About Last Night

Wed., Nov. 3: Better late than never, let’s take stock of Election Night


1. Pro-Police Candidates Sweep Durham Contests

Shortly after Durham’s primary, when Elaine O’Neal and DeDreana Freeman emerged on top with stunning margins, Mark-Anthony Middleton—who also won big over token opposition—told me:

That was solely a referendum about gun violence in this city. I spent the last four years on television every week in this city making sure that this issue remained front and center. It wasn’t a referendum about the economy. The defining issue was the way we talk about and are dealing with gun violence and crime.

Whether it was the only issue is arguable. But it was front and center throughout the campaign. The existing council’s majority wanted to transfer 60 vacant police positions to a new Community Safety Department over the next three years. Critics have likened this to defunding the police—which, given the increase in homicides, is precisely the wrong thing to do, they say.

  • That debate is the subject of a story that I’ve spent the last month working on and The Assembly is planning to publish tomorrow, so I won’t give too much away right now. (The story is currently ~7,500 words, though it probably won’t be quite that long after the final round of editing this afternoon.)

  • I know that literally everything requires a subscription now, but if you’ve got $3 a month to spare, The Assembly is consistently publishing the best magazine journalism in the state (as well as the crap I write). Yesterday’s news-breaking profile of Peter Hans, the head of the UNC System, is just one example.

Where were we? As expected, Freeman and Middleton romped again last night, more or less replicating their lopsides margins from October. O’Neal officially became mayor-elect, but since her opponent, council member Javiera Caballero, had suspended her campaign, that was a fait accompli.

  • The only drama was in the ward 3 council race between AJ Williams and Leonardo Williams—no relation as far as I know, though it would have been fun if there was—which effectively became a contest to see which faction would control the council itself: the PA slate (Jillian Johnson + Javiera Caballero + Charlie Reece + AJ Williams) or The Durham Committee slate (Elaine O’Neal + DeDreana Freeman + Mark-Anthony Middleton + Leonardo Williams).

  • Friends, it was close.

I was at AJ Williams’ watch party at Durham Central Park soon after the early voting numbers dropped. AJ was about 12 points behind, which I assumed would be an insurmountable deficit. (In the primary, after all, about 40% of voters voted early.) And over the next half hour or so, as the first half of precincts rolled in, AJ struggled to make up ground—down only about 1,200 votes to Leonardo Williams but running out of places to make it up.

  • Of the three-dozen people at his watch party, AJ seemed perhaps least interested in the results. He might have been the last to check in on the early voting numbers, and he only casually checked the projector screen that was refreshing the vote tallies.

From there, I walked a block north to The Rickhouse, where O’Neal had her victory celebration, which was an entirely different kind of affair. Not activists but power-brokers. O’Neal’s circle of allies from NC Central. Hundreds of people. Free beer and wine. A mob of news cameras. A table set up for journalists to file stories, just like national candidates have at their events.

  • As O’Neal mugged for pictures with, well, everyone, Leonardo Williams’ lead dropped from 1,200 votes to about 500 with maybe 10 precincts out. For a fleeting moment, control of the council was up for grabs.

  • Then, just as fast, four more precincts came in, and Leonardo’s last bumped up to 800.

By the time I left The Rickhouse en route to Middleton’s party—on the 15th floor of the 21C Hotel, with a balcony that looked out over the American Tobacco complex and into the living room of high-rise apartment dwellers who hadn’t closed their blinds—ward 3 was done and dusted. Leonardo had won by 2 percentage points, or 637 votes.

  • Middleton rolled in an hour late to his own shindig, explaining that he’d been at Leonardo Williams’ party when AJ called to concede.

  • “We’ve seen a shift in this city, and it’s for the good,” Middleton told the several dozen supporters packed into the smallish suite. “The voters have spoken, and they’ve spoken clearly.” (“Yes, we have,” a woman exclaimed.) “Tonight, we win. Durham wins.”

  • There were large balloons with the letters M-A-M on the balcony. I (accidentally, because I’m forever a clutz) separated one of the Ms from its anchor, sending it flying into south Durham.  

What it means: Fine. You get one more quote from my story, but that’s it.

  • Jillian Johnson: “I worry that the new council majority won’t invest in these programs that we’ve been developing for the last couple of years because they have a different ideology. Their ideology is to double down on decades of the strategy that has gotten us exactly where we are.”


  • CHALT—the anti-development group in Chapel Hill that thought it a good idea to get into a fight with a high school newspaper—fared poorly last night. Its preferred mayoral candidate, Hongbin Gu, got walloped by incumbent Pam Heminger. Only one CHALT council candidate, Adam Searing, won, and he received the least amount of votes of the four victorious candidates. Karen Stegman, an incumbent targeted by anti-development trolls, won the most.

    • Heminger and Stegman, as well as winning council candidates Camille Berry and Paris Miller-Foushee, were backed by CHALT’s pro-growth rival NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

  • Republican Meredith Pruitt’s attempt to sneak her way onto the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education ended badly. Running in a town that doesn’t elect Republicans, Pruitt placed a very distant fourth behind the three winners: Riza Jenkins, George Griffin, and Mike Sharp.

  • Speaking of Carrboro, its race for town council—no longer the board of aldermen—had one small surprise. Town voters included a democratic socialist, Danny Nowell, among the three council members its elected, turning out incumbent Jacquelyn Gist, who served on the council since 1989. The two joining Nowell are reelected incumbents. And no surprise here, but Damon Seils won the mayor’s job, replacing the retiring Lydia Lavelle.

