When Republican Mark Johnson won the office of Superintendent of Public Schools here in North Carolina back in 2016, no one was more surprised than Mark Johnson.
Stories circulated in political circles about Johnson exclaiming “I can’t believe I won!” to guests at a GOP dinner shortly after the election. Speaking to WRAL, he described his life in the days following the election as “chaos.” Media outlets described his win as an upset, a shocking ouster.  It seems very likely that Johnson was quite astonished by his new title of Superintendent-Elect. And he wasn’t alone.
Shortly after taking office in January 2017, WRAL reported that Johnson stated “it’ll be several months” before he revealed any specific plans for his tenure as superintendent. His adviser and transition committee chairman would not elaborate further. 
Months later, in July of that year, Department of Public Instruction (DPI) bigwigs were still complaining to the media that Johnson had not provided much insight into his agenda as head of their agency.
“(Johnson) has brought on an increasingly large number of what he calls his own employees, most of whom lack any experience in this area, to accomplish his agenda, which is still largely unknown,” remarked former DPI CFO Philip Price to WRAL in July 2017. 
While I’m tickled by the idea of Johnson ignoring these overpaid DPI dinguses (or is it dingi?), these are the actions of someone who has been caught off-guard, gobsmacked by a victory that they never anticipated. He should have had an agenda, ready to go, day one. And while Johnson’s intention was to never come across as overwhelmed, his extended delay in providing information about his goals and initiatives bolstered the narrative that he was a just a young attorney with scant experience thrust suddenly into a blinding spotlight – unqualified, unprepared, not ready for prime time.
Second most surprised was Dr. June Atkinson, the state’s long-term and, by all accounts, popular Democratic superintendent whose path to a re-election victory in 2016 seemed assured.
“It’s really hard for me to figure out what I want to say to (Johnson), because I don’t know where to start. I mean, he has taught two years. He’s never run an organization that has almost 900 people. He has never traveled to the 100 counties. He doesn’t have a background,” Atkinson told WRAL reporter Kelly Hinchcliffe in 2016, following her defeat. “So, it’s like, how do I teach or how do I help a person who is an infant in public education to become an adult overnight to be able to help public education in this state?” 
While her words were uncharacteristically bitter, Atkinson had a point. Her successor did indeed have a short resume in public education compared to her, by a lot. But her wording betrays how deeply unsettled she was over this loss. The words she chose convey a subtext – “Who the hell does this guy think he is? How could this happen to me?” – that exposes her feelings of surprise and bewilderment as her long tenure in office was cut off by some unknown n00b-teacher-turned-lawyer half her age. The nerve.
And really, I don’t blame her. She said those words only two weeks after the election. It must have been hard. The reason I include this quote is to show how surprised Atkinson was by this result. And she wasn’t alone – I don’t know of anyone who saw it coming.
As the dust settled, a shocked Atkinson exited the political scene, only to be joined a mere four years later by the upstart who upset her.
Why are we talking about this in 2022?
So, this is all well and good, but it happened six years ago. What’s the point in talking about it now?
Anyone who is familiar with North Carolina politics circa 2016 would certainly understand, at least to some extent, what a shock Johnson’s victory was over a popular and well-known incumbent like Atkinson. The reason we need to talk about it now is that another surprising political victory – that of President Trump – took all the air out of the room following the 2016 election, making proper discussion of this smaller upset all but impossible. It seems like this fascinating thing happened that we as North Carolinians, educators, or just political nerds never got a chance to fully digest. When this shocking upset was timed exactly with such a larger, even more shocking upset, this obscure election for an underrated statewide office would never get the attention it deserved. So now, in 2022, I think we have enough post-election context for blog post purposes. Also, with Atkinson and Johnson now warming the bench in North Carolina politics, it seems the timing is right for a post-mortem.
So, who is June Atkinson?
For those who are not familiar with the context, I will try to explain a little bit about Atkinson’s reputation vs. the unknown Johnson to try to shed light on what a truly stunning upset this was.
