night.
By contrast, while Ramsey often voted or even co-sponsored some of the same legislation as Moffitt, his approach was a good deal more genial, considerably more open with media and the local community. So in the many fights of the last few years Moffitt ended up the target of more direct, public controversy. Ramsey and Ager both campaigned hard locally, and the result was a closer race.
Another factor that’s received little attention is tied to the economic situation in Asheville. Take a look, for example, at the breakdown of the two races by precinct:
In both cases, Ager and Turner drew significant support from precincts on the edges of Asheville. While the city’s housing crisis has gotten a lot of press, rightly, for the damage it does to working Ashevillians, it’s also likely changing the political calculus of the area. Voters who would have once lived closer to the city core are moving to the edges or outside city limits where the rents are cheaper, and into districts that were more politically conservative.
That means that the once incredibly sharp divide between city and county precincts isn’t so sharp anymore, and those voters create somewhat more favorable ground for Democrats in these once more right-wing districts. Though as the close nature of the races show, other factors also have to be present to turn that into a victory.
But what’s really interesting about these upsets are the aftermath, because they change entirely the defining political war of the last three years: the very public struggle between the local GOP delegation and city government.
Moffitt swore more than once that he wanted to overhaul the way local government worked and that the ways he wanted to do so were directly opposed to its current crop of elected officials. His barrage of legislation included seizing the city’s water system, taking away ownership of the Asheville Regional Airport and even planning to overhaul the way Asheville City Council was elected, though that didn’t come to fruition. He and Council members shot barbs back and forth and (in the case of a lawsuit over the water bill), clashed in the courts.
Now that fight’s over.
But while this may mark the end of that particular political battle, given that Republicans still hold supermajorities in both chambers, it’s doubtful that we’ll see them breaking bread with Asheville’s entirely Democratic Council anytime soon.
It’s also entirely possible that local government could end up facing off with Raleigh again over broader legislation (sales tax overhauls, for example) that it sees as damaging to its interests. But without Moffitt’s particular animus toward the policies and personalities of city government, Asheville’s unlikely to see the wave of legislation targeting local government specifically.
What’s more, the fate of Moffitt (and, to some extent, Ramsey) may serve as a warning to other legislators that these sort of moves — and the attitude with which they’re done — can have consequences.
At the same time, as members of a party still in the minority, it’s unlikely that the newly Democratic delegation will have much clout. Despite the usual post-election bromides about working together, politics in Raleigh is and will remain extremely partisan. So progress on local legislation the Democrats or Council wants will likely prove elusive.
The upsets also change things in City Hall too. Since 2011, a large amount of the energies of Council have gone toward clashes with these legislators, and in public comments Council members have often portrayed them as a massive wall against a number of changes they and their constituencies wanted to pursue. Now they’re gone, and local elected officials will have a very different set of challenges to face.
But that’s politics, local or otherwise. Questions of power always remain. Who has it, who it’s directed for (and against) and who’s listened to and ignored aren’t things that any single election will ever resolve. The landscape changes, but the wars continue.
David Forbes is a local journalist and editor of the Asheville Blade, a reader-supported site for sharp news and views.