Early voting is underway in North Carolina, as voters will decide elections at the federal, state and local levels. There are several offices where district lines were redrawn for this election. That includes North Carolina State Senate District 48, which still consists of all of Henderson and Transylvania Counties, but now also includes eastern Buncombe County.
A Reuters poll of 1,000 adults in North Carolina conducted through Oct. 13 says the single biggest issue on voters’ minds is management of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Incumbent Republican Senator Chuck Edwards, was right there at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Initially, I was very much in favor of the way the governor handled things,” Edwards said. “We didn't know what we were dealing with. I thought it made all the sense in the world for us to take a pause, to understand more what COVID meant, what it was doing to our society, and we should have shut down for a period of time.”
Edwards has since changed his mind.
“I'm no longer in favor and not supportive at all with as long as it's taken for us to reopen our economy,” he said. “There's so many people out there that have some ideas on how they can reopen safely and they’ve not been allowed to do that.”
Economic instability also threatens to exacerbate longstanding problems in the 48th, like rural broadband access. It’s no longer a luxury or a convenience when kids are sitting outside fast food restaurants, using the free wi-fi to complete their schoolwork.
“I supported and helped create the GREAT program two years ago that funded to the tune of, I believe it was initially $10 million for the expansion of rural broadband,” said Edwards. “I believe in the last four years, we've now added $75 million for the expansion of rural broadband in North Carolina.”
Edwards also supported a bill that made it easier for electric cooperatives to install fiber on utility poles, but he says he’s still in favor of a state law that prohibits local governments from offering the service on their own.
His Democratic opponent, Mills River Mayor Pro Temp Brian Caskey, says that law has to go.
“We have these large internet service providers who have friends in the legislature and they like having their monopolies and so they don't want towns and cities to make their own deals with respect to providing internet in their communities,” Caskey said. “There are parts of Mills River, for instance, right now where the only access that they have is via dial-up. And so that's the kind of thing that we're trying to remedy in Mills River.”
Because it’s a public health crisis, the pandemic has also lain bare the nation’s broken health care system. North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature has refused to expand Medicaid. Supporters say Medicaid expansion would benefit more than 600,000 people in the state.
Edwards claims 80 percent of those who would be covered by Medicaid expansion are childless, able-bodied adults, 40 percent of whom already have private insurance.
“Those folks that want to see Medicaid expanded are essentially asking the taxpayers to add 600,000 people to the Medicaid rolls so that we could then serve 194,000 people,” he said. “And that just doesn't make sense.”
Caskey thinks the number that would benefit from Medicaid expansion is now higher, due to COVID-related unemployment.
“I don't know where he's getting his statistics,” said Caskey. “The North Carolina Justice Center, their estimates pre-pandemic were 635,000. You can only imagine that with so many people being out of work, losing their health insurance coverage, that that number has gotten worse. I've seen some estimates that people without health insurance in the state of North Carolina may approach a million at this point.”
For the past decade, the 48th District has been deep red, estimated at R +12. Redistricting has changed that, and Edwards has much more cash on hand than he did at this time in the last two elections. Caskey hopes that means this will be a close race.
“In the minds of unaffiliated voters, it's looking more like an R +2, so we're really feeling like, you know, you put a good candidate in a district where he only needs one percentage point and one vote we're looking at a situation where we can win this,” he said. “The problem with Sen. Edwards has been that he does not represent this district.”
Early voting in North Carolina runs through Oct. 31.