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MossColumn: Why did McDonald lose?

Green shows precincts Griffin won, orange McDonald. Green shows precincts Griffin won, orange McDonald.

The temptation on Tuesday night, May 8, was to describe the sheriff’s primary election as a stunning upset. We don’t expect an incumbent untainted by scandal to lose an election, especially not in a 58.5 to 41.5 percent landslide. That it happened begs the question: Why?

In 42 years of covering politics, campaigns and elections, I’ve learned that political upsets, like wave elections, don’t happen because of one thing. They happen when a series of issues peels off the incumbent’s or controlling party’s support, one issue at a time, until the percentage adds up to 50 percent plus 1. That’s what I think was at play when voters fired Charlie McDonald and hired Lowell Griffin to replace him.
Let’s start with the most obvious and most damaging one — McDonald’s law enforcement training center. Voters will tolerate big capital spending by government, as long as they’re convinced of a demonstrated need. Voters understand, for instance, that schools age out and need to be placed. For all the fuss over Hendersonville High School construction, little of the friction has focused on cost. Until the recent blowup over who knew the true cost when, the conflict was between new construction and keeping the old — not the cost.
McDonald never effectively made the case for why he needed a training center. Voters could not get their head around paying $20 million — or $6 million — for live-action scenario training, tactical drills and 360-degree shooting practice. It was amazing to watch how quickly and decisively commissioners dropped plans for shooting ranges when their meeting room overflowed with angry homeowners. In August 2015, commissioners abandoned the Camp Flintlock site in Green River. They “folded like lawn chairs,” McDonald told me some months later. Next, the board dropped a site on Pinnacle Mountain before it even came to a public discussion. The proposed Blue Ridge Community College location, an idea intended to remove the Not in My Backyard dynamic, backfired bigtime. At $22 million, the indoor facility under an acre of roof inspired an even broader uprising based on fiscal conservatism and opponents’ belief that gunshots and explosions were incompatible with the classroom experience. A year after he had quietly told commissioners to pull the plug on the BRCC site, McDonald was in voters’ crosshairs again, going public with the Macedonia Road site in rural Saluda. If our elected commissioners and County Manager Steve Wyatt thought they were doing McDonald a favor by bringing up the training center days before the primary, they badly miscalculated. Hundreds of residents gathered at the Grove Street Courthouse to protest the shooting range on Saturday, April 14. A standing-room-only crowd filled a meeting room at Saluda fire station on Monday, April 16. One-stop voting started two days later.
Read the spreadsheet to see what happened. McDonald got shellacked in the precincts in and around Macedonia Road. Griffin won 84 percent of the vote in Raven Rock and 73 percent in Green River.

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While McDonald and the commissioners were busy shooting themselves in the foot on the training center, that wasn’t the only dynamic. McDonald won with 50.4 percent in the 2014 primary, which meant half the primary voters picked someone else — Michael Brown or Erik Summey. Brown is from a family of deputies who served in the Ab Jackson era, which ended when a young upstart named George Erwin ousted Sheriff Jackson in the 1994 primary. The Ridge has been trying to get the sheriff’s office back ever since and in Lowell Griffin those apple country voters had a deeply rooted native to support. It didn’t hurt that his brother, Robert, is the longtime chief of Edneyville Fire & Rescue. Firefighters stick together — and they talk and they vote. Brown won 30 percent of the vote four years ago. I’d say that was a reliable base number for Griffin. He needed 20 more points to close the deal.
Griffin won the Edneyville box with an astounding 78 percent of the vote and took the Bat Cave, North Blue Ridge and Clear Creek precincts with at least 70 points.
I suspect that the farm community bailed on McDonald. I say that because I was surprised to see the reaction to a relatively minor crackdown on undocumented immigrants by the 287G program under ICE weeks before the election.
During their only debate, Griffin refused to commit to continuing a local partnership on ICE enforcement.
Under President Obama, I’m guessing that apple and produce growers and greenhouse operators considered ICE enforcement a modest threat. Under President Trump, they may view immigration enforcement as an existential threat. Shift a few more points from the incumbent to the challenger.
Speaking of Trump, McDonald scored the political optic of the year when he appeared at a White House roundtable on school safety with the Man of Hair. Or did he? Was McDonald’s close association with the right wing of his party — including Trump and Freedom Caucus leader and Tea Party favorite Mark Meadows — an asset or a liability? Plenty of spiritual Democrats are registered independents in our county; otherwise they cede their ability to influence local politics.
Griffin also won the Mills River precincts, where community members have expressed anger over McDonald’s actions in the manhunt for Phillip Michael Stroupe, who is charged with the murder of Tommy Bryson.
Add up the issues and the May 8 primary election outcome seems less mysterious.
McDonald ran as a reformer and I would accept his campaign rhetoric that he had served as a reformer. It turned out it wasn’t enough to claim that he had fixed a broken culture. When voters feel like government action threatens their homestead — for most people, their biggest financial investment — they have long memories.

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Reach editor Bill Moss at