A fresh pile of yard signs, yanked up from roadsides around the county, had just been deposited out front.
“We ended up with some of yours …,” a chipper voice called through the door, propped open to let in one of the last warm days of fall.
A man popped his head inside, and it was clear from the beaming grin that this was not a fellow Haywood Democrat.
“… so I thought I’d bring them over to you,” said Ted Carr, a volunteer with the local Republican Party.
It was a nice gesture, although not terribly out of the way for Carr. Republican headquarters are directly across the street — and it was a far rosier morning on his side than Wollin’s.
Just moments before, Wollin had been lamenting the election results, which were still sinking in just a day later.
“I was extremely surprised. I was just dumbfounded,” said Wollin. She had spent weeks pounding the pavement and working phone banks in the run-up to Election Day and had thanked voters at the polls for 10 days during early voting. “I felt like we were going to win,” Wollin said.
Even Haywood Republicans will admit quietly that they did better than even they thought they would.
Haywood County is normally a safe zone for Democrats. But Democrats lost half their races on the ballot this year. And those who won scraped by with close victories that barely felt like a win — especially not in the traditionally Democratic stronghold of Haywood. Democrats were supposed to sweep the ballot in Haywood, sailing to the finish with comfortable leads.
Carr, on the other hand, was all smiles.
“Don’t feel too bad,” Carr said, stepping inside to offer a polite salutation to Janie Benson, chair of the Democratic Party.
“Oh, we’ll be back,” Benson called. “We will rise again,”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Carr said in jest. “I wish we hadn’t stomped you so hard …”
“Oh, rub it in, rub it in,” Benson joked back.
“… so you wouldn’t try to come back so hard,” Carr teased, before returning to the business at hand — untangling the political signs rounded up in the post-election sweep.
It was less than 36 hours after the election, but Democrats had already began taking stock of what went wrong in Haywood. The results confounded them.
The simple explanation: Haywood isn’t a Democratic stronghold anymore, Benson admitted.
That’s one thing both sides can agree on.
“The Democrats are beginning to lose their iron-clad grip,” said Pat Carr, chair of the Haywood Republican Party.
But the bigger question is why.
“Because of people moving in,” Benson said, proffering one of the commonly held theories.
Haywood has deep Democratic roots, a political heritage passed down for generations from the original families who settled here — the Kirkpatricks and Hannahs and Queens and Suttons and McCrackens and so on.
But they are slowly being supplanted by those moving here. The newcomers, including a large number of retirees from Florida, have been a factor in tipping the scales toward the Republicans.
Democrats have slipped substantially as a percentage in Haywood over the past decade. In 2004, 53.7 percent of registered voters in Haywood were Democrats. That’s fallen to 43.5 percent now.
Republicans have essentially held steady as a percentage of the registered voters in Haywood.
The ranks of independent, unaffiliated voters, have risen substantially, however — from 17 percent 10 years ago to 27 percent today.
“I think there is something of a trend in Haywood County to see more people breaking away from the two main parties and registering as unaffiliated,” Pat Carr said.
National trickle down
With Democrats no longer holding the default majority among Haywood voters, winning over that growing bloc of independents has become critical. But what moves them?
“I think the national issues influenced almost all the races. I really think we were part of a national trend,” Benson said.
K.G. Watson, a volunteer with the Haywood Republican Party, was quick to discount the theory that their better-than-normal showing could be chalked up solely to the national political wave this election.
“If they take that theory into the next election they will be sorry. To try to blow it off as a fluke, that is not very smart. If someone whips me, I want to analyze what happened,” said Watson.
Watson said there were simply quality Republican candidates on the state and local ballot.
But exit poll interviews in Haywood bore out the theory that national politics were motivating voters, and whatever their sentiment, it was carried over to state and local races. Most voters polled informally at Haywood precincts on Election Day said the top race that brought them out was the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Tom Tillis.
Legions of voters cited dissatisfaction with Obama, which in turn led them to vote for Tillis — and in turn trickled all the way down the ballot, giving the Republican candidate a bump even in obscure races like tax collector, for instance.
“I think part of that has to do with the public’s disappointment with Obama’s policies,” Pat Carr said. She’d heard that sentiment repeatedly when working a Republican Party booth at a downtown street festival this fall.
