COOLEEMEE — The little store sits on the side of the two-lane road, on the edge of the two-light town, in the heart of the country.
A’s Furniture, the sign reads: Carpet in stock. A’s, the locals say, owned by the quiet guy with the hole in his cap. Or simply, these days, A’s. Owned by the guy campaigning for the U.S. Senate.
No one expected it from Aaron O’Neal. Least of all, him.
“I would much rather be sittin’ on the rock on the South Yadkin river, fishin’, just enjoyin’ a Sunday evening,” he says, a country twang to his voice. Then he grins.
O’Neal is a 43-year-old single guy, born and raised in Davie County, and one of a handful of conservative candidates with little or no political experience ready to enter an increasingly populated U.S. Senate race.
The field of challengers to Sen. Kay Hagan is already crowded – seven Republicans candidates have filed. Throw in a couple of write-in and third-party hopefuls, and the race bubbles over from competitive to chaotic.
On the other side, Will Stewart of Pender County, who owns a business fixing computers, has entered the race to challenge Hagan in the Democratic primary.
Long-shot candidates aren’t uncommon in any election year, but the higher-than-average number this time could be attributed to both Hagan’s perceived vulnerability and recent national trends, said David McLennan, a political analyst and professor at Peace University.
“Just look around the country the past two years, and you see incumbent senators losing in the primary, losing to someone who’s never run before,” McLennan said.
“Both Democrats and Republicans are saying this is going to be a very tough race. People are saying well, it could happen.”
Of the four candidates acknowledged as true long-shots, two are running for the Republican nomination, another as a third-party candidate and a fourth is hoping to gain enough signatures to sign onto the ballot as an independent.
Two have held political offices in the past – town council and school board – and two have no political background at all. All are conservative; all want to see something change. And all of them, independently, said they’ve put themselves forward because they think the American people want to see something change, too.
“If the American people want to do business as usual, it ain’t gonna be me,” said O’Neal, who’s refusing to accept any kind of donations for his campaign. His run will end Friday – the last day to file candidacy papers – if he’s not able to raise enough money to pay the $1,740 filing fee. He wanted to raise the money via furniture sales. Earlier this week, he declined to say how close he was.
Besides O’Neal, there’s Edward Kryn, a 63-year-old retired physician from Canada. Kryn moved to Clayton and became a U.S. citizen nearly two decades ago after “assaults on human dignity” – primarily, abortions – started being practiced in Canada. Kryn filed candidacy papers on Tuesday.
“The assault on religious freedoms in this country requires spokespeople,” Kryn said. “I offer myself as one of those spokespersons, if the party decides to see that I could be that individual.”
Then there’s David Waddell, a 39-year-old plumber running on the Constitution Party platform, who gained national notoriety in early January when he resigned from his Indian Trail town council seat – with a letter he penned in Klingon, the language of a fictional extraterrestrial humanoid warrier species featured in the “Star Trek” series.
“Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” Waddell said. “Whatever it is, something different must happen because we keep doing the same thing over and over.”
Finally, there’s Sherry Burrows, a 58-year-old mental health therapist from Youngsville, working to gather 150,000 signatures by June 1, so she can get her name on the ballot as an independent in the general election.
“A lot of Americans just need hope right now, and sometimes hope comes in the way of a fresh new start,” Burrows said.
“The American people are sick and tired of politics as usual. The American people, that’s my ace in the hole.”
Motivated by disappointment
With a crowded field, it’s hard for a candidate to break away from the pack.
State House speaker Thom Tillis leads the Republicans, pulling about 20 percent, according to recent poll by the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling. But he’s far from receiving the amount of support he needs if he wants to avoid a runoff, pollster Tom Jensen said.
In contrast, Kryn has 2 percent support.
Kryn is formal, tight-lipped. His self-proclaimed “frugal campaign” focuses largely on fixing education – he home-schooled his kids – and the Affordable Care Act, which he calls an assault on religious liberty, as it takes away an individual’s ability to follow his conscience.
An overwhelming dissatisfaction with the state of things is pulling these long-shot candidates away from their everyday lives and into politics, they say.
“I personally believe the Democrats are so far to the left the Constitution is on life support,” said Burrows, adding that she has qualms about the Republican leadership, too.
“We’re all disappointed with everybody,” O’Neal said.
“It’s kind of like the whole thing, ‘Don’t complain if you don’t vote.’ I stepped it up a little bit and said, ‘Well, what can I do?’ ”
For Waddell, it’s more about his campaign – currently in its “exploratory phase” – than the result. He’s realistic: His own predicted outcome features Tillis versus Hagan, “the two establishment darlings.” But he’s set his sights on what he can reach.
“My primary goal is to inspire people to think a little bit differently on a lot of the issues, and the only way I can do that is to be part of a campaign for a higher seat,” he said.
“If in the process I end up getting elected, that’s fine. … But if along the way I can inspire some people to think and challenge the two-party system and challenge the political system in general, I’ll feel like I’ve still won. I’ve still accomplished something worth doing.”
The risk in trying
But starting a campaign brings more risk than the simple prospect of losing.
“It’s a big sacrifice,” O’Neal said. “Anytime you take a stand one way or the other, you run the risk of offending a lot of people. To be quite honest with you, you run the risk of looking like a monkey.”
Burrows said as a conservative independent, she said she fears taking valuable votes from the Republican party. “Would I really get sliced and diced?”
Kryn, in a 50-minute interview, never showed worry or doubt. This is a real prospect to change the direction of the country, he said – a real opportunity to show North Carolinians that a more relatable candidate can take the helm.
“I think people are getting the message loud and clear,” he said, his voice grave.
“I think democracy is afoot.”