Analysis: Watauga County stayed the course this election

Moss Brennan, Reporter

Watauga County saw record turnout for the 2020 election with over 32,000 residents voting — a 71.63% turnout

The county was about even with the overall state turnout which was a little higher at 75%. Here’s what happened locally:

County Commissioners

Democrats swept the all three county board of commissioners seats up for grabs Nov. 3, and they did it pretty handily. 

The closest race was between Democrat Carrington Pertalion and Republican Todd Castle. Pertalion won by five percentage points — 52-47. 

The other race that had multiple candidates was between Democrat Charlie Wallin and Republican Bart Keller. Wallin won by seven percentage points. 

Republicans know when App State students turn out in force, it does not bode well for them. In late August, Keller mentioned at a Watauga County GOP event that Republicans needed to overcome the “student vote.”

“Those students on campus that are pushed from those liberal pressures. Those are the ones that make us go Democratic in this county with every election,” Keller told the crowd. 

During early voting, when nearly 28,000 people voted in the county, 6,336 votes cast were from people between the ages 18-22. 

The only Republican who won in the county was Amy Jones Shook, who ran unopposed for register of deeds. She received just over 22,600 votes. 

In 2016, Democrats won two out of three seats on the county commissioners. 

State Representatives

Watauga County has two representatives in the state legislature — one in the House and one in the Senate. 

The race between Democrat Jeanne Supin and incumbent Republican Deanna Ballard was a landslide victory for Ballard overall, which was not all that surprising due to the makeup of the district. 

Ballard won by nearly 40% in the five-county district, but lost by 3% in Watauga County.

Ballard’s win came from counties outside Watauga County which typically lean more Republican. Watauga County was the only county Ballard did not receive the majority of votes. 

The North Carolina House of Representatives seat came as a slight surprise.

Incumbent Democrat Ray Russell lost to Republican Ray Pickett by almost six percentage points. 

The “battle of the Rays” saw the return of the trend that Russell broke in 2018 come back: Ashe County Republicans turned out in droves to defeat the Democratic votes in Watauga County. Historically, the 93rd District has been controlled by Republicans due to right leaning voters in Ashe County overcoming Democrat votes in Watauga County. 

In Watauga County, Russell only won by about 3,000 votes compared with over 4,000 in 2018. 

In 2018, Ray Russell lost in Ashe County by less than 3,000 votes. This year, he lost by almost 6,000. 

The difference between Pickett and Russell? 2,757 votes.

Russell was not able to close the gap enough in Ashe County to push himself to a win with votes in Watauga. 

But, like many other Republicans, Pickett had help from President Donald Trump. 

Trump, as the incumbent Republican president, helped down-ballot Republicans because he was at the top of the ballot and encouraged Republican voter turnout. In North Carolina, 74.75% of registered voters voted, compared with 68.98% in 2016.  

You have to go back to the early 1800s to find midterm elections that had higher turnout than presidential elections, and back then, the only people who could vote were white males. 

While Russell broke the eight-year Republican hold on the 93rd District in 2018, a closely-contested presidential election helped Republicans take back control pretty easily.