Controversial issues? Voter turnout? Ballot order? Whatever the reason, Stanly County voters were emotionally charged and seemingly committed to throwing most incumbents out of office.
As one casual observer noted, Stanly voters are more likely to vote a candidate out rather than into office. And they did with five incumbents, three on the county commission, losing in this month’s Republican primary. Those winners include four political newcomers grabbing office.
Eric S. Heberlig, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, offered insight into the spree of defeats.
“Incumbents rarely lose, but when they do it’s usually because they’ve done something controversial — a scandal, an unpopular vote on a major issue,” Heberlig said. “Sometimes they get caught by an unfriendly national political environment for their party. Usually when local officials lose, it’s for very localized issues — they’ve ticked off a lot of neighbors with a controversial land use decision or tax hike.”
Although there was no tax hike or major land use decision here, there was an assortment of missteps including personal scandals, unpopular actions and controversies.
The GOP primary results have a number of candidates and voters alike scratching their heads, trying to understand the meaning behind the rash of losses.
“I wish I knew,” said County Commissioner Scott Efird about losing to Mike Barbee. “If I remember correctly everyone that won the races was on the ballot first except for the sheriff. I’m not sure if they were just interested in certain races and didn’t care about the others or maybe they wanted change. So I’m not really sure what to make out of this, but I wish all the winners the best of luck and I hope that the new board will be able to get some things accomplished next year.”
Actually, the names of four primary victors did not appear first on their respective ballot: Michael Huneycutt (Clerk of Superior Court), Jeff Crisco (Sheriff), Anthony Graves (Board of Education) and Martha Hughes (Albemarle City Council).
Following a random drawing, this year’s primary ballot began with those names that began with the letter “F,” with the subsequent names appearing in alphabetical order, or F, G, H, I, J, … Z, A, B, C and D.
Barbee’s victory follows a previous defeat to Efird. Unlike many of the primary victors, the former school board member at least had the advantage of name recognition.
Only three of Stanly’s contested incumbents on the primary ballot survived the shakeup and two of them are not typical candidates or hold common offices, at least in the eyes of voters. Hughes was not subjected to all county voters, only those in the city limits of Albemarle. As Clerk of Court, Huneycutt’s responsibilities are more specialized and insulated from public consumption.
County Commissioner Bill Lawhon is the lone incumbent that seemingly dodged voter ire. He defeated insurance agent Joe Speight, while commissioners Joseph Burleson, Jann Lowder and Efird all lost their respective seats.
Lawhon struggled to find reason behind the primary’s results. He does not necessarily agree, however, local voters were set on dumping incumbents.
“I’m happy with some of the results and disappointed in others,” Lawhon said. “I’m just appreciative for the support that I got.”
Lawhon, who faces Democrat Elaine Coats in November, said he thinks his campaign commitment to serve all Stanly citizens, regardless of party affiliation, resonated with voters.
“There’s a lot more people that don’t vote than do and I’m concerned for them, too,” Lawhon added.
He also said he tried to keep his campaign independent from others, including the placement of his signs.
“There were some signs that were always together. More of them lost than won,” Lawhon said.
Candidates that campaign together might find comfort in company, but voters will not necessarily cast ballots for both simply because they happen to share the same space, Heberlig said.
“Sometimes candidates from the same party seeking the same office, like county commission, will run as a team,” Heberlig said. “I suspect this technique is more of a help for the candidates than for the voters. The candidates can pool their resources and get their message out to more people more efficiently. “I doubt voters think, ‘I like candidate X, but I’ll also vote for candidate Y because they shared the same mailer.’ It’s more likely that the mailer increases the name recognition for all of them and the voter selects the names he or she is familiar with.”
School board candidates John Edwards and Graves campaigned in tandem in several ways. Their signs were joined together. However, Edwards lost to former school board chairman Jeff Chance, while Graves defeated Mitzi Webb.
Like Chance, Graves may have benefitted from name recognition after having previously run for school board in 2016.
Campaign signs for N.C. House Rep. Justin Burr usually accompanied signage for Burleson. Both lost by large margins — Burr by 12 percent, Burleson by 10 percent. However, their defeats could have been the result of other factors.
Burleson was tied to his efforts to change the county’s sales tax distribution that would have decimated many municipalities.
He also had the fact of a 911 call coming from his home during the early morning hours of Sept. 17 for an alleged domestic assault.
Burr’s defeat to political newcomer Wayne Sasser for District 67 was less surprising for some since the five-term legislator narrowly won re-election in 2016, again to a political newcomer. In that race, Burr lost his home county of Stanly while neighboring Montgomery County gave him enough votes to overcome the deficit.
Courtesy of redistricting, this primary was void of Montgomery for the more Republican-rich Cabarrus as Stanly’s partner for District 67. In addition to the GOP-friendly Cabarrus, the new district is void of a northern section of Stanly that has been less kind to Burr at the polls.
In what appeared to be a low voter turnout in Cabarrus, 11 percent compared to Stanly’s 21 percent, fewer votes cast might have kept Burr from extending his margin of votes there and overcome a growing deficit at home.
Sasser said Burr’s track record caught up with him and contributed to his defeat.
“If you don’t do what’s in the best interest of the citizens, they’ll vote you out — and that’s a good thing,” Sasser said. “You don’t serve special interests or your little quirks.”
By November, the political climate might lead voters in a specific direction or they will rely on the regular norms that impact election choices.
“Voters overwhelmingly vote for candidates of their party in a general election,” Heberlig said. “They’ll sometimes vote for other party’s candidates based on name recognition, which is a big reason why incumbents tend to win.”
Along with name recognition, a candidate’s demographics and biography (gender, race, religion, age, military experience and profession) play a part in the voter’s decision, he added.
Contact Ritchie Starnes at 704-754-5076 or [email protected].