Early voting concludes February 29th ahead of the March 3rd primary election in North Carolina. Voters will decide nominees for a large number of races in the fall. In Western North Carolina, choosing a new member of Congress headlines the list of elections on the ballot. The 11th Congressional District has new boundaries this year, ensuring all of the westernmost portion of the state is in the same district. It also has no incumbent.
Until the morning of December 19th of last year, the election in the 11th district was on a set and somewhat predictable course. Then, incumbent Republican Mark Meadows - one of President Trump’s closest allies in DC - decided he wasn’t running for a fifth term. While the Republican side saw a barrage of candidate filings, the Democratic side saw a major shift in campaigning. The race was no longer about the incumbent, but about candidates trying to distinguish themselves in a crowded field.
For the 2018 Democratic nominee Phillip Price, it changed whether he’d campaign at all. Just hours before Meadows surprise retirement announcement, Price endorsed another Democratic candidate. But with the incumbent out, Price jumped back in, looking to do better than his 39% showing in the 2018 general election. “I never dreamed that I would run for public office growing up," Price said during a forum in Ble Ridge Public Radio's studios. "So I haven’t prepared myself for this growing up. It’s just that over the last three years, I feel the working class has been left out of the equation. The working people have been denied a seat at the table of governance.”
Michael O’Shea was the candidate Price had endorsed, ever so briefly. The youngest candidate in the field echoes other millennial Democrats in focusing on inequality and climate change. “There’s a saying – if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu," O'Shea said in his opening statement at the BPR forum. "We’re living in the only decade we have to really fix climate change and avoid disastrous ramifications for future generations – and ramifications that I will have to live through personally.”
Gina Collias is no stranger to running for Congress. But 2020 is a far cry for her from 2018, when she ran as a Republican in North Carolina’s 10th district. She’s since changed party affiliations and districts too, as the 11th was redrawn at court order and now includes all of Asheville and Buncombe County. “My temperature rises when I see injustice in those in power acting the rules and laws do not apply to them," said Collias at the BPR forum. "No one is above the law. I saw this in 2016 when I worked with a group of volunteer attorneys investigating electoral college voting abuses here in North Carolina. That same year as a volunteer precinct attorney for North Carolina attorneys for Hillary Clinton, I was shocked by the election and knew that change had to come from us, from regular people.”
Steve Woodsmall has been the in race the longest, having declared his candidacy early last year. The Air Force veteran and member of the Transylvania County Planning Board also ran in 2018, coming in second to Price in the Democratic primary. In a video declaring his 2020 candidacy, he touched on a wide array of issues, including healthcare. “I believe health care is a fundamental right for everyone in this country. People shouldn’t have to choose between buying groceries and going to the doctor. And that’s something I’m going to address when I get to Congress in 2020.”
Moe Davis is also an Air Force veteran. He recently returned to North Carolina after retiring from a long career, which included being a chief prosecutor at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. “There’s an opportunity to win this time that we haven’t had in over a decade," said Davis at the forum. "It’s about a five to eight point Republican lean. I think with my background, I’ve got the record and the reach and the resources to win this race and make it competitive this time.”
The chances for Democrats to flip this seat – like what happened in 2006 when Heath Shuler won with similar district lines - are still pretty long says Western Carolina University political scientist Dr. Chris Cooper. “It is drawn in a slightly different way, and that slightly can be very important. I think the district has changed in many ways in the past few years. Shuler beat an incumbent. He beat Charles Taylor, who was a multi-term member of Congress. And Shuler was definitely to the right of all of these folks running on the Democratic side.”
Cooper said the 11th went from a ‘safe Republican’ district to a ‘leans Republican’ district when the new district lines were drawn - adding that Meadows retirement did nothing to change that in his eyes.