It was in 2016 that I worked for the North Carolina State Board of Education, which was controlled by Republicans, and had come to know Atkinson from the Board’s close working relationship with the Democratic superintendent. Prior to meeting her, I was already aware of her reputation as friendly and down-to-earth – and this seemed to be widespread opinion among both Democrats and Republicans around the State Capitol.
For what it’s worth, I found it to be true. One day in 2016, I drove June Atkinson in an aging Crown Victoria from Raleigh to Charlotte and back. Altogether we spent about seven hours on the road that day, just the two of us. She’s personable, easy-going, and fun to talk to. She cares a lot about education and knows her stuff. I found her political positions to be those of a typical 2000-2008 Democrat. So, by 2022 standards, she’s pretty moderate.
It seemed like most North Carolina Republicans I knew agreed with my general line of thinking regarding the Superintendent’s office under Atkinson, which went something like: Democrats are over-represented in the education field, so it’s not surprising they’d control the Superintendent’s office. If it’s assured that there will be a Democrat in that office, Atkinson is the best we’re going to get. Many Democrats in education are much more radical than her. She’s moderate and competent. So, we might as well try to work with Atkinson and not invest too much in her ouster – she keeps the office secure and prevents it from falling to someone more radical.
And while Atkinson managed to be at least tolerated among Republicans, she was – at least from an outsider’s point of view – admired and vigorously supported by her own party. If Atkinson’s name ever came up when I was in the unfortunate position of chatting with a group of Democrats, I knew they would say glowing things. And I didn’t entirely disagree. It could have been much worse than Atkinson.
Atkinson had been the Superintendent of Public Instruction since 2004, when she grasped a razor-thin victory against Republican Bill Fletcher, besting him 50.13% to 49.87%. Atkinson faced serious GOP challengers every four years in 2008, 2012, and 2016; she also fought off a robust Democratic primary challenge from Eddie Davis in 2008.  She even faced a significant non-electoral challenge to her power when fellow Democrat Gov. Bev Perdue appointed Bill Harrison as “CEO of Public Schools,” a move designed to curtail the elected superintendent’s power in favor of a State Board of Education appointee (by the way, Atkinson sued over this and won).  But – even though she faced consistent challenges – Atkinson’s margin of victory increased in every general election – until it didn’t.
So, what about Mark Johnson?
According to my very reputable research, Mark Johnson was 33 when he was elected as Superintendent of Public Instruction. This is, of course, quite young for a candidate for statewide office. It’s usually an uphill battle for someone this young to be elected to a local school board, much less to an office like Superintendent of Public Instruction. In fact, when he was elected, Johnson was the second-youngest elected state official in the United States.  Johnson, undeterred by the remote possibility of success, ran a difficult race and emerged triumphant – an accomplishment which certainly inspires young people with political aspirations across the country.
Johnson’s a smart guy. He got his law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, which is my undergrad alma mater, but which also enthusiastically and wholeheartedly rejected my application for its law school. Therefore, I recognize that getting into UNC Law takes some smarts and a higher LSAT score than mine, apparently. Johnson had also served two years on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, which – again – is no small achievement. Getting elected to anything is a big deal. So, Johnson – while clearly a bit inexperienced for the Superintendent role – was an up-and-comer who, by running for his first statewide office, was likely signaling his upward ambitions and “getting his name out there” more than hoping to become the real-life, actual Superintendent of North Carolina’s public schools and being forced to deal with the 1,000-foot-high volcano of poo-poo that is. He would have been crazy to seriously think he could defeat Atkinson – and I don’t think he’s crazy.
He could not believe he won. He never expected this. Besides, he was an unknown politician, a Republican vying for a seat traditionally held by Democrats, challenging a well-known, well-liked, long-term Democratic incumbent. But then – he won.
Election Night 2016
On election night 2016, I was doing what I usually do on election nights – sitting on my computer with a dual-monitor set-up, continually refreshing election result pages on multiple news outlets and election board websites – while eating classy hors d’oeuvres like jalapeno poppers and chicken wings, all the while alternating between local and national TV news coverage. Election night is my time to shine. I’m checking social media, I’m watching different TV channels, I’m refreshing the North Carolina State Board of Elections website so much that I’ll eventually get a cease and desist letter from their attorneys for DDoS-ing their site.
