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NC-11 Democrats look to build in the West

Democratic Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is an ordained minister and executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.
Cory Vaillancourt
Democratic Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is an ordained minister and executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.

Previously, we looked at the Republican candidatesvying to unseat Madison Cawthorn in the 11th Congressional district. There’s also an energetic field of six Democrats hoping to make Cawthorn a one-term congressman.

During the 2020 campaign Democrats were outraged not only by Madison Cawthorn’s politics, but also by his polarizing statements and the long list of questions about his character .

Then came Cawthorn’s January 6th speech at the “Stop the Steal” rally and the violent attack on the Capitol.

Six weeks later, Democratic Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara became the first person to challenge Cawthorn, not even two months after he took office.

“Well, I bring a unique background and track record into this race,” said Beach-Ferrara.

Beach-Ferrara is an ordained minister and executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.

“I've won office twice in two tough races for county commission and then being elected to that seat,” she said. “I also bring a track record of policymaking and building bipartisan support to pass policies on exactly the issues that are front and center in the lives of families across Western North Carolina.”

As a commissioner and a nonprofit exec, Beach-Ferrara has experience with some of the region’s most pressing issues, like access to pre-K, the opioid crisis, workforce development and affordable housing. She’s the most high-profile of the Democratic candidates and considered a frontrunner by political observers.

But Buncombe County environmental engineer Katie Dean is also attracting attention. Dean is active in the outdoor recreation community, and with her husband Zack owns an auto repair shop, giving her strong exposure to the small business community.

“Our campaign has significant traction amongst that base,” she said. “We bring something to the table that most other candidates don't or can't, and that's a level of authenticity and enthusiasm and energy around our campaign, to turn out the vote in a variety of demographics that status quo politicians usually struggle with.”

One of those demographics Democrats struggle with is voters in the rural south.

Asheville has a majority Democratic city council along with Buncombe County’s majority Democratic county commission. The county hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 2004 (narrowly). By comparison the 11th Congressional district is about 54% Republican and every state and federal legislator west of Buncombe is a Republican.

Uncontested races aren’t rare, and are indicative of how Democrats have recently struggled to reach voters in the mostly rural and economically disadvantaged parts of the district. That’s something Beach-Ferrara is trying to change.

“We are fully committed to an approach that is about organizing everywhere and doing that in a way that's about listening to what matters to people, and then sharing a message about the way that Democrats deliver,” she said.

Dean has also recognized the value of reaching out to voters that don’t often find Democrats on their doorstep.

“The results of this race is not going to be an either/or,” she said. “It’s not gonna be either earning the rural vote or earning all of Buncombe County’s vote. Our district is 15-and-a-half counties large. It’s about the size of Connecticut.”

In a district the size of Connecticut, having the money needed to spread that message is crucial. As of March 31, Beach-Ferarra has raised almost 15 times the amount of money as the rest of the field combined – and has more cash on hand than Republican frontrunners Cawthorn and Sen. Chuck Edwards.

“You know, our average donation is about $38,” Beach-Ferrara said. “We've had donations from every corner of the district from the start and all told that's enabled us to raise more than $1.4 million at this point.”

Dean is a distant second in fundraising for the Dems with$ $70,000 in the current cycle.

“The metric to measure a candidate's worth based on money alone – that's what we're running against,” she said. “I think the people of Western North Carolina are sick and tired of feeling like we can be bought and paid for.”

Other democratic candidates running in the May 17th primary for NC 11 include Jay Carey, Marco Gutierrez, Bo Hess and Bynum Lunsford. The top candidate needs 30% of the vote to advance. If they don’t get it, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff election in late July, and then face the nominee from the 8-candidate Republican field in November.

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