In an election with widespread Republican wins in North Carolina and elsewhere, Buncombe County was an anomaly where voters ousted two GOP state legislators.
In state House District 116, Democratic challenger Brian Turner got 51.89 percent of the vote, unseating Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt, who received 48.11 percent.
In an even closer race, Democrat John Ager ousted another GOP House member, District 115’s Rep. Nathan Ramsey, winning 50.18 percent of the vote against Ramsey’s 49.19 percent.
The Moffitt/Turner race may have been the most expensive House race in the state, with the candidates together spending more than $1 million on their campaigns. Its outcome had an air of improbability, as Moffitt, in his four years in office, had become a key driver behind scores of pieces of new legislation and been pegged as a possible candidate for speaker of the House.
Celebrating his victory at a West Asheville hotel, Turner said he was pleased but not exactly surprised by his victory.
“I never really considered this race to be a longshot,” he told Carolina Public Press. “It is a conservative-leaning district, but I’m a pretty moderate Democrat, and Rep. Moffitt and I have agreed on some policy issues and disagreed on others. But I think the ones in which we disagree have been the ones that have been important to the community.” He cited issues including the education and the environment as ones that ultimately set the two candidates apart.
In a statement issued shortly after the returns came in, Moffitt said, “I’d like to express my sincere congratulations to Brian Turner on his victory. I wish him every success serving the constituents of Buncombe County’s 116th House District and I will of course provide him any assistance I can during the upcoming transition.” He added that “it has been the honor of my life serving the people of Buncombe County in the state legislature.”
Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper said that money obviously played a big part in the Democrats win in the two Buncombe legislative seats, with substantial fundraising helping Turner and Ager get their message out.
But, he noted, elsewhere in WNC, even GOP incumbents who were outspent by their opponents managed to win. “Something else was different in Buncombe,” he said. The difference, he said, was likely the high-profile battles Moffitt and Ramsey had with the city of Asheville, as well as the shifting demographics of the county.
Cooper said he also thought Republican candidates in the west were on the defensive over environmental policies, particularly fracking.“There’s a perception, fair or not, that Republicans are pushing fracking,” he said. That might have hurt even Ramsey, despite his opposition to proposed testing in WNC.
Most WNC incumbents hold on to their seats
Elsewhere in Western North Carolina, the members of the region’s state legislative delegation remained unchanged.
In another closely watched race, first-term Republican Rep. Michele Presnell held off a challenge from Dean Hicks in District 118, receiving 51.35 percent of the vote to Hicks’ 48.65 percent.
In the district next door to Presnell, Democratic Rep. Joe Sam Queen drew 52.52 percent, beating challenger Mike Clampitt, who drew 47.48 percent in the District 119 race.
GOP Rep. Jonathan Jordan handily won Ashe County and a thin margin in Watauga County to retain his District 93 seat, beating challenger Sue Counts with 53.3 percent of the vote to Counts’ 46.67.
In the two other contested state House races, District 113 Republican Rep. Chris Whitmire beat Democrat Norm Bossert and Hendersonville Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady beat Libertarian Shelby Mood by wide margins.
District 114 Democrat Rep. Susan Fisher and District 120 Republican Rep. Roger West ran unopposed.
In all, Democrats picked up a total of three seats in the state House, winning the two Buncombe seats and two others while losing one incumbent. The GOP retains its supermajority with a margin of 74-46.
State Senate leader Phil Berger saw his Republican majority strengthen by one as WNC’s GOP members cruised to victory. In the legislature’s next session, the Senate will be made up of 34 Republicans and 16 Democrats.
On the Senate side in WNC, Republican Sen. Jim Davis saw the closest margin of victory for the night, beating challenger Jane Hipps with 53.88 percent of the vote to Hipps’ 46.12 percent.
Asheville Democrat Sen. Terry Van Duyn, running for the first time since her appointment to fill out the term of the late Martin Nesbitt’s easily beat Mark Crawford with 61.27 of the vote to Crawford’s 38.73 percent.
Henderson County Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca beat Democrat Rick Wood 57.41 percent to 42.59 percent, and Watauga County GOP Sen. Dan Soucek beat Democrat Jim Sponenberg 60.27 percent to 39.73 percent.
Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican representing District 47, ran unopposed.
Mountain voters help Tillis take U.S. Senate office
In a contest that analysts are calling the most expensive Congressional race in U.S. history, N.C. Rep. Thom Tillis ousted Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, taking 48.88 percent of the vote to Hagan’s 47.20 percent. Libertarian Sean Haugh drew 3.74 percent.
The state’s western counties came out decisively for Tillis, with only Jackson and Buncombe counties supporting the incumbent.
Tillis’ win added to the GOP’s wave of victories in Senate races and governorships across the country.
After picking up a total of seven seats, Republicans now control the U.S. Senate. The chamber’s final make up will have to wait for the results of an early December runoff in Louisiana.
Investigations and Open Government Editor Jon Elliston contributed to this report.