Republican mayoral candidate Kenny Smith raised money, did the legwork, picked the right issue (infrastructure), had solid City Council cred, had a shaky Democratic mayor in office – and still lost by a bunch Tuesday night to your next Charlotte mayor, Vi Lyles.
What happened? Let’s piece some clues together.
Clue No. 1: Early voting. Smith knew that he would trail after the early ballots were counted. After all, more than 50 percent of those early voters were registered Democrats. Still, Smith had hoped to snag some of those voters, specifically middle-aged Democrats who might be receptive to his moderate message.
That didn’t happen. Smith trailed by 8,000-plus votes after early voting, more than double what his campaign could overcome if everything went right on election day. But this is important: It wasn’t only Smith, but all Republicans, who faced that early voting deficit. That’s a sign that Democrats, including the educated voters Smith had hoped to nab, voted what amounted to a straight ticket. They had no intention of voting for any Republican, moderate or not.
Clue No. 2: Precinct 50. Four years ago, Republican Edwin Peacock won this south Charlotte precinct between South Boulevard and Park Road with 57 percent of the vote. Precinct 50 is chock full of voters with a college education, and it’s been a must-have for Republicans who kept previous mayoral elections close. Smith lost it 54-46, and he also underperformed in some of south Charlotte’s moderately affluent districts.
A note: Precinct 50 saw a 51 percent increase in turnout, mirroring a 52 percent increase across Charlotte from 2015’s mayoral election. Despite a solid but quiet campaign from Lyles, voters showed up. That’s resolve.
Clue No. 3: Virginia. Our northern neighbor turned a much bluer shade Tuesday night. Democrat Ralph Northam handily won what seemed to be a tight race for governor, easily outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 numbers. The real news, however, was that Democrats walloped Republicans in races throughout the state. A transgender Democrat beat a prominent Republican who wrote anti-LGBT legislation. A young Democrat who lost the woman he wanted to marry to gun violence on live TV beat a longtime pro-guns Republican.
The result: With a couple of recounts to come, Democrats might be on the verge of a stunning takeover of the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates.
What’s the thread through all this? College educated voters are swinging big to Democrats, not only in Charlotte on Tuesday, but in Virginia and other special elections across the country – even some that Democrats have lost. At the least, those voters are expressing a clear anxiety with Donald Trump’s administration and Republican leadership in Congress. At most, it’s a repudiation.
In North Carolina, there’s an added dimension: A conservative state legislature has bullied Charlotte and other urban/suburban areas for years. That GOP brand was an additional headwind for Smith to face Tuesday, and it goes a long way toward explaining his startling 18-point loss.
A big caveat: Elections and polls show Democrats are not persuading rural and lesser-educated voters that they’ve made a mistake supporting Trump and other Republicans. So it’s a good idea to tap the brakes a bit on predicting a Democratic wave in the 2018 congressional elections.
But this is also true: It’s not always awful for a political party to have the other guys completely in charge for a little while. Especially when the other guys are led by Donald Trump.
There’s little question now that Democrats are energized. Are educated, moderate voters also expressing their displeasure? Tuesday was the clearest sign of that in Virginia (and Georgia!) and yes, in Charlotte. If you’re a Republican who faces a competitive race in the next few years – hello, Thom Tillis – that should make you feel very nervous.