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Guilford Democrats mobilize resources and enthusiasm against concerted Republican effort

by Jordan Green and Brian Clarey

Gladys Robinson (right), was among Guilford County Democrats who withstood a Republican surge. (photo by Jordan Green)

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The tidal wave of Republican anger at government in Washington and Raleigh crashed up against a Democratic beachhead in Guilford County, where superior registration numbers, frantic last-minute campaigning and reserves of enthusiasm denied the GOP the opportunity to pick up seats.

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Maggie Jeffus, a veteran lawmaker with 16 years of experience in the NC House, fended off a spirited challenge from Republican Theresa Yon in NC House District 59, prevailing by a 5-percent margin, while her colleague, Pricey Harrison, bested Republican Jon Hardister with an 11-point spread. In NC Senate District 28, open by virtue of the retirement of Sen. Katie Dorsett, hand-picked successor Gladys Robinson prevailed over Republican Trudy Wade by more than 4,000 votes and independent Bruce Davis trailed a distant third.

Democrat Don Vaughan, a one-term incumbent, won by a solid 19-percent margin in NC Senate District 27 against tea party-inspired Republican challenger Jeff Hyde, notwithstanding anxiety during the last days of the campaign.

In recent weeks, the Jeffus campaign begun to suspect it was in trouble and focused effort on turnout in heavily Democratic, predominantly African-American precincts in east Greensboro, where the electorate could be counted on to remain loyal to the party.

“Probably the last few weeks, I realized it might be closer than I thought,” said Jeffus, who celebrated with fellow Democrats at Natty Greene’s in downtown Greensboro on election night. “But I always thought I’d come out ahead.”

She added that this was the hardest she’d ever worked on a campaign.

“So far so good,” Vaughan said as the returns came in. “We had a small army of volunteers between last night and today on the street.” As the names of the three victorious Democratic candidates were called, waves of applause washed through the room. And two campaign workers in Vaughan T-shirts did a bro-clasp hug.

The mood at Guilford County Republican Party headquarters was more subdued. Around 9 p.m., Guilford County Republican Party Executive Director Tony Wilkins fielded a call from political consultant Bill Burckley, who reported that Wade’s chances were dimming.

Republican-backed conservative candidates in nonpartisan races also fell short. Lisa Ingle Clapp, who is registered as unaffiliated, campaigned for an at-large seat on the Guilford County School Board on a platform of school safety, transparency and accountability to taxpayers. During her campaign she won significant support from conservative groups and made her concession speech at Republican headquarters, after it became clear that two-term incumbent Nancy Routh would retain her seat.

About an hour before the polls closed, Guilford County School Board District 2 incumbent Garth Hebert was campaigning outside of the polling place at Smith Grove Baptist Church near Colfax. As an elementary school-age boy dressed in athletic clothes passed with his mother, Hebert quipped, “If I’m still on the school board when that kid can vote, someone needs to send me to the hospital — with padded walls.”

He won’t have to worry about that. Hebert was first elected in 2006 after campaigning for neighborhood schools, and won support this year from Conservatives for Guilford County, alongside Clapp. Despite running a low-profile campaign, challenger Ed Price swiped the District seat from Hebert by a 13-percent margin, benefiting from the name recognition garnered from decades of volunteer work in High Point.

It was left to BJ Barnes, the Republican who has been Guilford County’s sheriff for 16 years, to console the party faithful after he won reelection by fending off Democratic challenger Phil Wadsworth.

“Keep being involved,” Barnes urged the Republican volunteers. “I can assure you there’s some great ideas out there. I promise you if you stay engaged that we will have more and more victories.”

Hardister made an emotional concession speech, and indicated he will run again.

“We gave Pricey Harrison a run for her money,” he said. “Let me tell you what typically happens: Pricey Harrison gives her money to other candidates because she knows she doesn’t need it. This year, she didn’t give a dime of it away.”

Before conceding, Hardister said he was proud of both the campaign that he ran and that of his opponent, Pricey Harrison. If there was one thing he learned from the experience, Hardister said he would communicate with the NC Republican Party earlier and obtain a pledge to not send out negative mailings attacking his opponent. Hardister was compelled to repudiate a an inflammatory and inaccurate mail piece the state party sent out to voters in District 57 calling Harrison a “criminal coddler” for her vote in favor of the Racial Justice Act.

“It probably hurt more than anything,” Hardister said. “People are tired of negative poltics.”

An identical mailer targeting Jeffus also played havoc in District 59, and both Democratic candidates reported having doors slammed in their faces after it dropped.

Moderate to heavy turnout in Republicanleaning precincts in Guilford County where voters said they were motivated to send a rebuke to President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress over their economic policies seemed likely to accrue to the benefit of Republicans further down the ballot. But even the precincts with the largest numbers of registered Republicans also hold hundreds of registered Democrats, among whom an equally passionate defense of the president was voiced in exit interviews.

Bracing for the onslaught, Democrats took pains to shore up their base.

Yvonne Johnson, the former mayor of Greensboro who lost in an upset last year, recorded a robo-call for the Guilford County Democratic Party urging Democratic voters to get to the polls. Johnson is the first and only African American elected mayor of Greensboro, and is practically a household name in the northeast quadrant of the city.

“I basically told people what happened last year about this time, because 10 percent of the people came out to vote, and the difference was just enough for me to lose my race,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Get out and vote so some of these extremist people don’t get in power.’” Johnson’s political narrative was also exploited by the Wade campaign, which sent out a postcard of the candidate side by side with the former mayor. Robinson, who ultimately prevailed in the race, and Davis are both black Democrats, and Wade might have hoped the postcard would cut into their advantage in a district where African-American registered voters outnumber their white counterparts.

“It gave a lot of people the impression that I support her,” Johnson said. “She didn’t get my permission and she didn’t inform me about it. I didn’t even know about it until I got my copy in the mail.”

“You’ve got two very capable African Americans running, so I have not been endorsing anyone,” she added.

Nationally, the US House was poised to switch to Republican control, and it was widely reported that the Republicans took control of the NC General Assembly for the first time in 112 years. In congressional races, North Carolina’s political map remained largely intact, with the two incumbents from each party who represent parts of the Piedmont Triad handily defeating challengers. Only in North Carolina’s 2 nd Congressional District did Republicans appear to pick up a seat, with unofficial returns showing challenger Renee Ellmers defeating incumbent Bob Etheridge, 49.6 percent to 48.5 percent.

With 98 out of 100 counties reporting, Barbara Jackson held a lead over Robert Hunter in the race for an open seat on the NC Supreme Court, and incumbents for NC Court of Appeals easily defeated challengers.

Statewide, voters approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting felons from running for sheriff, and in Guilford County voters narrowly defeated a referendum to raise the sales tax. Incumbents Lewis Brandon and Dick Phillips led voting for two seats on the Guilford County Soil and Water Board.

In High Point municipal elections, longtime incumbent Becky Smothers easily defeated challenger Jay Wagner for mayor. Latimer Alexander kept his at-large city council seat, and newcomer Britt Moore ousted incumbent Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney for a second at-large seat. Incumbents Bernita Sims, Foster Douglas and Chris Whitley won reelection in ward contests. AB Henley prevailed in Ward 4. And unofficial returns in a three-way contest for an open seat representing Ward 6 showed Jim Corey leading with only 46 votes over Jason Ewing.

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