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‘I don’t want to be irrelevant.’ NC Democrats hope to gain rural ground in November

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Lilly Knoepp/BPR
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Signs for the Macon County Democratic party sit inside their headquarters in Franklin.

As election day draws closer, Democrats are hoping to fend off a Republican supermajority in the North Carolina General Assembly. Just a few seats will be the deciding factor – that means voters in rural counties could have a big impact. Have Democrats been campaigning enough in rural counties with Republican majorities to win voters?

On a sunny early voting day, BPR spoke with voters in Macon County. When asked if they attended local campaign events most said they relied on the local newspaper and radio to get information about candidates’ policies.

“It would have been nice to get to know them and to know that Franklin matters, that we aren’t just a little city down the road. It’s important what goes on here,” said Maggie Schmidt of Franklin. She and her husband Dick say they know all the local candidates but would like to see more state and federal candidates visit their town.

“I’m actually inclined to vote for the candidate that does the least amount of mudslinging,” said Dick.

Have Democrats campaigned enough to win rural voters?

A Macon County native, Canyon Woodward co-authored, “Dirt Road Revival: How To Rebuild Rural Politics And Why Our Future Depends On It.” He says he hasn’t seen the community he grew in reflected in national conversations about politics.

“There's been this really awful narrative over the last 10 to 15 years of rural voters being these ignorant, bigoted, people who are so dumb that they vote against their own interests, and it's really condescending,” said Woodward at a BPR hosted event at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. “If you have a narrative of someone like that you aren’t going to want to hear anything that they have to say.”

Woodward wrote the book with Senator Chloe Maxmin. He was her campaign manager during her 2018 win for Maine’s House of Representatives and 2020 win for the state Senate – both in a rural conservative district.

"I always felt like growing up in my rural community that we connected on values and decency and kindness, way before we ever got to politics. And that, that just meant so much to me,” said Maxmin, who is the youngest woman to become a state senator in Maine’s history.

Their book focuses on campaign advice to reach rural voters. The authors also advocatesfor systemic changes like ranked choice voting and Clean Election Funding laws. Both are the law of the land in Maine and Maxmin credits them as key to her election.

Maxmin and Woodward wrote about their perspective in a New York Times Op-Ed. The book was also covered by The Intercept, The New Yorker and Smoky Mountain News.

She credits the relationships that she built while campaigning with helping her write policy for a diverse group of constituents.

“I think when I was knocking doors, what the biggest thing that I heard by far was people just feeling completely unrepresented by government and their elected officials completely let down no hope, no faith, like it was almost like there was no use and talking about the traditional issues like education, health care, because what was the point?” said Maxmin.

“And so when I got elected, I really didn't want to break any promises. And I really wanted to genuinely represent the community and all of these diverse perspectives from hardcore Trump voters to very liberal Democrats, and so that I was really thoughtful about the kind of policy that I worked on [and] really made sure that it was rooted in local conversations and local stories. And then I could really stand behind it and explain it to anybody,” she said.

One of her most controversial policies was the passage of the Maine Green New Deal. Maxmin sponsored the bill in 2019.

“Obviously, the words Green New Deal might not play super well in my district, but I called it that because I really wanted to draw attention to a different way of talking about the climate crisis that was rooted in a rural working class perspective,” said Maxmin.

Woodward says one Democratic candidate has been showing up. NC-11 Congressional candidate Jasmine Beach-Ferrara hosted the authors for an event in Haywood County.

Her campaign manager says Beach-Ferrara has attended 36 events out west including a recent event in Macon County at Franklin High School. In total, she has had three events in Macon County during the campaign season.

“In this cycle it's the first big rally that we're having, so, we're pretty excited about that,” said Gary St. Arnauld, the chair of the Macon County Democratic Party in October just before the event. He says that the county mostly does direct mail, phone calls and radio ads.

“In Macon County particularly, it's really hard to be efficient when homes are half a mile apart andpeople have big dogs in the yard andpeople here are not used to having strangers knock on their door,” said St. Arnauld.

Luke Tonat is Beach-Ferrara’s campaign manager. He says that the campaign has knocked on lots of doors and during the primary canvased in every county.

“I think top of the ticket campaigns like ours have a responsibility to understand those contexts and to support county parties and local volunteer bases accordingly,” said Tonat.

The NC-11 district represents about 15 counties on a federal level but what about state senate races?

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

That means that there isn’t much of a statistical motivation for Democrats to campaign in the area.

Republican Kevin Corbin won the furthest west Senate District in 2020 with a big majority. This year, he’s facing Democrat Karen McCracken of Jackson County.

By comparison Senator Julie Mayfield’s District 49 in the west end of Buncombe County is predominantly Democratic.

“For anyone who is tempted to work on my race in the Fall – please don’t do it.”

That’s what Mayfield said at Rabbit Rabbit in Asheville just after she won her primary race.

BPR checked in with Mayfield in September to see how her campaigning was going.

“From a financial standpoint, I do need to raise money. There are costs to being in the state Senate. So I do need to raise money for me. But mostly what I've done this summer is raise money for some of these other candidates that are in very tight races,” said Mayfield.

She explained she is focusing her campaigning efforts on key senate districts in Eastern North Carolina. This is in part because of her role as the secretary of the Senate’s Democratic Caucus.

“The caucus is my team, and I'm a part of that team. I'm a leader in that team. And in order for our team to be effective we have to be able to sustain Governor Cooper's veto,” said Mayfield. “I'm on the field fighting for my team so that we can do that. If we can't sustain the governor's veto, we become absolutely completely irrelevant. And I don't want be irrelevant. I don't want to serve in a Senate where the Democrats are irrelevant.”

There are four candidates she has been focusing on: Senator Sydney Batch in District 17, Mary Willis Bode in District 18, Representative Rachel Hunt in District 42 and Valerie Jordan in District 3.

The North Carolina Democrats say they organize statewide throughout the year to build party infrastructure.

“We’re proud to have some truly incredible local Democratic leaders and candidates in Western North Carolina. We’re excited to see them translate their passion for change into energy and action for Western North Carolina voters,” said North Carolina Democratic Party spokesperson Julia Walker.

The state party spokesperson told BPR in an email that they hold regular events in the following Western North Carolina counties: Buncombe, Haywood, McDowell, Jackson, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, and Watauga.

After Election Day on November 8th, the Democrats will find out how their campaign strategies this cycle work. BPR News will be live on Election night as the results come in from 8 pm to 10 pm.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who 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.