In other words, I get a little obsessive about election results. It’s one of my favorite times of any year. But a presidential election year like 2016? That’s like if Christmas only happened once every four years.
And even I wasn’t paying attention to the NC Superintendent race. I knew Atkinson would win. Done deal. And with a presidential upset victory occurring on the same night, along with multiple interesting congressional and legislative races to monitor, I didn’t even take notice of the Johnson victory. It wasn’t until the next day that I knew it had happened. And it was a squeaker, too – 50.60% to 49.40%.
As a Republican, I was thrilled to see a Republican superintendent be elected. It is always refreshing to see a Republican elected to an office like Superintendent, which has been a Democrat stronghold since the dawn of time. But more than that, I was thrilled to see someone who could act as an effective conservative counterweight to the generational, ongoing leftist domination in the Department of Public Instruction and the education profession more broadly. He was smart, young, and could be in office for a long period of time. I was optimistic that this was the emergence of someone who could make a lot of substantial, positive changes in North Carolina’s public education system.
But, alas, it is only six years later, and Johnson hasn’t been in office in almost a year and a half. Maybe he can still make a comeback, who knows, but it seems that – for now – he’s out to pasture.
So, there’s this guy named Trump
I know what you’re thinking already. Coattails. You’re thinking coattails. That’s why Johnson won in 2016. It’s all about Trump’s coattails.
Coattails are when a top-of-the-ticket candidate, usually a presidential candidate, attracts a large voter turn-out from members of his or her party. If that presidential candidate happens to be a Republican, this swell of supporters at the polls will probably vote for down-ballot Republicans too. This can create situations where an unlikely candidate wins seemingly just because he or she was a member of the winning presidential candidate’s party. These candidates are said to have won because of the president’s coattails, as if they grabbed onto his coat as he was passing through, then were carried on to an effortless victory.
And so we have it with Trump. Trump’s national victory in 2016 was unexpected, but his victory in North Carolina, while close, was anticipated. In the end, Trump bested Clinton by over 3.5% in North Carolina that year. But the question is – did Trump have coattails in North Carolina in 2016? And how long were those coattails?
The 2016 election in North Carolina is interesting in myriad ways, not only because of Trump and Johnson. North Carolina voted handily for Trump, but ousted its Republican governor, Pat McCrory. At the same time, it gladly re-elected its Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Forest. And so it was on down the ballot – a mix. Republican Buck Newton narrowly lost the open-seat attorney general race to Democrat Josh Stein, while the GOP’s Mike Causey brought down Democrat incumbent Wayne Goodwin to become insurance commissioner. While Republicans cheered their victories and declared it a red wave, Democrats had their own W’s to point to.
It also doesn’t look like voter turnout was significantly higher in North Carolina in 2016 (68.98%) than in 2012 (68.4%) when alleged Republican Mitt Romney barely carried the state. The number of votes cast in the NC Superintendent’s election were similar in 2016 (4,467,757) to what they were in 2012 (4,307,490), which is another signal that voter interest in this race was not significantly higher in 2016 than in the prior presidential election cycle. 
If Trump’s electoral boost couldn’t save McCrory, I doubt his coattails were lavish enough to raise the unknown Johnson to such a stunning election. With multiple Democrat victories in North Carolina statewide elections in 2016, I think we can safely say that Trump’s coattails in North Carolina were not the reason for Johnson’s election.
So, the question remains: why did Johnson win? If it wasn’t Trump’s coattails, then what was it?
