Editorial: Incumbency advantage helped Pierce, Caskey

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 5, 2020

Lee Withers, China Grove’s former mayor, found out the hard way on Tuesday night that it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to successfully challenge Republican incumbents in Rowan County when times are good.

The safest bet in the commissioners race was always that Republican incumbent Mike Caskey would be re-elected. Caskey is a level-headed, non-confrontational commissioner who is quieter than his peers on the board. And he takes pride in those traits. Because of Caskey’s non-controversial past, that commissioners are still relatively fresh off the biggest, single jobs announcement in county history and that the local economy is doing well, there was a relatively slim chance that Withers would knock Caskey off of the board.

Commissioner Craig Pierce was Withers’ best shot.

In some contests, the only way to oust an incumbent is by pointing out their mistakes and introducing a dose of negativity, and Withers didn’t make a serious attempt to make Pierce’s say-it-like-it-is personality an issue. Even if he had, Pierce’s way of doing business is preferable to a large swath of Republican primary voters. And Pierce could reasonably say to any voter, “You might not like the way I’ve done it, but look at all the things I have done.”

Withers ran a good campaign, spending thousands of dollars and getting support from across the county. And the campaign produced a better showing (more votes and a higher percentage of the total) than when Johnny Love was the lone challenger to Pierce and Caskey. But it simply wasn’t enough to beat the incumbents, both of whom spent relatively little. Caskey was out of the state for mandatory military training. Pierce judged that voters already knew who he was; so, he didn’t need to spend money.

So what’s next for Lee Withers? To start, he’s making sure the public knows that he’s got Republican values after Pierce responded to the election results by saying  Withers “wasn’t a Republican.”

“You have to be a Republican full-time, not just when it’s convenient,” Pierce told reporter Natalie Anderson in a story published Wednesday (“Voters stick with Caskey, Pierce”).

On his campaign Facebook page, Withers encouraged supporters and people who still have his yard signs to take them to a gun range and shoot them. Doing that was “to stick with one of my Republican values … in support of our Second Amendment.”

Tuesday’s election is likely not the last we’ll see of Withers on a ballot. He’s passionate about local government and carries a strong sense of community pride around with him. Whether it’s another shot at running for China Grove mayor, county commissioner or some other office, Withers will find it hard not to run again in the future.