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One uncontested WNC House race shows how Republicans built political power across the region

Karl Gillespie is a fifth-generation Maconian representing the 120th district which covers Cherokee, Clay, Macon and Graham Counites.
Lilly Knoepp/BPR News
Karl Gillespie is a fifth-generation Maconian representing the 120th district which covers Cherokee, Clay, Macon and Graham Counites.

Voters in Western North Carolina go to the polls in May for the primary election. But some seats - including Rep. Karl Gillespie's - are uncontested. BPR reports on how Western North Carolina Republicans have made an impact at the local and state level.

North Carolina Representative Karl Gillespie’s office sits in his hometown of Franklin.

His walls are covered with personal photos, a framed NASCAR poster and a collection of blue glass paperweights.

“We’ve got a variety of stuff that we've accumulated over the years,” said Gillespie.

Gillespie is proud of his first term as the representative for the 120th district which represents Cherokee, Clay, Macon and Graham Counites. His biggest accomplishment? That the legislature passed a budget for the first time since 2018.

“So there was a lot of really good stuff in the budget. There was a lot that we were able to do for the district. It gave some folks raises that hadn't had raises, put some money where it needed to go for the citizens of this district. So I'd have to say, but without the budget, everything else, would've kind of been secondary,” said Gillespie.

He highlighted education salary increases and funds for capital projects at Southwestern Community College and in Graham County.

Raises for teachers in the budget have been one of the biggest hot button issues both locally and across the state. At a recent Macon School Board meeting, a local member of the NC Association of Educators raised concerns that teachers have not received the raises that they were promised.

“Are teachers being paid enough? No, but, but we’re going in the right direction,” said Gillespie. “I’ve said this as a county commissioner, and I've stated this from the house floor: thanks to the internet, our kids have to be able to compete in a global environment because the world's flat thanks to the internet.”

Gillespie will get a chance to continue his work next year. His seat was uncontested.

In 2020, in the eight counties west of Asheville over 50 percent voted for former President Trump with Macon at 69 percent. In that region, all of the legislators are Republicans including those serving at the state and federal level.

Gillespie says that being able to work with his fellow Republican legislators has made his time in the General Assembly much more productive as a freshman representative.

“We continually work with each other. We all have our own district that we need to look after, but we want Western North Carolina as a whole to get a fair shot,” said Gillespie.

Gillespie currently serves on six General Assembly committees including Education, Agriculture and the Federal and Indian Affairs Committee.

Another relationship that Gillespie wants to continue is with Senator Chuck Edwards. Gillespie has endorsed Edwards in his run for the NC-11 Congressional primary against incumbent Republican Madison Cawthorn.

Chris Cooper is director of the public policy institute at Western Carolina University. He says the region is in the top ten of most Republican in the state, but the stronghold hasn’t always been so strong.

“The Democrats have done a good job, the last couple of cycles as have the Republicans of putting people up for elections, just simply contesting elections, whether it was going to be close or not close,” said Cooper. “This cycle, the Democrats had a little bit harder time statewide getting folks to run for some of these districts where they were quite frankly, unlikely to win. And I think that's exactly what you saw in the 120th [District].”

That rings true with Macon County Democratic Party Chair Gary St. Arnauld.

“It's hard to find local candidates because this is such an overwhelmingly Republican area,” said St. Arnauld, who moved to Franklin from Jacksonville, Florida seven years ago.

St. Arnauld points to Gillespie’s record voting with the party the majority of the time. He wishes there could have been a Democratic candidate challenging him in the 120th district race.

“Well, Karl is a good guy. He's gotten to where he is at doing it the right way, where he went through the county commission,” said St. Arnauld. “He's pretty much a party line guy.”

Local Republicans has been maintaining the party infrastructure in Macon County for years though a robust presence on the county commission and then running those candidates in the statehouse. Gillespie, current Senator Kevin Corbin and former Senator Jim Davis were all previously members of the Macon County Commission before moving to the legislature.

Davis ran also in the congressional primary against Madison Cawthorn for former Congressman Mark Meadows seat in 2020 – he lost a spot in the runoff to Cawthorn by just 1 point. Cawthorn went on to defeat Meadow’s pick Lynda Bennet in the runoff that June.

Even though it was unlikely that a Democrat would win in the 120th district, Cooper says that you don’t have to look far to see a competitive race. In the 119th, there was a five election battle between Democrat Joe Sam Queen and Republican incumbent Mike Clampitt. The race has also been a key tipping point for control in the legislature. The two will not be facing each other this year due to redistricting. Haywood is no longer a part of the 119th so Clampitt will face Transylvania County Democrat Alan Pratt in the general election this November.

“It wasn't that long ago, parts of the West still were controlled by the Democratic Party. Swain County, for example, had a very, very, very active Democratic Party network for a very, very long time. Jackson County did - and to some degree still does - as well,” said Cooper.

Cooper points out that efforts put in today to build the party lead to winning elections down the road.

“And I think that's where the Democrats need to put their time and effort in the far western reaches of our state,” said Cooper.

Primary election day is May 17th.Here’s more information about what you need to know when voting.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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