Well, the honest answer to that question is “probably not”, and in the grand scheme of things we should all be glad that’s likely not the case. With global crises like Ebola, ISIS, and a potentially sputtering world economy to put things in perspective, it is surely a good thing for the order of the cosmos that control of the upper chamber in the US Congress is not solely dependent on the outcome of what happens with 26 miles of interstate through the Lake Norman area.
As was mentioned here two weeks ago, events elsewhere in the country took this race off the critical path for the Republicans some time ago. Even though the race between Tillis and Hagan has tightened in the past two weeks, North Carolina now looks like it will be a bonus seat if the Republicans take over the Senate rather than the critical linchpin it was at the beginning of this election cycle.
None of that however changes the fact that the I77 HOT Lanes issue could still be critical in the outcome of the contest here in North Carolina. In a contest like this where every vote counts, any issue that sways a few thousand votes one way or the other could be the difference.
In the case of the HOT Lanes, the credit (or blame) for making that difference goes to the WidenI77 activist group. Led by Cornelius resident, Kurt Naas, along with several other dedicated volunteers, this group has been relentless in getting out their message about preventing tolls. Recently, they have been cranking up the volume. WidenI77.org signs have been popping up in North Mecklenburg at prominent intersections. One was seen recently floating near the Exit 30 causeway on Lake Norman during Friday afternoon rush hour¸ and this past Saturday one of those signs along with about two dozen protesters were outside of a Thom Tillis campaign event at the Republican “victory center” on Catawba Avenue in Cornelius.
Two dozen protesters may not sound like much, but if that is what you focused on then you would be missing the point. That small number of protesters held signs that said things like “honk if you oppose tolls”. Standing there for a few minutes, one got a real sense for how this issue could impact this election.
The noise from those horns and the number of drivers honking them said all you need to know.
Over a five minute period that Saturday evening a good 40% - 50% of passing cars honked. Some were a quick beep-beep. Others gave a long angry blast. Sometimes they came in flurries where every passing car laid on the horn. At other moments it would be just one in a group. There was also the person the scooter giving the protesters a fist pump as he rode by. The most entertaining had to be the man on his bicycle in full cycling regalia giving the protesters a thumbs up as he pedaled past.
Assuming that not everyone who opposes tolls bothered to honk, it was pretty clear in this incredibly unscientific poll that tolls are incredibly unpopular. That unpopularity could turn into consequences on election-day.
Mecklenburg and Iredell Counties have almost exactly 10% of the State’s registered Republicans. They also happen to be the two counties where residents will be the most familiar with the tolling issue. Anything that siphons off even a small percentage of those Republican votes from Thom Tillis could throw a monkey wrench into his campaign’s efforts to overtake Kay Hagan.
That siphon could come in the form of former North Mecklenburg legislator and conservative firebrand John Rhodes who is mounting a write-in campaign for the US Senate. He is a familiar name in conservative circles and has garnered a respectable level of support among local tea party activists. He is also opposed to tolls.
On the street last Saturday evening several of his supporters were seen holding those signs encouraging people to honk. If enough of those honks turn into votes, it could spell trouble for Team Tillis.
This post was originally published in the Herald Weekly