Thursday, December 1, 2022

GOP celebrates at yacht club, Democrats huddle on Zoom as local races come to an end

Skip Watkins, a former member of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, was the lone Republican candidate to seemingly not earn enough votes for a spot on the board. He ended Tuesday night in fourth place. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON—Luxury yachts moored in a downtown Wilmington marina along the Cape Fear River set the stage for a contingency of New Hanover County Republicans, who ventured to Jesse’s Yacht Club Tuesday night to watch election results trickle in. 

Gathering mostly outdoors around television screens and a liquor bar, Republican candidates mingled with voters and party leaders. While everyone monitored local GOP successes in the board of commissioners race and Michael Lee’s presumptive return to the N.C. State Senate, they also closely surveilled the screens, set to Fox News and ABC, on which Donald Trump’s re-election hopes played out live.

Meanwhile, local Democratic players huddled on a Zoom call, similarly keeping tabs on returns as statewide and county results were updated throughout the evening.

Holding steady on county commission

The N.C. State Board of Elections released in-person early voting and absentee by-mail totals in a lump update shortly after 8:15 p.m. — showing what appeared to be a nail-biter in the board of commissioners contest, with five of six candidates all roughly within one percentage point of each other. The three Republican candidates in the race averaged around 7,000 more votes than the three Democrats did during in-person early voting; yet, Democrats garnered an average of roughly 9,000 more votes via by-mail ballots. These preliminary totals, with results from Election Day still unreleased, put Jonathan Barfield in a fragile first-place position, with Bill Rivenbark and Debra Hays, both Republicans, following closely in second and third. 

The votes cast on Election Day would be the deciding factor, predicted Will Knecht, head of the county GOP. 

Back on the Zoom call, Democrats stayed optimistic. 

As Election Day precinct results started to appear online, Rivenbark shot into first place and Hays held second. Despite a strong Election Day turnout for Republican candidate Skip Watkins, he ended the night in fourth place, with fewer than 500 votes separating him and Barfield. The two progressive candidates, Leslie Cohen and Kyle Horton, came in fifth and sixth places. 

“Dagnabbit,” Cohen said on the Zoom call. “I said from the very beginning that Bill Rivenbark was going to get the most votes.” 

In a statement Wednesday, Cohen said she was disappointed that Rivenbark got the largest vote share, and she accused him of not making himself available to voters and the press throughout election season. “Instead, he relied on dark money and his family name to win the election,” Cohen said.

Three candidates will secure spots on the board of commissioners. As it stands, Watkins trails Barfield by 477 votes — 0.14% of the total tally — in the race for the third and final slot on the board. Whispers of a potential recount circulated at the party, but there is no indication any official recount request has or will be filed.

Later in the night, Watkins leaned on the bar inside the yacht club’s mostly-vacant ballroom. As his GOP compatriots overtook Barfield, the well-funded incumbent, Watkins watched as the final tallies halted the GOP’s chances of making the board of commissioners contest a three-for-three victory. He previously served on the board from 2014-2018 and lost his re-election bid in 2018.

The crowd at the GOP’s election watch party enjoyed drinks at the bar as results poured in throughout the evening. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)

Legislators join the party

Michael Lee, finishing his second gritty campaign against Harper Peterson, addressed the crowd early on in front of the patio bar, then left the party with his wife through a backdoor to meet up with family at Waterman’s Brewing Company. Tuesday night’s results emerged in Lee’s favor hours later, appearing to flip the script of the 2018 election, in which Peterson ousted Lee from the State Senate by a razor-thin margin. However, given the 1.1% margin of the race, Democrats are still holding out for remaining absentee ballots that may weigh in Peterson’s favor.

The yacht club crowd, many of whom wore Trump hats and MAGA gear, broke into a chant, “four more years,” after ABC reported some favorable returns for the president after 9 p.m. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Congressman David Rouzer pulled up in an R.V. with an aide. Dressed in a pullover and served a beer, the Republican representative monitored Senate returns from across the country on his phone, and made inquiries into his performance in Johnston County. He ended the night up more than 90,000 votes against Democratic challenger Christopher Ward. 

