Steve Troxler, North Carolina’s longtime Commissioner of Agriculture since the 2004 election, has long been one of the most popular statewide officers in North Carolina, but his first two races were among the closest the state has seen in years – and both races were deeply controversial.
Although these races are now mostly forgotten in North Carolina history, overlooked in favor of recent incidents like the recent illegal vote harvesting scheme in Bladen County in the 2018 NC-9 house race, it’s worth looking back to see two of the stranger races in state history..
The rise and fall of Meg Scott Phipps
2000 was a mixed bag for North Carolina Republicans; although Republican George W. Bush recorded a solid victory over Democrat Al Gore, only one Republican (Cherie Berry, who narrowly won the Commissioner of Labor election) won any of the state’s 10 Council of State races. Despite this, substantial inroads were made by the Republican party in several races, including the Commissioner of Agriculture election.
Democrat James Allen Graham, who had held the office since 1964, did not run for re-election, creating an open opportunity for both parties to seize a relatively minor statewide office. On the Republican side was Steve Troxler, a tobacco farmer from Guilford County, while Democrats opted to nominate Meg Scott Phipps, daughter of former governor Bob Scott. Relying heavily on her family name and a campaign budget twice that of Troxler, Phipps managed to eke out a 31,000 vote win – a margin of just over one percentage point – thanks to a strong performance in the state’s ancestrally Democratic east. Despite Bush’s successful inroads in this area, rural voters didn’t seem willing to ditch their party at the state level.
After her narrow victory, Phipps was almost immediately beset by scandal when she fired the current managers of the State Fair and replaced them with a different company. Coincidentally, the owners of this new company happened to be tied to her campaign. Even worse, it later come out that much of her television budget was illegally financed by the carnival industry, who then benefitted from her decisions as Agriculture Commissioner. This brazen pay-for-play scandal placed Phipps in sight of a federal investigation and led to claims that she had stolen the election from Troxler. Facing massive pressure from both parties and a looming indictment, Phipps resigned the office in disgrace in June 2003; in September, she was arrested by FBI agents to face federal charges. Phipps ultimately spent four years in federal prison for her crimes.
The 2004 election
In the meantime, a new Agriculture Commissioner had to be chosen to fill the office until the 2004 elections. Governor Mike Easley (a Democrat who would later face his own campaign finance scandal) appointed longtime department employee and fellow Democrat Britt Cobb to serve in the interim, and Cobb fairly quickly announced plans to run for a full term. On the Republican side, Troxler decided to run again, hoping that a fair fight would give him the office he was cheated of before.
A Massive Controversy
This race proved to be even tighter than before, but Troxler seemed to prevail by a minuscule margin of 2,283 votes. Although such a tight margin isn’t common, it’s not unheard of. What was unheard of was a bizarre electoral glitch: 4,530 votes in Carteret County were somehow deleted by a computer, vanishing forever into the ether, never to be seen or heard from again.
Although Troxler had won the remaining votes in the county by a 60%-40% margin, and Carteret leaned Republican in general, there were serious calls for a new election of some type given the incredibly tight nature of the race. The Cobb campaign demanded an entire new statewide special election be held; the Troxler campaign and Republicans felt this was ridiculous, as Carteret’s missing votes almost certainly would not have flipped the race.
In November 2004, the Democratic-controlled state Board of Elections voted to order a new election to be held in Carteret only, with the only eligible voters being those who either had lost their votes or hadn’t voted. Both the Cobb and Troxler campaigns found this idea to be bizarre, and it also lacked a real legal basis; North Carolina requires new elections to be held in “in the entire jurisdiction in which the original election was held”, which would seemingly preclude the idea of a Carteret-only election. Months of back-and-forth ensued between the Board of Elections, who wanted some type of a new election, and the courts, who ruled that no new elections could be held.
The End of An Era
Cobb would finally suggest another possibility: letting the Democratic-controlled legislature decide the election. This idea was ultimately rejected as well, as even the legislature was hesitant to get involved. Finally, with few options left on the table, Cobb conceded defeat in February 2005, allowing Troxler to claim the post he had almost certainly won.
Since his narrow victory in 2004, Agriculture Commissioner Troxler has become extremely popular; he has won the subsequent races by four, six, and 11 percentage points even as the state has become more competitive. However, if only a handful of votes had changed in 2004, or if the courts or legislature had decided differently, Troxler might not have ever had a shot again and Democrats might not have lost their hold on an office they had held for over 100 years.