Relentless campaigning met a brick wall of voter apprehension Tuesday, and apprehension won.
It had to be a foreign sensation for Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts Tuesday night as she watched election returns roll in. Never, after all, had she lost in a primary in her six elections for county commissioner, Congress and mayor.
This time, though, her legendary lack of fatigue couldn’t overcome her unsteadiness in turbulent times. Democrats instead bounced Roberts as their nominee after one term as mayor in favor of Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, who they hope will lead with greater consistency and poise.
Lyles’ upset of Roberts was not of Trump-over-Clinton proportions, but it was surprising given Roberts’ name recognition and time in the public eye going back to her first political victory in 2004.
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Her retail politicking was overmatched by the reputation for wobbly leadership she’d built up over the past two years. Her hesitant response to the Keith Scott shooting and its aftermath made her look weak, and was probably especially unpopular with the African-American voters who make up a large part of the Democratic primary electorate. Her unbending stance on the city’s non-discrimination ordinance, while principled, turned off some moderates who believed she could have done more to soften the legislature’s punitive response.
It wasn’t only those crises that impeded Roberts’ ability to achieve any agenda in her lone term. Her political approach strained relationships with council members, who hold most of the power.
So now we have a November race that pits Lyles against Republican nominee Kenny Smith, a City Council member who faced no real opposition Tuesday. It’s shaping up to look a lot like the past several mayoral races: A Republican who is attractive to south Charlotte against a Democrat who appeals more to most of the rest of the city.
In 2009, Democrat Anthony Foxx beat Republican John Lassiter by 3 points. In 2013, Democrat Patrick Cannon beat Republican Edwin Peacock by 6 points. In 2015, Roberts beat Peacock by 4.5 points.
Smith is cut from a cloth not unlike Lassiter and Peacock (though he’s more conservative than Peacock, at least). Can he close that small but persistent gap and become the first non-incumbent Republican to win the mayor’s office since 1995? The smart money is against him, but it’s definitely a winnable race with a small turnout and a smart campaign.
Still, he might have a tougher time against Lyles than he would have against Roberts. Against Roberts, he could have made the election a referendum on her competency and unsteadiness as a leader. Lyles, though, is a former assistant city manager and budget director with more than 30 years of municipal experience. No one can credibly question her competence.
Smith is levelheaded as well, and has at least one advantage entering the fall: A fat bank account. At the end of August, he had $325,000 on hand, compared with Lyles’ $43,000.
With registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republicans by more than a two-to-one margin, he’ll need to spend every penny wisely.