An 11th-hour challenger for the N.C. Senate has emerged, ending speculation that Democrats had thrown in the towel on the seven-county district held by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin.
Bobby Kuppers, a career Navy man turned high school teacher from Macon County, made a surprise announcement this week that he will run against Davis.
Democrats were facing a void on the ballot, unable to find a candidate willing to take on the challenging dynamics of a state Senate campaign in the far west — going up against an entrenched Republican incumbent in a sprawling mountainous district with a history of high-dollar races.
But Kuppers thinks it’s doable.
“I wouldn’t be here if I thought it was hopeless. I am not running as a token resistance,” said Kuppers, a long-time assistant football coach at Franklin High. “I have never stepped onto the sideline of a football game thinking I was going to lose. I never sold my team short.”
Davis, however, believes his track-record of accomplishments during his eight years in the state senate will secure him another term.
“North Carolina is in better shape than it was in 2010,” Davis said.
Davis’ tenure in Raleigh has mirrored an era of Republican control in the General Assembly. The state faced staggering budget deficits and shortfalls when he first took office in 2010.
“I think my biggest accomplishment has been getting North Carolina’s fiscal house in order, and we are not done but we are well on our way,” Davis said. “I am very proud to be among the leadership that has made all these changes.”
However, Kuppers said the majority of rural Americans are fed up.
“We’ve had years of political warfare between the extremes of America’s two political parties,” said Kuppers, adding that people are tired of the paralysis it creates.
While Kuppers spent 25 years serving on submarines in the Navy, retiring with the rank of captain, he said it was his current role as a civics and U.S. history teacher at Franklin High that ultimately inspired him to run.
“As a civics’ teacher, you spend a lot of time teaching your students how it is supposed to be. And it bothers you when it is not happening in Raleigh or Washington the way it should be happening,” Kuppers said. “I think we need to get to the type of governing our framers envisioned and do what’s right for everybody.”
Kuppers, like Davis, is a former Macon County commissioner. The two actually overlapped on the county board of commissioners there for two years. Both said they liked and respected each other, even if their politics didn’t always align.
“When he and I disagreed, it precipitated a re-evaluation of my position to make sure I wasn’t missing something,” Davis said. “I respect anybody who is willing to put themselves out there.”
Kuppers said the race is not about him versus Davis.
“This race is about the voters. Are the voters getting the kind of government they deserve in Raleigh?” Kuppers said. “As the race goes on, the differences between us will become crystal clear from a policy standpoint.”
Davis said tax reform and regulatory reform ushered in by his party has made North Carolina one of the most business-friendly states in the nation, citing a long-list of accolades according to economic measuring sticks.
“That’s a pretty doggone good record,” Davis said. “We put policies in place to make our state very attractive for business, and unless business is prospering we don’t have tax revenue to support the legitimate functions of government.”
While Davis touts Republican tax cuts as stimulating the economy, Kuppers said those tax breaks were weighted toward the wealthy and squeezed the middle-class.
Kuppers said his top issues are health care, public education and economic equality.
“The once-proud North Carolina education system has been eroded,” Kuppers said.
Davis countered that Republicans have not cut the state education budget as they’re so commonly accused of doing, and they raised salaries for starting teachers, to boot.
The N.C. Senate seat spans the seven western most counties, from Haywood west. The vast territory is a daunting one for name recognition, and Kuppers realizes it will be a challenge for him.
“For the average voter in Haywood, name recognition will be an issue. But I think with enough energy and boots-on-the-ground it can be done,” Kuppers said.
Kuppers said he will spend a lot of time in Haywood, which has more voters than any other county in the district.
Kuppers will give up his teaching job if he wins, but not before. That means he will be balancing the rigors of the campaign trail with his day job in the classroom.
“I am going to have to do a lot campaigning in the summer and on the weekends and in the evenings,” Kuppers said.
Kuppers said he is not independently wealthy. He won’t be bank rolling a six-figure campaign, nor does he expect to get support from deep-pocketed outside donors like Davis has attracted in past elections.
“I don’t have to out-raise Jim. I just have to raise enough to get done what we need to get done,” Kuppers said.
Kuppers said he would rather run a campaign with local donations and do without the dark money.
“Those who’re supposed to serve our interests in Washington and Raleigh stoke anger and resentment to disguise the protections and giveaways they guarantee their billionaire donors,” Kuppers said.
Meanwhile, Davis not only benefits from the typical name recognition of an incumbent, but has risen through the ranks of the state senate to a position of leadership. That seniority, coupled with being in the majority party, makes it easier for him to get things done for the mountains than it would be for Kuppers.
“The district is better served by having a majority party member representing them in Raleigh,” Davis said. “When you are member of the leadership it allows you to accomplish a lot more things for your district than not.”
Davis has made allies across party lines among local government officials back home by carrying their issues in the legislature. He supported the merger of Lake Junaluska with Waynesville, he helped get economic development incentives for Evergreen Packaging and scuttled a move by the state House that would have made the school board race in Haywood partisan despite.
“I am a person who defers to local government. It is in my DNA. I didn’t go to the Raleigh to tell local counties how to do their business,” Davis said.
Same song, different verse
The past two elections, Davis was challenged by Waynesville Democrat Jane Hipps. Hipps announced last fall she was bowing out and wouldn’t be making a third run. Democrats scrambled to find a candidate to run against Davis in her stead, but were still at a loss heading in the candidate sign-up period that opened last week.
Kuppers said his decision to run came about only recently.
Haywood County Democratic Party Chairman Myrna Campbell said Democrats are excited about Kuppers.
“He has been on my short list for several years,” Campbell said. “He fires up a crowd as good or better than anyone I have ever seen.”
Hipps lost by 5,000 votes when she ran in 2014, which gave Democrats hope she could build on her name recognition and pull out a win in 2016. But instead, the gap widened and she lost by 23,000 votes.
Democrats faired poorly in almost every race across the mountains in 2016, in part due to the Trump trickle-down effect. That could be neutralized in this mid-year election, however, according to Campbell.
“Many of them were first time voters, and they only came out to vote for Trump. They aren’t going to be there for this election,” Campbell said. “I also think there is some voter remorse for Trump.”
Davis doesn’t think his large margin of victory can be chalked up to a Trump tide, however.
Davis has said this election will be his last run. If he wins, he will be 74 when his term is up in 2020.
“It will be time to play,” Davis said, citing his retirement bucket list.
That would leave a wide-open race on the horizon for 2020. Even if Kuppers doesn’t win this time, he would presumably be in a front-runner position come 2020. But Kuppers said his motivation for running this year wasn’t merely a set up for 2020.
“Let’s win it in 2018 and we won’t have to worry about that,” Kuppers said.
Ted Carr, a Republican precinct chairman and member of the Haywood County Republican Party executive committee, said the party is well-pleased with Davis’ work and glad he has agreed to seek re-election.
“I am delighted that Jim Davis has agreed to run for his fifth term,” Carr said. “For example, the work that he has done across party lines supporting Sheriff Greg Christopher and Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed on drug legislation has been precedent setting. His demonstrated support to constituents is what we need to continue.”