Voters in the Democratic primary will pick a candidate to put up against two-term Republican Senator Jim Davis, who represents the seven western-most counties of the state — including Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain.
It’s not always easy for voters to pick between two candidates of the same party, however. The machinations in a voter’s head are usually more complex in a primary when there’s no clear distinction between candidates on substantive issues, according to Chris Cooper, political science professor at Western Carolina University and director of the WCU Public Policy Institute.
Obviously, voters weigh which candidate is more closely aligned with their own views, Cooper said. But that’s only part of it.
“There’s also the strategic — which candidate is more likely to win the general election,” Cooper said. “For most people it is a mish-mash of those two things, but I do think voters are making a decision about who they think can beat Jim Davis.”
That begs the question, however. Who does stand a better chance on the ballot against Davis in November?
Is it Jane Hipps, a retired educator, curriculum developer, teaching advisor and science textbook consultant from Waynesville with a suitcase of master’s degrees who is the widow of a state senator and long-time district attorney in the region?
Or is it Ron Robinson, a self-employed business consultant in Sylva who is married to a teacher in the Western Carolina University social work school?
Some factors that make for a successful candidate are obvious: fundraising potential, likeability and charisma, experience, name recognition and which candidate simply presents themself better.
But there’s also a place for political ideology. Even if both candidates share the same party platform, there can still be shades on the spectrum.
“Most folks think the more ideologically moderate candidate will be the better general election candidate because most voters aren’t at the extremes,” Cooper said.
Catering to the middle isn’t always a recipe for success, however.
“You get more votes by mobilizing people on your own side than convincing people to switch sides. Most people think campaigns are won or lost on mobilization,” Cooper said.
Avram Friedman, a Sylva environmentalist and supporter of Robinson, said mobilization will be more important, especially given the low voter turnout of non-presidential election year primaries, than catering to the right.
“You can’t be worried about alienating conservatives, because they aren’t going to vote for you anyway,” Friedman said of Democratic candidates. “You need to speak to the issues that will stop people from staying at home [and not voting].”
Friedman said Robinson is the best candidate for that.
“On the left, you have a lot of very active people, but they won’t be motivated if you are pandering to a conservative point of view. You aren’t going to have people going out and knocking on doors and making calls,” Friedman said.
Hipps’ supporters say she is the better choice for mobilizing and enthusing voters, however.
“When she speaks, she is getting standing ovations,” said Julia Buckner, Hipps’ campaign manager. “People are motivated to work for her and get behind her team. At every stop people say, ‘Oh my gosh, I am so thankful you are running for office.’”
Whoever wins will have their work cut out. In the 2012 race for this mountainous district, an onslaught of attack ads were hurled against Davis’ challenger, thanks to a $1 million campaign waged in large part by conservative special interest groups on Davis’ behalf.
Yet it’s not a shoe-in for Davis. In non-partisan polling conducted last year, ratings for Davis in particular and the state’s Republican leadership in general were low.
Buckner said Hipps will play better against Davis.
“Jim is weak in education and women’s rights,” Buckner said. “If you close your eyes and think about who you want standing beside him at a debate, it is not another white guy. It is a woman and an educator.”
Parsing out the party particulars
The political leanings of the seven western counties theoretically bode well for Davis’ challenger — at least on paper. The district has more Democratic voters than Republicans. The seven western counties show:
•140,900 total registered voters
•52,700 registered Democrats
•43,400 registered Republicans
But the particular breed of Southern Democrat in the mountains is more conservative and readily crosses party lines when it comes to state and national races.
Decrying Davis’ challenger as a “liberal” was a chief tactic in the 2012 campaign.
Robinson said he detests labels, and said his views and ideas should speak for themselves.
In letters to the editor Robinson has written to The Sylva Herald on and off over the past three years, he has been squarely and unwaveringly Democratic. He picketed in Dillsboro during a visit by Gov. Pat McCrory last year and helped organize a local entourage for Moral Monday marches in Raleigh.
Enrique Gomez, a WCU professor, sees Robinson’s involvement as an activist as a plus.