  • Finally, big news for everyone whose bucket list includes getting hammered in all 100 North Carolina counties: The Town of Robinsville, the county seat of Graham, the last dry county in North Carolina—population 8,000, two hours west of Asheville, on the Tennessee border—narrowly passed six referenda last night to allow the sale of malt beverages and unfortified wine within town limits. About 212 people voted on the referenda.

2. A Mixed Night for Police Reformers

Before last night’s election, some analysts were predicting a brutal end to the Defund the Police movement, smothered by a wave of violent crime in cities across the country. It didn’t quite work out that way. At least not everywhere.

  • Minneapolis: A year-and-a-half after a majority of the city council, responding to the murder of George Floyd, promised to abolish the Police Department, city voters said, “No so fast.” By a 56-44 margin, they rejected a ballot question that would have replaced the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety and abolished a city charter requirement for a minimum number of police officers.

  • Austin: Last year, Austin cut $150 million from its police budget—some through budget tricks, but it also diverted about $70 million to social programs. Critics placed a referendum on the ballot that would effectively have forced the city to boost police funding to the detriment of lots of other stuff. By a 2–1 margin, voters said no.

  • Cleveland: Over the strong objections of the police chief, voters established a powerful police oversight commission and elected a mayor who promised accountability.

  • Boston, Cincinatti, and Pittsburgh elected reformist mayors over candidates who wanted to expand policing.

  • But pro-police candidates won key elections in Atlanta, Buffalo, and Seattle.

  • And Eric Adams, who prevailed in New York City’s Democratic primary by campaigning against the Defund movement and the rich white liberals he said were pushing it, sealed his victory as the Big Apple’s next mayor.  

3. A Very, Very Bad Night for Democrats

I woke up this morning to about 37 different postmortems confidently asserting that the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey herald doom for Democrats in the 2022 midterms. And you know what? They probably do. Not just because Terry McAuliffe’s defeat in Virginia and Gov. Phil Murphy’s possible upset in New Jersey signal a souring of the national mood, but because Democrats, being Democrats, are bound to learn the wrong lesson from it—i.e., they lost because they’re doing too much.

From this morning’s conduit of conventional wisdom, Punchbowl AM:

Numerous Democrats privately have told us they’re uneasy with the contours of the massive Build Better Act despite weeks of intra-party negotiations. They believe the party leadership is rushing through the final stages of these talks. Last night’s loss—or losses—won’t end Democrats’ quest to pass the massive reconciliation package, but it will certainly impact it. Pelosi and her leadership team were hoping for floor passage this week. However, Tuesday losses will give new heft to those voices that have been suggesting [that Speaker Pelosi] slow the agenda down and bring it back to the center.

The reconciliation bill has gone from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion. Every major provision polls better than every elected official in Washington, as do most of the ones that have been removed. There’s not much more center to go.

Let’s say this, though: You’ll hear moderates say today that the House needs to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill immediately. The House and Senate Democratic caucuses will turn into circular firing squads. That was already happening last night. Moderates will blame progressives, and vice versa. 

But know this -- Sen. Joe Manchin’s wing of the Democratic Party will seem much more crowded today. 

I have no doubt the reporting is correct, but the thinking behind it misses the point. Mac and Murphy suffered yesterday not because of anything they did but because Biden’s popularity is in the toilet. At least in Virginia, Republicans in rural areas blew away their turnout marks, overcoming solid turnout in the deep-blue NoVa, while clawing back enough of the suburban voters who had abandoned Trump for Biden last year.

So what happened? A lot of things. But here are, in my estimation, the most important:

  • Economy + inflation: Biden isn’t unpopular because he’s tried to pass popular legislation. He’s unpopular because economic growth slowed to a crawl while inflation rose in the third quarter thanks to the delta wave and supply-chain issues. Many economists expect this stuff to sort itself out soon, which should improve Biden’s standing—though by how much, who knows.

  • Congressional fecklessness: If you asked 100 random people what is in the infrastructure and reconciliation packages, chances are you’d getting 200 different answers. The problem for Biden isn’t a matter of left vs. center, except that the media has fixated on the price tag and largely accepted Republican framing about deficits. It’s that negotiations in Congress have produced an endless wave of stories about internecine Democratic battles and Dems’ failure to deliver; anytime the public sees how the legislative sausage gets made, it’s bad for the sausage makers. (See Obamacare, 2010.)

    • In that sense, while the Manchin Wing might grow today, Manchin and Sinema—Manchinema—are probably as responsible for yesterday’s debacle as anyone else.

    • If Democrats decide that the answer to is do less, they’re in for a bigger world of hurt next year than they’re already facing.

  • Culture war: Glenn Youngkin, the Republican in Virginia, made critical race theory the most important issue facing the commonwealth, and he won big among voters who said education was most important to them. It doesn’t matter if Democrats believe—not without reason—that this issue was invented by Fox News. Republicans all over the country are going to run on it next year, and Democrats had better figure out a rebuttal.

No matter what they do, Democrats are likely to lose Congress next year. Such is the curse of the party in power. It’s also an argument for making hay while the sun shines rather than twiddling your thumbs in hopes of self-preservation.