A New Vision Forward: How Steve Woodsmall Hopes to Reclaim Western North Carolina

Steve Woodsmall reflects on his campaign while walking through his property in Transylvania County, N.C. (Photo credits to Thom Kennedy)

Clad in his old bomber jacket and U.S. Air Force polo, Steve Woodsmall made his way into a small diner in Burke County, N.C., on a cold January morning. His silver hair belied the vibrant energy radiating from him as he entered the back room of the diner. Here, the Burke County Democrats were meeting ahead of the 2018 midterm primaries in North Carolina. The race for the Democratic nomination for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District had been jolted by Woodsmall who entered the race the last week of December.

The primary for North Carolina’s 11th was already a whirlwind. At the beginning of the cycle in early 2017, a staunch progressive launched his candidacy but subsequently dropped out six months later following a series of scandals. A more moderate challenger emerged at that time in Phillip Price. Having lived in the district for over 30 years and currently residing in the deeply conservative county of McDowell, Price positioned himself as a true western North Carolinian that could take down incumbent Republican Representative Mark Meadows. However, that October, Dr. Scott Donaldson jumped into the race. A urologist from another conservative county, Henderson, Donaldson focused on healthcare as his main issue.

However, Woodsmall was not impressed with either option. For many years, he had toyed with the idea of running for office, but being in the military and, up until five years ago, living in Florida limited his options. After hearing Woodsmall complain about the two Democratic candidates, his friends pushed him to run. They told him to “leave someplace better than [he] found it.” And thus, Woodsmall decided to jump into the ring because, as he says, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Woodsmall came out swinging with a platform focused on what he reasoned were the root causes of western North Carolina’s problems: getting money out of politics; ensuring free and fair elections; and addressing gun violence, the opioid crisis, and economic security as public safety issues. Despite jumping into the race four months before the primary in early May, Woodsmall caught fire quickly and pulled into a solid second place in the primary.

Woodsmall gathered support primarily in ancestral Democratic areas along the border with Tenessee to the north and the Foothills in the eastern section of the district. While remaining competitive in Buncombe and Henderson Counties, Woodsmall was not able to garner large enough margins to overcome the hurdle of his lack of campaign length during the primary. (Map credits to Eric Perless)

Grayson Barnette, Woodsmall’s Communications Director, credits the growth in support to Woodsmall’s message and strong social media presence. Having originally worked for Price’s campaign early on, Barnette said he became disaffected with Price. Woodsmall inspired Barnette to switch campaigns and work full-time to promote him. Barnette says, “He had the best background and platform” to unite ancestral Democratic areas that have since gone towards Republicans and the more liberal areas of Asheville in Buncombe County.

Although Woodsmall did not win the primary, he believes his vision was vindicated in the general election when Meadows defeated Price handily 59.21 percent to 38.75 percent according to official results from the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Price was not able to capitalize on the “Blue Wave” environment of 2018. While doing well in Buncombe County, Price could not flip any other county. He was the only Democratic Congressional candidate in North Carolina not to cross the 40 percent threshold. (Map credits to Eric Perless)

After witnessing Price’s margins, Woodsmall felt he should run again. However, hesitation still persists. North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District is horribly gerrymandered. With a Cook Partisan Voting Index of R +14, the district has not elected a Democrat to Congress under the current maps. The district shifted just under eight points towards Democrats while the national average, according to the New York Times, was a 10 point shift. This not only reflects the stubbornness of rural districts but what Woodsmall perceives to be the lack of solid infrastructure for Democrats district-wide.

While Woodsmall was hesitant to declare under the current lines, he felt he was still too fed up with the current administration not to try. Although he hopes fair lines are implemented soon with the Supreme Court case later this spring, Woodsmall understands he has to hit the ground early. He has already started raising money and forming his own campaign team.

Much of the partisan lean of the district stems from the largest and most Democratic city in the region, Asheville, being cracked into two districts. In addition, the overwhelmingly conservative counties of McDowell, Caldwell, and Burke were added to the district in 2012 to offset the remaining Democratic vote from Buncombe County. This has reduced the urban population in the district to the point where the rural-to-urban population ratio stands at 53.4-to-46.6. Losing ground in rural America has been hurting Democrats’ chances across the country, but the Chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Wayne Goodwin, hopes to change that.

Wayne Goodwin addresses a packed room of Democrats in a Henderson County restaurant during his Rural Listening Tour over the summer of 2018. Goodwin wants to focus on investing in rural areas in North Carolina so Democrats can maximize their electability. (Photo credits to the Henderson County Democratic Party)

Goodwin represented a rural state senate seat before serving as North Carolina’s Insurance Commissioner and the Chair for the North Carolina Democrats. He wants to revive the Democratic Party in western North Carolina. Goodwin has worked with North Carolina’s Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, to invest more in western North Carolina. Goodwin says, “I want to make sure every part of North Carolina understands we are one North Carolina. No region should be left behind.” He argues the Democrats have been the only party in rural areas advocating a real message of opportunity for all, but between a disconnect with rural voters and immense gerrymandering, Democrats have not been able to push into Republican territory too well. But he sees hope in the two lawsuits sitting in the courts regarding gerrymandering. This could tilt the balance of power in the state and result in new district lines for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District.

Even as the urban-rural divide grows, Woodsmall believes his message does not need to change. He believes his message resonated during the 2018 cycle, but he wants to change his actual campaign strategy. Woodsmall acknowledges his campaign focused heavily on social media due to their lack of time, but he wants to engage voters more directly this time. Rather than asking people to attend Democratic events, he wants to “bring the party to the people,” according to Barnette. Woodsmall is eager to travel to deep-red counties and engage voters one-on-one to persuade them.

Whether Woodsmall can overcome the partisan lean of the district remains to be seen, but he first must clinch the Democratic nomination in 2020. Price has been signaling to allies he may run again, but Woodsmall feels he will be able to beat Price in a rematch. However, Woodsmall is more focused on taking down Meadows. While the primary can get heated, the main goal is replacing Meadows according to many NC-11 Democrats. And Woodsmall believes his vision can do just that. He says it’s time to “deliver tangible change and reform to benefit western North Carolina and the rest of the United States because if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

If you would like to reach out to the Woodsmall campaign, they have a Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/WoodsmallForNC) and a Twitter (@SteveWoodsmall)

Note: I served on Woodsmall’s 2018 campaign and will likely be serving on his 2020 campaign post-graduation. I attempted to remove as much editorialization as possible and will also be writing similar pieces about other NC-11 candidates, including Price if he decides to run again.