Gaither faces uphill challenge in runoff

Low voter turnout, swaying votes two key challenges
May. 08, 2014 @ 08:34 AM

To win a fourth term, District Attorney Jay Gaither now faces a steep uphill climb.

Gaither finished second in Tuesday's primary election and says he will call for a runoff election. But more than two-thirds of the voters picked a candidate who was sharply critical of Gaither's performance, so he may have to convince some to change their minds about him.

"I will aggressively set out to talk to voters," Gaither said. "I am confident the voters will make the right choice in a runoff. I respect their ability to make a good decision.

"I would ask voters to look at the big picture and my record of success in driving down crime rates. My record speaks for itself."

Gaither, who was first elected to office in 2002, finished with 7,390 votes, or 31.12 percent, according to complete but unofficial returns. David Learner, a lawyer in Burke County, received the most votes, 9,352, but that amounted to 39.38 percent of the overall vote in the race. To avoid a runoff, Learner needed 40 percent. The third-place candidate, Scott Reilly, a lawyer in Catawba County, finished with 7,008 votes, or 29.51 percent.

If Gaither calls for a runoff after the votes are certified next Tuesday, that vote will take place July 15.

Although Gaither would appear to face a difficult challenge to win a majority of votes, an unknown factor is who will turn out for an election with no other race on the ballot, said Adam Newmark, associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University.

"We don't know if the Reilly supporters will turn out, and how they will vote if they do," Newmark said. "We can expect a small number of registered voters to turn out in the runoff election. Thus, a relatively small number of people will decide who wins the race."

Even in a primary race, where voter turnout almost always is low -- 8,615, or 16.8 percent, of Caldwell County's 51,301 registered voters cast ballots Tuesday -- there usually are multiple races on the ballot, so people who may not be that interested in the district attorney's race still show up and may case a vote in it. That won't be the case in a runoff, Newmark said.

"Let's keep in mind that this is a DA race, and most people do not turn out (in a runoff election) because they are concerned about who wins this office in the absence of U.S. Senate or U.S. House races. If supporters for one of these two candidates (Learner and Gaither) was more likely motivated by one of the other races, they may see less of a need to come out to vote in the runoff election," he said.

Learner said the runoff election will feel like another primary election, but with one fewer candidate and many fewer voters. But he feels confident that the tide is with him.

"I think the general sentiment, justifiably, is 'anybody but Gaither,' based on his performance to date," Learner said. "The soft plea-bargaining, the violent criminals being put on probation. A fairly small percentage of Reilly voters will turn out and vote for Gaither, but I feel I can earn the trust and support of most who voted for Reilly.

"We're in this 100 percent, I'm committed to win it. We'll have a runoff, and I'll win by a larger margin."