“He is coming in essentially already connected with that movement,” said Gomez, who first met Robinson at a local meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which has been the chief organizer of the Moral Monday movement.
“When push comes to shove, the Democrats here in Jackson County will line up behind him. He knows how to engage folks like me,” Gomez said.
Cooper said Robinson and Hipps do have support from their own “subset” of the Democratic Party.
“Both have a part of the Democratic party they are entrenched with, that is different both geographically and probably ideologically,” Cooper said.
Mona Gersky, a Realtor in Jackson County, believes Hipps will appeal to a broader cross-section of voters in November, however. Gersky said Robinson is known for being “staunchly Democratic” and said Hipps would be more effective at working across the aisle.
But there’s no easy litmus test for deciphering which candidate is more liberal or more moderate, since their positions on paper are almost identical.
One indicator, however, is who Hipps and Robinson voted for in the Democratic primary for U.S. Congress two years ago.
Two Democrats on the ballot that year were just about as far apart as two Democrats could be — namely Cecil Bothwell, a Democrat from Asheville who is on the left side of the spectrum, and Hayden Rogers, a conservative Southern-style Democrat from rural Graham County.
Robinson actively worked for Bothwell’s campaign. Robinson saw Rogers as so far right that he didn’t even qualify as a Democrat.
Hipps, meanwhile, voted for Rogers, but wouldn’t comment on whether Rogers’ views were too conservative for her taste, or whether Bothwell’s were too liberal.
“I saw Hayden Rogers as having the stronger chance of winning,” Hipps said, when asked why she voted for him. “I see this as a more moderate district.”
Hipps said there are some liberal pockets in the seven western counties, primarily in Jackson County and Cullowhee in particular — which incidentally is where Robinson is from.
Hipps noted that she gets more questions about environmental issues when campaigning in Jackson County compared to Haywood County, for example.
Another factor is the money race. Davis’ campaign topped $1 million in 2012, much of it outside money flowing in from special interest groups.
Hipps has easily outpaced Robinson in fundraising since the outset of their campaigns, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed this week.
Robinson brought in just $2,000 in donations from individuals. Hipps brought in more than $15,000.
Both candidates have put roughly $7,000 of their own money into their respective campaigns.
Supporters of both Hipps and Robinson will argue that their candidate is the most experienced.
Norm Haussmann of Waynesville said he thinks Robinson’s experience as a business consultant is a plus.
“Who has the skills to do what needs to be done if elected to the position?” Haussmann said, citing why he backs Robinson. “He seems to have a good idea of where he was going and how to get there.”
Gomez said Robinson is more focused on solutions.
“The cornerstone of Jane Hipps’ campaign is restoring things the way they were before we had a radical legislature. Ron will do a good job with that, but he also has a sense of what it takes to attract businesses into the region. I think that makes him a strong candidate,” Gomez said.
Meanwhile, Hipps’ supporters tout her experience in education — not just as a teacher but as a counselor, curriculum developer, trainer, evaluator, and science and math education consultant.
“Her background has her well-trained to research anything and investigate the issues before she blurts out whether she is for or against something,” said Mona Gersky, the Realtor in Sylva who is backing Hipps.
Hipps’ passion for lifelong learning will make her a thorough and careful study of the issues and bills facing lawmakers, Gersky said. Hipps has periodically gone back to school for master’s degrees throughout her life — from a school psychology degree she earned in the 1970s while concurrently working full-time and raising children to a nursing degree she recently earned from Vanderbilt after supposedly retiring because “she’d always wanted to.”
“I think it is important to have candidates who are smart, well-educated people who have lived here a long time and understand our culture and our needs, that are quality candidates,” said Larry Ammons, a retired Waynesville banker serving as Hipps’ campaign treasurer.
Ammons pointed out that Hipps has been in the region much longer than Robinson. She moved to Haywood in the late 1960s with her husband, while Robinson moved to Jackson in 2002.
Neither Hipps nor Robinson are natives of this particular region, which is an important element for many voters who value their own multi-generational roots here. But both can claim mountain lineage, however.
Robinson hails from the mountains of Virginia, while Hipps is from the mountains east of Asheville, though both grew up in more urban parts of the state.