In November, Robyn Pegram decided to make a change.
Pegram, a twenty-four-year-old Apex native, had been a Democrat, but the party's handling of Bernie Sanders's candidacy and the HB 2 aftermath left her feeling alienated. Pegram had always been interested in libertarianism—"I had always kind of prided myself on being a free thinker," she says—so she switched.
A few months later, Pegram made another big decision. She filed to run against state representative Nelson Dollar, the seven-term Republican whose district covers parts of suburban Wake County, because she "wanted to be a voice for the people" and believed his seat was winnable.
In 2016, Dollar barely eked out a victory over Democrat Jennifer Ferrell, and Democrats saw his seat as both vulnerable and vital to breaking the GOP's veto-proof supermajority in the House. But both Ferrell and Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria bowed out after a last-minute Supreme Court redistricting ruling that left them outside District 36. The only Democrat in the race now is Julie von Haefen, the president of the Wake County PTA chapter.
Enter Robyn Pegram.
"District 36 is growing and it's very flippable," she says. "At the very least, even if I don't win, I'm at a position to make a difference. To provide a voice to those that support my ideas, to provoke thought and offer solutions to the problems that we have today."
Pegram isn't the only local Libertarian with high hopes for 2018. She's one of a record number of Libertarian candidates running for office in Wake County, a trend party officials chalk up to voters' dissatisfaction with the two-party duopoly and a growing Libertarian presence across North Carolina. Statewide, the party is fielding six congressional candidates, twenty-one state House candidates, fifteen state Senate candidates, four sheriff candidates, and four county commissioner candidates.
In all, fifty Libertarian candidates are running for office in 2018, including sixteen in Wake County.
"The people of North Carolina deserve real choices in the voting booth, and we have an amazing group of people who have made the commitment to serve," wrote Libertarian Party of North Carolina chairwoman Susan Hogarth in an email announcing the party's "record-setting slate" of candidates. "In an environment dominated by political expediency, the growing energy in the LPNC tells us people want something more."
According to Wake County Libertarian Party chairman Dave Ulmer, the interest has been unprecedented—and some of its enthusiasts unexpected. Although most people associate the party with an older white-male crowd, Ulmer says the local chapter is also drawing younger and sometimes center-left members.
"There used to be this label that we only attract older white guys who don't want to pay their taxes," he says. "I'm excited because I have people that I would have, based on their demographics, considered possibly left or center-left coming to the Libertarian Party. It seems to have, in the last year and a half, struck a chord with people who might traditionally vote Democrat if there was no Libertarian on the ticket. It's not entirely expected."
Perhaps no one represents this dynamic better than Pegram. A lesbian, Pegram says she was disappointed by the Democrats' handling of HB 142, the HB 2 replacement that passed last year with the support of a number of North Carolina Democrats, including Governor Cooper. While the bill eliminated the controversial bathroom provision, it left in place a nearly four-year moratorium on local governments passing antidiscrimination laws.
"In a lot of ways, it can feel like when you're in the Democratic Party and you're in the LGBT community, sometimes you feel like a prop so that officials say one thing during campaign but do another once in office," Pegram says. "I just wanted to get away from that completely."
Like Ulmer, Pegram says she's seeing her fellow millennials express interest in Libertarian ideas, which helps her wave away concerns that she doesn't fit the party's traditional mold.
"I'm not too worried that I don't really fit what it usually looks like to be a Libertarian," she says. "I think there's a new wave coming. When I say new wave, I mean including more youth and women and LGBT. These people are becoming more politically awakened."
Still, it's hard to say how—and if—any of these trends will affect the upcoming elections. As of March 3, there were 4,621 registered Libertarians in Wake County, according to the State Board of Elections, compared to 4,526 in 2017. Pegram is optimistic that she can defeat Dollar, but she'll have to vastly outperform the Libertarian candidate who ran against him in 2016. That year, Nelson Dollar won District 36 with 49 percent of the vote; Brian Irving, the Libertarian, won 4 percent.
Any sort of Libertarian movement in North Carolina, in fact, will face an uphill climb. Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson received less than 3 percent of the vote in 2016; Sean Haugh, the Libertarian Senate candidate, garnered 3.6 percent.
But Ulmer and others are optimistic that even if none of their candidates are elected in 2018, the Libertarians will change the conversation—especially in Wake.
"Wake County is one of the most purple counties in the country in a purple state," Ulmer says. "So to say that our message and our voters won't have an impact is not really correct. We will have an impact. And I would argue that our participation and our messaging and who we will pull from will likely decide the outcome of those races. The two parties don't want to admit that. They don't want to acknowledge that we're existing. They are trying very hard to ignore what's happening in Wake County. Because once you begin to acknowledge you have a legitimate third party on the ballot competing, winning votes, and changing the conversation, you have to address that."