Some voters knew little about the local or state races. They drew a blank when asked who they’d voted for in the county commissioner race, the tax collector race or even state legislative seats — despite just walking out of the polling booth seconds earlier.
Mindy Hughes, 41, couldn’t remember exactly who she voted for after exiting the polls in Maggie Valley, but said she voted for “whoever is Republican.”
Becky Revis, 46, and her daughter McKenzie Revis, 21, also couldn’t remember exactly who they voted for, but also said they picked whoever was Republican.
“I am not happy with the way things are going and want to see a true change,” said Becky Revis, a Maggie voter.
They said they voted for Republican candidates at the state level, saying it was time to remove Democrats from power in Raleigh. Ironically, Democrats aren’t in power in Raleigh, and thus their vote for the Republican candidates wasn’t really a vote for change as they thought. But neither realized that, adding that they are against the state cuts to education, but didn’t know which party was to blame.
Janice Burda, a voter in Waynesville who recently moved to the state, said it is challenging for voters to figure out the truth about what candidates stand for.
“How are you supposed to know? I watched the ads and I got a lot of information from that, but they don’t tell you everything. Some are true and some aren’t,” Burda said.
State race mash-up and the dam theory
Sybil Mann, a Haywood Democrat and vice chair of the party for the 11th Congressional District, said Democrats have been swapping theories over the past week of what went wrong in Haywood.
“Is it the effect of the gerrymandering? Is it the effect of values voters? What is it?” Mann asked.
Mann believes election results may have been influenced by the federal court ruling legalizing gay marriage, particularly when it comes to the N.C. General Assembly races on the ballot in Haywood.
“Gay marriage affects the definition of family, which is a very important part of our Appalachian heritage, and is not something people want to be redefined,” Mann said. “I don’t know if this election was partly a visceral response to that ruling.”
N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, won Haywood by nearly 1,000 votes despite polls that showed her trailing in the run up to Election Day — even the conservative Civitas Institute and leading Republican political analysts pegged Presnell as likely to lose.
Mann surmised that gay marriage may have rallied voters for Republican candidates who pledged to fight the court ruling.
“When Michele Presnell said she would fight to keep gay marriage from happening, I think people who felt strongly about that issue voted for her,” Mann said.
Presnell had another factor in her favor. Legislative voting lines had been sliced and diced along party lines in Haywood when voting districts were redrawn by Republicans at the state level four years ago. This is Mann’s gerrymandering theory.
Republican-leaning precincts — such as Maggie Valley, Beaverdam and Bethel — were clumped into Presnell’s district. Meanwhile, Presnell was spared the Democratic-leaning precincts — such as Waynesville, Hazelwood and Lake Junaluska.
An analysis of voting patterns in Haywood’s 29 precincts this election shows a stark contrast between precincts put in Presnell’s district, versus those carved out of Presnell’s district.
• Precincts that are part of Presnell’s district voted Republican in the U.S. Senate race, favoring Tillis.
• Precincts excluded from Presnell’s district voted Democrat in the U.S. Senate race, favoring Hagan.
The trend was the same in the N.C. Senate race — state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, won in Presnell’s precincts, but Democrat Jane Hipps won in the rest of the county.
This shows the precincts included in Presnell’s district have a clear proclivity to vote Republican, giving her an advantage in Haywood.
In the N.C. Senate race — which includes all of Haywood, not just certain precincts — the Democratic candidate won. But not by enough to carry her to victory for the seven-county seat.
Hipps, a Democrat from Waynesville running for N.C. Senate against Davis, would lose some of the Republican-leaning counties further west. But she hoped a sizeable victory in her home turf and Democratic stronghold of Haywood would make up for that.
In the end, Haywood didn’t deliver the Democratic vote Hipps needed. She got 9,416 votes in Haywood, compared to Davis’ 9,320, a 96-vote margin.
“I thought Jane had a real shot at winning,” said Benson.
Patt Carr wouldn’t go quite that far, but agreed on one point: she thought Hipps would have picked up more votes in Haywood.
Republicans in Haywood knew that a big Democratic turnout in Haywood could hurt Davis. Haywood is bigger than the three far western counties combined, and could pack a lot of punch in the seven-county race.
Watson said Republicans open their playbook to the “dam theory.”
