Two well-known Democrat senators from the mountains who lost in 2010 and hoped to reclaim their seats this year faced a conundrum.
Joe Sam Queen of Waynesville and John Snow of Murphy both wanted to run for the Senate again, hoping to take back the seats they lost to Republican challengers two years ago. But they found themselves at a stalemate after suddenly landing in the same political district when new legislative lines were re-drawn following the Census.
Queen’s home turf of Haywood County — once part of a jumbled legislative district that reached as far north to Mitchell and as far east to McDowell County — was grouped into a new district neatly comprised of the seven western counties. It put Queen and Snow in competition in their bid for office.
The upshot: only one of them would ultimately have their name on the ballot come November. Their choice: former political allies would have to run against each other in the May primary or one of them would have to gracefully concede.
As the clock ticked toward the opening day of candidate registration in February, no easy resolution was on the horizon.
“I think we are both electable,” Queen said as recently as last week. “I am not going to run against John and he is not going to run against me. We will evaluate which one of us should run.”
But the two political allies found an easy out after all. The unexpected and sudden news that Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, would retire after 14 years in the legislature presented a solution.
Queen called it a “game changer.”
Rather than make a bid for the Senate, he would instead run for Haire’s old House seat.
“If (Snow) really has the fire in his belly and wants to do it, I will support him and run for Phil’s seat,” Queen said. “It is an attractive choice. It is serendipitous. It keeps experienced legislators in the game with the opportunity to serve.”
The Democratic Party is likely relieved by the development. At a regional meeting of the Democratic Party leaders from 12 counties last week, Brian McMahan from Jackson County cautioned against wasting political energy and money in a primaries against their own.
“Let’s harness our energy,” said McMahan, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Jackson County. “We don’t need to worry about primaries. Nov. 6 is Election Day. That’s where we need to make a difference.”
Queen said the party needn’t have worried.
“I assure you we were going to work it out because that’s what kind of guys we are,” Queen said. “I certainly would not have run against him.”
In the end, had it not been for the Haire “game changer,” it appears Queen would have had to be the one to acquiesce regardless. Snow said that he was committed to run for the Senate regardless of what Queen decided, however.
“To be real honest with you, I was willing to go through a primary if I had to,” Snow said. “I think it is obvious I would be the stronger candidate.”
Snow believes he has better name recognition in the seven western counties than Queen would have had. As a judge, Snow presided over court in those same seven counties for 30 years, plus served for six years in the legislature representing those counties already.
Queen, 61, pointed out that he is nine years younger than Snow. He believed he likely had more years of political service ahead of him — and in Raleigh, tenure can be everything.
“The biggest difference between John and I was our age. Who is going to claim this seat for a decade?” Queen asked last week.
Snow, meanwhile, pointed to his record as a more socially and fiscally conservative Democrat, a leaning that squares with voters in the seven western counties.
“Anybody that looks at my record can see I am probably one of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate,” Snow said.
Just as Rep. Heath Shuler is one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress, Snow said.
“That is a reflection of the people we represent,” Snow said.
Queen’s decision clears the path for Snow to emerge as the Democratic candidate in a November rematch against Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who squeezed out a narrow victory over Snow by just 161 votes two years ago.
Queen, however, will face a primary election against long-time judge Danny Davis of Waynesville, who has also announced plans to run for the seat formerly held by Haire.
Snow said that he would back Davis in the primary race as he and Davis both served on the judicial bench together for years and are personal friends.