U.S. Congressman David Rouzer stopped by the GOP watch party for drinks and conversation with the crowd. He won re-election by a wide margin. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)

Rouzer secured his fourth term in Congress on Tuesday in an election far less competitive than his 2018 run, in which he defeated Horton, the 2020 board of commissioners candidate, by 36,000 votes. In recent weeks, he spent much of his time playing hype man for other big-ticket Republican candidates, like Trump and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, as opposed to campaigning solely for his own re-election.

“The North Carolina Republican Party is in constant communication with the Trump campaign, and we’re talking about all the races from the White House down to the local races,” he said on the yacht club patio, periodically glancing at the television for updates on ABC’s coverage of the presidential race.

“Whether you’re a veteran or whether you’re a rookie, you’re focused on all of it because we’re all a team,” Rouzer said. 

Though Rouzer and other GOP heavyweights fretted early on about Tillis’ chances to win a second term, once early voting numbers were released en masse, the Republican incumbent steadily built a lead over the course of the evening. As it stands, Tillis holds a roughly 100,000-vote advantage on Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. Nearly all the ballots have been counted; though, as of press, a victor has yet to be officially declared. 

The picture becomes clear

Crews from local news stations started to broadcast footage from the watch party shortly after 10 p.m. 

“Let’s get ready to fire this thing up, we’re on live,” Knecht, the GOP leader, hollered at the crowd, as WECT and WWAY reporters stationed outside the patio prepared to deliver reports with the party in the background. 

The mood was more somber on the Democratic Party’s Zoom call, after results from New Hanover County’s 43 precincts cemented the losses of Cohen and Horton in the board of commissioners race.

“Rob [Zapple] is going to be all alone,” Cohen’s husband Jeff said as the final count materialized. 

Participants on the call anguished over Rivenbark’s high Election Day turnout, and pondered aloud about the president’s chances of carrying North Carolina for a second time. After the vast majority of votes across the state were posted, party chair Richard Poole recommended one last collective review of statewide results, which were screen-shared on the Zoom meeting, and then called it a night. 

“We’ll look at that, then we’ll all go watch MSNBC,” Poole said. 

Meanwhile, Republicans at the yacht club were mostly upbeat and excited, as many local races turned in favor of the GOP, and national media continued to report rolling vote totals in the presidential race.

Will Knecht, chairman of the county GOP, takes a breather on election night. He is conflicted; though Republicans had a strong local showing, county voters favored Democrats for the president, senate and gubernatorial elections. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)

Knecht had sparse moments of solitude throughout the night. He was constantly conversing with voters and candidates, energizing the crowd and handling logistics. As the evening drew to a close, he checked his phone on the patio in front of a television bearing WWAY coverage. He was tired, he said, and though his party appears to have flipped a state Senate seat and maintains a Republican presence on the county commission, a few lingering shortfalls stopped him from declaring victory across the board: Democrats won two of three spots on the New Hanover County Board of Education, breaking a longstanding Republican hold on that realm; Barfield held his seat by edging out Watkins for third place in the board of commissioners contest; and nagging questions remain over how to interpret New Hanover County’s purple tendencies.

Richard Poole, who helms the county’s Democratic Party, emphasized many of these contests are not yet written in stone.

“We are looking forward to seeing the final count, which will include an unknown but potentially large number of absentee ballots,” Poole said.

Moving forward, Knecht said he and the party will do a “deep-dive” into precinct-by-precinct election data, in an attempt to understand the blue tilt in top-of-ticket races among New Hanover County voters. The county favored Joe Biden for president by more than 2,000 votes; the Senate contest was virtually a draw (Cunningham leads in the county by an unofficial tally of 158 votes); and local voters backed Gov. Roy Cooper in his re-election campaign by a staunch margin of nearly 10,000 votes.

“We’ve got to figure that out,” Knecht said. “Any organization that stops learning and growing is dead, and we definitely have a lot to learn from these last weeks and the results.”

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