Kenny Smith
Kenny Smith, the Republican candidate for Charlotte mayor, faces Democrat Vi Lyles for the spot. If Smith defeats Lyles in November, he would be working with a Democratic-controlled council. John D. Simmons

By Jim Morrill and Steve Harrison, The Charlotte Observer

Charlotte Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-1. They dominate local offices and drubbed GOP candidates last November.

Republicans couldn’t even field a full slate of city council candidates this year.

So why does the mayoral election seem to be so close?

A Spectrum News poll last month found that despite being outspent, Democrat Vi Lyles was essentially deadlocked with Republican Kenny Smith. Anecdotal evidence suggests the same.

“I would be surprised but not shocked (if Smith wins),” said Dan McCorkle, a Democratic strategist not involved in the campaign. “Mayor’s races have always been close. People hold that to a different standard.”

Three of Charlotte’s last four elections have, like this one, been for an open seat. Democrats won them all, but not by much. In 2015, Democrat Jennifer Roberts beat Republican Edwin Peacock with just 52 percent of the vote.

Election officials expect fewer than one in five Charlotte voters to turn out.

Lyles, 66, wants to replace Roberts, whom she upset in September’s primary.

Smith, 44, is trying to become the first Republican mayor since Pat McCrory left office in 2009. Both he and Lyles are on the city council.

Peacock called it “a very low-energy campaign publicly.”

“(There’s) not a lot of interest or issues driving the race,” he said.

UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig said the major events of the last two years – the city ordinance that sparked House Bill 2 and the protests that followed a police shooting – shadow the current race.

“Fallout from HB2 and the Keith Lamont Scott shooting are still there and probably work to the Republican’s advantage,” he said.

vi lyles kenny smith
Democrat Vi Lyles, left, answers a question as Republican Kenny Smith listens during a Charlotte mayoral debate last week. David T. Foster III

Money vs. demographics

Lyles has demographics on her side.

Women make up 53.5 percent of city voters. African-Americans, 37 percent. Nearly half the voters are Democrats. By noon Friday, women made up more than 57 percent of people who’d voted early.

But Smith has a financial edge.

He has raised more than $510,000, more than any candidate since Democrat Anthony Foxx in 2011. With no significant primary, Smith has been able to run ads for weeks. Lyles just started Wednesday. Since the end of August, he’s spent $287,000 on TV and digital ads, according to a recent report. Lyles spent about $11,000, mostly on radio.

“The vast difference in total fundraising and spending has enabled Kenny Smith to make this race competitive,” said GOP strategist Larry Shaheen.

Then there’s the outside help.

A group called Forward Charlotte has spent more than $21,000 on radio and digital ads attacking Lyles, according to reports. The North Carolina Values Coalition, a conservative group that backed House Bill 2, has made what it calls a substantial investment to produce digital ads and mailers on Smith’s behalf. By mid-day Friday, its online ad had 91,000 views.

The state Republican Party has spent as much as $100,000 on staff and mailings in the race, according to executive director Dallas Woodhouse.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee said last week it’s helping Lyles, though no amount has been reported. The Collective, a political action committee that supports progressive black candidates, also has helped, mostly by steering contributions to her through ActBlue, a progressive clearinghouse.

And the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, is knocking on doors and calling voters for Lyles, according to a spokesman.

Unlike Roberts, who has criticized President Donald Trump, Lyles has focused on local issues. So has Smith, who has made that a central theme of his campaign.

Both national parties want to claim the mayor of the state’s largest city, an official who would command media attention at home and away.

Turnout key

As in all off-year elections, turnout is key.

Elections officials predict a 17 percent turnout. But before Saturday’s close of early voting, this year’s turnout already had exceeded the final early tallies of the last two elections.

By Friday, 24,117 people had voted early. In 2013, when Democrat Patrick Cannon beat Peacock, a total of 22,320 people did. Just under 18,000 people did when Roberts beat Peacock in 2015.

Smith hopes Republicans turn out at a higher rate than Democrats, just like they did two years ago.

In 2015, 19.1 percent of Republicans countywide voted compared with 14.5 percent of Democrats and 11.5 percent of unaffiliated voters, according to an analysis by Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. That wasn’t enough to push Peacock over Roberts.

By Friday, 50 percent of early voters were Democrats; 25.5 percent Republicans and most of the rest unaffiliated.

Bitzer also found seven in 10 early voters so far this year have been Baby Boomers and members of the older “Silent Generation.” That’s far more than registration numbers would suggest.

The Spectrum Poll found that Lyles did better than Smith among both groups.

Steve Michael, Smith’s consultant, said the campaign is looking for voters not just by party but by issue. A sophisticated digital strategy allows them to target people based on their top concerns, such as toll roads or public safety. Michael said the campaign has 17 different online messages tailored to specific voters.

“Modern technology has allowed us to focus on specific voters with specific issues,” he said. “We can approach voters with specific messages.”

Republicans say Smith also has a strong get-out-the-vote effort. “No one has had a turnout system like he has,” Shaheen said.

On the other side, the Black Political Caucus has been mailing fliers supporting Lyles and other candidates to voters who had yet to cast a ballot. All the candidates it endorsed in the primary won. “The caucus needs to not let up,” said chair Colette Forrest.

McCorkle, the Democratic consultant, said he’s convinced Lyles will win. But like earlier mayoral races, it’s close.

“This makes November 7 old-fashioned exciting like it used to be,” he said.

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