Two years ago Democrat Brian Turner faced off against powerful state representative Tim Moffitt for the House 116 seat in one of the most competitive and costly state legislative races in North Carolina. In probably the biggest upset statewide during the ‘14 cycle, Turner defeated Moffitt by 963 votes.
As North Carolina Democrats work to win the four additional seats they need to break the Republicans’ supermajority in the state House, they easily have a half dozen pickup opportunities. But only a few seats held by Democrats are vulnerable to takeover by the GOP. On the top of that list is seat 116. It’s a R+6 PVI district, which is the most Republican leaning seat held by a Democrat in the entire state, to underscore how impressive Turner’s win was in 2014. The seat consists of the Southern and Western parts of Buncombe County, stretching around Asheville proper and sneaking into South Asheville a little bit.
So it would seem that the 116 seat is primed to be a competitive race again this year. But so far the GOP has failed at candidate recruitment. During the filing period, all eyes were on former Rep. Moffitt to see if he would sign-up for a rematch, but surprisingly, not only did he not run, the GOP failed to find a candidate with much name recognition or ties to the district. And even more surprisingly, Kay Olsen, the candidate who did file to run against Turner withdrew from the race on July 14th.
That means that currently the GOP has no candidate for NC House 116 seat as we enter the summer campaign season with Turner back at home and working away in the district.
There has been a lot of speculation that Olsen was a placeholder candidate. Evidence of that lies in her lack of an active campaign and fundraising as reported by the Citizen-Times:
There is little evidence that Olsen had campaigned actively for the seat. The state Board of Elections initially levied two $500 fines against her campaign June 22 for filing campaign finance reports late, but waived the first penalty.
The reports that were eventually filed showed no money raised or spent for Olsen’s campaign.
So now we’re back to square one, with whispers that Moffitt may jump into the race after all. Fueling that speculation is Moffitt was recently appointed to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners until December of this year to fill out the term of another commissioner who stepped down. That’s a great position for Moffitt to make some noise about Buncombe County’s budget and taxes and stay in the public eye.
Moffitt was for a time considered to be in the running for the House Speaker’s office prior to his 2014 defeat, and needs no introduction to folks in Buncombe County. Moffitt was powerful, well-funded and had deep ties locally and in statewide GOP circles. So how did Turner slay the dragon? In short, he had a top-notch campaign staff, raised a ton of money and benefited from the volunteer army of Buncombe County Democrats that regarded Moffitt as public enemy #1.
The Moffitt rumors never seems to go away, but why the delay if he wants a rematch? Either way, the Buncombe County Republican Party has until August 25th to select a replacement candidate against Turner.
The Buncombe County Republican Party has been a hot mess of late, with the party scrambling to fill not only the 116 seat, but also the race to head up the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. Their candidate for that race, Miranda DeBruhl also dropped out after the filing deadline had passed. And to further complicate matters, the GOP was also scrambling until late July for a candidate in the District 3 seat, which DeBruhl had held and also stepped down from. The short and short of it is, the GOP has a very small pool of quality candidates in Buncombe County and as we head into August they are still looking to find replacement candidates for two very important races.
Over the longer-term, Asheville residents are pushing into the county because of sky-high housing prices and that means district 116 is gaining reliable Democratic voters. But, between now and November, each day that Turner’s campaign works the ground game unopposed is a huge advantage.
Aaron Sarver, a politics junkie, has held several roles for the Democratic Party. He lives in Asheville.