The results of last week’s election have sparked something of an existential crisis among Republicans in Charlotte.
All three of the party’s endorsed candidates for citywide office — mayoral candidate Kenny Smith and City Council at-large candidates John Powell and Parker Cains — were soundly defeated at the polls despite the perception that they were in close races.
That means Charlotte is now nearing a decade without a Republican in a citywide elected office. Party leaders now worry that it could be several decades longer until their influence is again felt in local government.
“I personally think the Republican Party in Charlotte is toast,” said Lynn Wheeler, a former Republican mayor pro tem.
The last time the GOP held citywide office was 2009, when Edwin B. Peacock III took the third of four City Council at-large seats. The party has since been defeated in four straight election cycles, though none were as resounding as the 2017 races.
As they lick their wounds from last week’s resounding defeat, local Republican Party leaders are also beginning to envision new ways to approach elections moving forward.
In the near term, this could mean shoring up support in south Charlotte, where Republicans maintain a slipping hold on two City Council districts.
Longer-term, Charlotte Republicans are in the early stages of envisioning a new message to the city’s voters.
What happened last week?
The challenge for Charlotte’s Republicans begins with a math problem.
Registered Republicans make up only 24 percent of voters in Mecklenburg County, compared with 45 percent registered Democrats (another 31 percent are unaffiliated). This isn’t unique to Charlotte. Urban areas are growing bluer by the year across the country, while Republicans tend to be on the periphery of the center city.
But while Charlotte Republicans knew they’d be fighting an uphill battle in this year’s local elections, most were fairly optimistic about their chances heading into Tuesday. A TV news poll showed Smith and Lyles in a statistical dead heat.
Instead, this happened.
Things weren’t rosier for Republicans in the City Council race as well. John Powell came in a distant fifth place running for four seats.
Compare this year’s outcome with the mayoral results in 2015.
Powell was only a few hundred votes away from a City Council at-large seat in the 2015 race.
And then here’s the 2013 mayor’s race. Sorry, no map, but the wedge/crescent dynamic was still in play.
The first thing that stands out in this year’s election is the turnout. While still only 21 percent, that’s wildly higher than it has been in the previous two local elections.
Some Republican Party leaders attribute the turnout to the Trump effect. Nationally, there’s evidence that Democrats were energized to vote as a way to oppose President Trump’s policies.
The Democratic-leaning Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg was also much more active this year, likely leading to greater turnout.
But the numbers get even more interesting at the district level.
In some rock-solid Republican districts, Lyles greatly outperformed her Democratic counterparts in earlier elections.
In 2013, Peacock decisively carried the Myers Park High precinct by a vote total of 510 to 122 over Democrat Patrick Cannon, who ultimately won.
This year, Smith won, but the margin was much narrower: 514 to 258.
The same dynamic was at play at A.G. Middle School, Smith’s home precinct.
Peacock took it in 2013, 682 to 116. Smith carried it this year, 713 to 304.
Lyles more than doubled her support in Republican precincts while Smith kept the same support of his party.
But there’s also plenty of evidence that other areas are flipping. One of the larger Dilworth precincts, at Covenant Presbyterian Church, went for Peacock 460 to 295 in 2013.
This year, that same precinct went for Lyles, 629 to 421.
What’s the goal now?
All that has left some Republican elected officials saying they should stop worrying about citywide offices and instead shore up support where they still have it.
“I’m going to focus on the towns and I’m going to focus on our legislature,” said Larry Shaheen, a Republican political consultant who frequently works on local races. “The real battles were in the suburbs.”
Another pressing need Republicans feel: To preserve the two seats on City Council they currently have. Those are the two south Charlotte district seats on the City Council — 6 and 7.
While still solidly red, support has been steadily declining even in those districts. Margins have narrowed.
“We need to temper our expectations and focus on what is actually plausible,” said Tariq Scott Bokhari, who just won a seat on City Council in District 6.
Republican Ed Driggs soundly won another term in District 7.
A byproduct of this shifting focus could be that the Republicans do not field well-funded candidates for mayor for the next few election cycles.
“I can’t see the Republicans letting the seat languish and not have somebody run, but I don’t know who that would be,” Wheeler said.
A more realistic goal, many party leaders say, is to recapture one at-large seat on the City Council. Even accomplishing that, though, would be a significant feat.
A fresh start
In any case, local Republicans are going to have to deal with a leadership crisis amongst themselves. Several insiders said that the county party apparatus is in disarray.
“We need a wholesale turnover in leadership,” Shaheen said. He says there is an old guard in the local GOP that’s resistant to change.
Once that’s sorted out, there are several paths forward.
Bokhari said one potential avenue is to recruit a rock-solid slate of 12 candidates to run for the mayorship and all 11 City Council seats. Even though some districts are safely Democratic, a quality candidate there could rally the numbers needed for the citywide seats.
This year, the Republicans could not field a full slate of candidates at-large and did not challenge every district seat.
But more likely, Charlotte Republicans will have to come up with new messaging that can reach people in Steele Creek, Mallard Creek, South Boulevard and Mountain Island Lake — as well as Myers Park.
“The Republicans have to deal with a perception issue,” Shaheen said. “Republicans have lost the understanding of the people of the city of Charlotte. There are a lot of people who are not talking to Republicans.”
Part of that is a national problem. Republicans have gained the reputation as being a party of exclusion and opposition. But several local Republican leaders say that is an abandonment of the party’s history.
Peacock brought up the example of Jim Martin, who carved out a political career that culminated in the governorship as a Republican in what was then a purely Democrat-controlled state.
“This is a party of ideas,” Peacock said. “It’s a big tent party. It’s a party that believes that the best idea should win the day.”
Another potential way forward is to recruit out-of-the-box candidates to carry the party flag. While a Trump-like candidate would likely not do well in Charlotte, somebody with an outsider’s perspective and business background potentially could.
Shaheen said he believes there are a number of talented conservatives in the Charlotte corporate scene who would consider making a run for office in the future as well. A message shift could encourage them to step forward.
There’s also always the chance of more tectonic shifts on the national party level that could trickle down to Charlotte
“That’s the nature of politics: Change is inevitable and constant,” Shaheen said. “You can’t predict 10, 20 years down the road.”
That may be true, but the next 10 years seems more certain.
“You cannot declare the GOP dead,” Peacock said. “But we may be in the wilderness another decade.”