On paper, Charlotte’s mayoral election should be an easy layup for Democrats.
They make up nearly half of the city’s voters and outnumber Republicans 2-1. There are even more unaffiliated voters than Republicans. And Charlotte hasn’t elected a Republican mayor for a decade.
So why are Republicans optimistic?
“The stars are aligning for the most competitive mayoral race since 2009,” GOP strategist Larry Shaheen said Friday.
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Friday’s close of candidate filing left both parties facing Sept. 12 primaries. Five Democrats and three Republicans are running for mayor. Twelve candidates are running for four at-large city council seats; 26 are competing in districts.
Democratic Mayor Jennifer Roberts faces two high-profile party rivals: Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and state Sen. Joel Ford. Constance Johnson and Lucille Puckett are also running.
Republican Kenny Smith, a member of the city council, faces Kimberly Barnette and Gary Dunn in the GOP primary.
Republican Edwin Peacock finished within five points of Roberts in 2015 and within six of Democrat Patrick Cannon in 2013. He said those gaps can be surmounted.
“That’s the gap that Kenny has to fill up,” Peacock said. “I don’t think he will have a money issue. He has to build a brand and get name ID quickly.”
Though reports won’t be filed until next week, Smith has said he raised $260,000 through June. Roberts’ campaign said she raised $370,000 while Lyles raised $215,000 and Ford, $205,000.
With a hotter race, Democrats will have to spend more than Smith in the primary. He could also benefit from at least one of the independent groups planning to get involved.
Mark Knoop is a Republican strategist who heads a group called Forward Charlotte, a non-profit that doesn’t disclose its donors. He said it’s planning to spend into six figures to “hold Jennifer Roberts accountable” with a pro-business message.
Roberts has been controversial.
Under her leadership, the council passed an anti-discrimination ordinance last year that prompted legislative Republicans to pass House Bill 2, which became known as the “bathroom bill.” A September police shooting led to days of unrest that saw the National Guard mobilized to patrol uptown streets.
Smith opposed the 2016 anti-discrimination ordinance. Like Ford, he criticized Roberts for her actions after the Scott protests and riots.
Though a nasty Democratic primary could leave the winner wounded, some say they’re not worried about the party coming together. “Whomever comes out on top we will unify ourselves,” said Colette Forrest, chair of the Black Political Caucus.
Democrats also could make President Donald Trump as an issue in a city in which he won just 28 percent of the vote. Roberts already has made him the focus of fundraising appeals. And this week City Council member Dimple Ajmera drew fire from Republicans when she said Trump supporters have no place on the council or in the mayor’s race.
Smith, though conservative, has tried to shy away from issues that might turn off moderate voters.
Before last fall’s presidential election, he was one of three Republicans who attended a news conference outside the Government Center. State GOP chair Robin Hayes, Sen. Dan Bishop and Smith criticized Hillary Clinton and Roy Cooper over what they said was a lack of transparency. Smith later said he came to talk about Cooper, not the presidential race.
A wild card will be what it often is – turnout. Only 14.8 percent of voters turned out in November 2015.
“Turnout is key,” said Shaheen, the Republican strategist. “If the enthusiasm isn’t there or the candidate lacks resources to turn out their base, then demographics means nothing.”
Peacock said Smith needs to increase turnout among sporadic Republican voters. “Kenny needs to do something that I couldn’t do – get more off-year Republicans to vote,” he said.
But Democratic strategist Dan McCorkle isn’t worried.
Charlotte hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since Pat McCrory won his seventh and last term in 2007. And Democratic Hillary Clinton trounced Trump in Charlotte, even while losing the state.
“As we saw in the last presidential race a lot of those unaffiliateds vote Democrat,” he said. “This looks like a strong Democratic year no matter who our nominee is.”