Two men in black trench coats stood side by side to greet voters in front of Oak Grove Elementary School in Cary on Election Day. Most people shuffled past, trying to avoid the drizzle, but for Republican state Rep. Nelson Dollar and his Democratic challenger, Al Swanstrom, every vote at this conservative precinct mattered enough to ask for it in person.
"I'm impressed that they're out here," said Bill King, a telecommunications professional from Cary who said he voted a straight Republican ticket.
"I didn't expect to see candidates here," said Wake Technical Community College student Blaise Falkowski, who voted enthusiastically for the Democratic ticket.
At the end of the night, both candidates may have felt as though they were still standing in the rain. The race to represent Cary-Apex District 36 in the state House was still too close to call. At press time, Dollar led by 683 votes—about 1.6 percent of the total—but mail-in and provisional ballots had yet to be counted.
"I'm optimistic," Dollar said Nov. 5. "Unless something drastic changes, I don't think there are enough additional votes out there that will change the outcome." He attributed the closeness of the race to the turnout and enthusiasm for the Democratic presidential candidate that clearly helped to sweep Democrats into other state offices. Yet, he added, Wake County has become "a very competitive political environment," with more new unaffiliated voters this year.
Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Paul Stam held on to his seat in neighboring District 37, but Democratic challenger Ed Ridpath came a little closer to unseating him than when the two faced off in 2006. And in District 41, incumbent Rep. Ty Harrell won re-election by an even wider margin than two years ago, when he defeated the Republican incumbent to represent Cary-Morrisville.
The Obama effect certainly boosted Democratic turnout this year, but there's more going on in suburban Wake County. As more people move here from out of state, they're bringing a diversity of political views that's changing the county's political makeup—a major factor in turning North Carolina blue.
"When we talk about how Obama won statewide by doing so well with suburban independents, we're talking about places like western Wake County," says Tom Jensen of the Raleigh firm Public Policy Polling. "When you look at what Ty, Al and Ed did relative to four years ago, it's remarkable."
Four years ago, no Democrat bothered to challenge Dollar. But two years ago, Democrat Greer Beaty decided to take him on and came within 335 votes of winning.
Jensen said new voters here are more likely to split their tickets—to vote for Obama and McCrory, for instance—than select a straight-party slate. "They're the kind of people who think that change is needed both in Washington and in Raleigh," where state government has been dominated by Democrats, "which may be what keeps people like Swanstrom from getting over the top." Yet over time, he said, "Those races are just going to keep on getting more competitive and more Democratic, so Paul Stam and Nelson Dollar may have lived to die another day."
Outside the polling place at West Lake Middle School in Apex, where trailers cluttering the playground are a reminder of Wake County's persistent problem with crowded schools, Ridpath greeted voters, his last push after going door-to-door nearly every weekend since his 2006 defeat.
His efforts convinced Bambi Laird, a retired subcontractor from Fuquay-Varina. "He knocked on my door on one of the hottest days of the year," Laird said, "and I live on a dead-end street. That's not a lazy man there."
Lamott Cowan of Apex stopped to talk to Ridpath about his years in the Navy. Cowan is a Marine. "It's good that he's out here," Cowan said, but he voted Republican nonetheless.
In the end, Ridpath's grassroots campaign didn't win the day, but he closed the margin, winning 46 percent of the vote, compared to 43 percent in 2006.
Elsewhere in Wake County, state legislative seats did not change hands between the parties.
Josh Stein won his bid for Janet Cowell's N.C. Senate District 16 seat in Raleigh, beating moderate Republican John M. Alexander Jr., as Cowell sailed to victory as state treasurer.
Stein and his family were among dozens of Wake Democrats celebrating on the 17th floor of the downtown Raleigh Marriott on Election Night.
"It's a great night to be a Democrat," said Cary Town Council member Erv Portman as he spoke with Stein's sister Gerda and Swanstrom's wife. "With very few exceptions, this election shows that negative campaigning doesn't work, and to get elected, you've got to offer something that helps people, not just tear people down."
While there was little media attention on the legislative races, negative ads, robocalls and direct mailers did come into play. Poll-sitters working for Republican Eric Weaver, Rep. Jennifer Weiss' challenger in District 35, distributed a stunningly negative mailer that claimed Weiss granted a "get out of jail free" card to child molesters. Weiss won re-election by more than 30 percent.
And while the real estate lobby targeted Harrell over his lack of support for electing Wake County school board representatives at-large (he's never taken a position on the issue), Harrell also won by more than 8 percent in his run against Republican Apex Town Councilman Bryan Gossage, compared to his 3 percent margin of victory two years ago.
As Obama's win was announced, dozens of Wake Dems crowded into Harrell's hotel suite to watch results and speeches on a big-screen TV.
Harrell is African-American; his wife, Melanie, is white. Harrell's supporters, a vibrant mixture of young politicos, wept, prayed and smiled as they absorbed the historic moment in which the country elected a man born of black and white parents. The Harrells' sons, aged 9 and 7, emerged to lead everyone in a rendition of Queen's "We Will Rock You" just before McCain's concession speech.
"Unfortunately my parents aren't here to see this day," Harrell said in a toast. "My mother would always say to me, 'Son, you can be president.' We are standing at the door—well, actually, we are walking through the door."
Nefertiti Byrd, a 24-year-old student at Shaw University, wore a rhinestone tiara and red and white sash identifying her as Miss Black Raleigh USA as she watched the screen teary-eyed.
"I wish my grandfather were here," she said, "because he went through so much coming up." James Byrd was a railroad porter who served in an African-American unit in the U.S. Navy before being elected as a commissioner in Warren County. He died in 2002.
Obama's message of "coming together" resonates with Byrd because she has family members of many different races. "This reminds me of what Dr. [Martin Luther] King said, that we would get there, but he might not get there with us."
Democratic delegate George Chunn embraced Melanie Harrell and said, "This is the new America."