“It’s like the little boy who held his finger in the dike. We knew we just had to hold the line in Haywood, and Sen. Davis would be OK,” Watson said.
Down ballot races
One of the more surprising Republican upsets in Haywood County was the tax collector race.
David Francis, the Democrat on the ballot, had served as the tax collector in Haywood since 1998. He was beat by a relatively unknown Republican candidate from Maggie Valley, Mike Matthews, with little experience or qualifications for the job. (see article on page 8)
Republicans — and even Matthews himself — admit they are surprised by the outcome.
“That is the mystery of the ages. Everybody might have some theory about it, but I don’t know if I will ever put that one together,” Watson said.
Democrats point to the upset in the tax collector race as proof that voters were blindly picking Republican candidates.
But Watson points out that some voters were being judicious, intentionally selecting certain Republican candidates, not just because there was an R by their name.
“We knew people were splitting their ballots that never had before,” Watson said. “People were picking one and then choosing someone else.”
The results bear that out to some extent. Some Republicans won in Haywood. Others didn’t, and by varying degrees.
Six races in Haywood serve as a measure of party flip-flopping — those races that listed party affiliation on the ballot and that showed up in every precinct.
Here’s how much Republican candidates won or lost by in those countywide, partisan races.
• County Commission: Republican Denny King lost by 180 votes.
• District Attorney: Republican Ashley Welch won by almost 1,000 votes.
• N.C. Senate: Republican Jim Davis lost by 100 votes in Haywood (although won the seat due to victories in other counties.)
• U.S. House: Republican Mark Meadows won by 3,500 votes.
• U.S. Senate: Republican Thom Tillis won Haywood by 1,700 votes.
But out of nearly 20,000 voters, it’s hard to know how many were crossing back and forth between party lines as they moved from one race to the next.
Less than a quarter of all voters could have accounted for the oscillation between Republican candidates — but it was that quarter who made the difference.
Republicans in Haywood have one regret, that none of their county commissioner candidates got elected. But Republican Denny King came awfully close. There were three seats up for election — and Democrats were re-elected to all three.
It was King’s third time running for commissioner, and he’s made gains each time.
• In 2010, King was 750 votes shy of winning a seat.
• In 2012, King was 375 votes shy of winning a seat.
• In 2014, King was 180 votes shy of winning a seat.
Watson said the Republicans in Haywood County now have momentum on their side.
“It was a victory, and as we show some strength and cohesiveness and some sense, we will be able to recruit good candidates,” Watson said.
GOP showing in Haywood County
Contest GOP candidate Haywood results
U.S. Senate Thom Tillis won by 1,700
U.S. House Rep. Mark Meadows won by 3,500
N.C Senate Sen. Jim Davis lost by 105
District Attorney Ashley Welch won by 1,000
County Commission Denny King lost by 180
Tax Collector Mike Matthews won by 250
Which way did they go?
The Haywood County results between state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and Waynesville resident Jane Hipps, a Democrat, reveal what parts of the county voted Republican (red) and Democrat (blue). A similar GOP-Democratic split occurred in the other countywide races on Nov 4.
Allens Creek: Red
Big Creek: Red
Fines Creek 1: Blue
Fines Creek 2: Red
White Oak: Blue
Iron Duff: Blue
Jonathan Creek: Red
Ivey Hill: Red
Beaverdam 1: Red
Beaverdam 2: Blue
Beaverdam 3: Red
Beaverdam 4: Red
Beaverdam 5/6: Blue
Beaverdam 7: Red
Center Pigeon: Red
East Fork: Red
North Clyde: Red
South Clyde: Red
Ivy Hill: Red
Lake Junaluska: Blue
Center Waynesville: Blue
West Waynesville: Blue
East Waynesville: Blue
South Waynesville 1: Blue
South Waynesville 2: Blue
A changing mix of voters
Democrats are puzzled over the lost ground in Haywood. Historically, it’s leaned Democratic. But the percentage of registered Democrats has slipped substantially in just the past decade. See the number and percentage of registered voters, by party.
Democrats: 21,817 (53.7 percent)
Republicans 11,685 (28.7 percent)
Independent 7,048 (17.3 percent)
Democrats 18,454 (43.5 percent)
Republicans 12,321 (29 percent)
Independent 11, 471 (27 percent)