When faced with a perplexing political question, I find it is often helpful to start looking at campaign finance reports. This can help make things a lot clearer. So, to help unravel our mystery about Johnson’s dramatic rise and Atkinson’s meteoric fall, let’s fire up the NC State Board of Elections website  and find some financial information on the two campaigns, particularly the last campaign finance report before the 2016 election (3rd Quarter 2016). In looking over these reports, here are the items I found most interesting:
Total Expenditures, 3rd Quarter 2016: $141,641.04 (Total This Election)
Total Expenditures, 3rd Quarter 2016: $117,612.34 (Total This Election)
So, not only did Johnson win, he spent less money than Atkinson – 21% less, which is considerable. Now let’s look at some fundraising numbers from the same quarter:
Contributions from Individuals: $97,707.93 (Total This Election)
PAC Contributions: $19,100 (Total This Election)
Total Receipts: $145,536.96 (Total This Election)
Contributions from Individuals: $141,966.88 (Total This Election)
PAC Contributions: $108,040.16 (Total This Election)
Total Receipts: $259,295.70 (Total This Election)
So… you see what I see there, right? Johnson not only raised significantly more from individuals than Atkinson, but PACs – well, PACs seemed to also prefer Johnson. Even so, it appears Johnson could have still won the election without the PAC money, as his total expenditures are still less than his total contributions from individuals.
And this didn’t all happen in the final quarter. Johnson’s 3rd quarter individual contributions were $41,219.46 – a little under a third of his total raised, which suggests he was raising money steadily through the three quarters of his campaign to that point. The story is similar with Atkinson – her fundraising numbers lagged Johnson’s throughout the campaign. It’s not like Johnson’s numbers suddenly jump in the final quarter, suggesting some sort of sudden spike in Johnson’s support or a dive in Atkinson’s. Instead, they were steady.
These numbers are a clear indication that Atkinson was in trouble long before election night. However, it doesn’t seem like fundraising alone is the reason for Johnson’s victory. He raised much more than Atkinson, but also spent far less. Johnson won spending less money than Atkinson raised. He won spending less than he got from individuals alone. It’s also worth noting that Atkinson received much more financial support from her party than Johnson did from his (but it still wasn’t much).
But why was Johnson raising so much more money than Atkinson? Why especially were individuals so much more inclined to donate to Johnson’s campaign over Atkinson’s? It seems that Johnson’s victory may have been driven the old-fashioned way, by appealing to the voters (and corporations), rather than by a weird electoral fluke brought on by a rowdy presidential election year. In other words, maybe he actually won this thing with no special advantage or power-up, just by appealing to voters and donors. Simple, but not easy.
The Bathroom Bill
Ah, yes. The infamous “bathroom bill.” I will briefly bring up a possible theory you may have as to why Johnson won the election. It was in 2016 when North Carolina passed HB 2 – a law that, among other things, required people to use the public restroom that corresponds with their biological gender. While the law kicked off a national controversy and created numerous problems for North Carolina, 38% of the state’s population was in support of the measure in April 2016.  Could it be that HB 2 created a groundswell of support for a Republican Superintendent candidate in 2016, particularly with the specific concerns that existed regarding school bathrooms and locker rooms?
No. At least, I don’t think so. For evidence of this, allow me to refer once again to GOP Gov. McCrory’s loss in 2016. McCrory signed HB 2 into law and was publicly blamed for it many times. And then he lost the election. I don’t think HB 2 is the sole reason McCrory lost, but I don’t think he lost despite it. If he received any support from it, it wasn’t enough to save him.
My exhaustive, highly scientific research does not yield any evidence of Johnson coming out in support of HB 2 or being strongly associated with it. That is 100% correct and I don’t think we need to discuss it any further. Anyway, it doesn’t seem like it played much of a role in his campaign and probably didn’t affect him much one way or the other.
With that said, I declare that the bathroom bill was not the reason for Johnson’s victory.
So why did Johnson win, dude? Are you going to tell me or what?
Soon. But first, I think it’s fair to say at this point that Johnson simply had more electoral support than Atkinson. Which is obvious since, you know, he won the election. But he also raised more money, both from individuals and PACs. And it doesn’t seem like he rode in on coattails, whether those of Trump or the bathroom bill.
So why did the voters want an outsider with a thin resume over a highly-experienced, well-respected education leader?
Again, someone’s name comes to mind – a certain President Trump.
While Trump’s victory in North Carolina did not influence Johnson’s in the numbers, it is certainly possible that Trump and Johnson won their elections for similar reasons.
Trump and Johnson both campaigned as outsiders who desired to reform a system using the skills and experience they gained outside of it. They saw a broken system and believed they could fix it, and convinced the voters that their life outside the system meant that rather than being stymied and overwhelmed by a system they only know from hearsay, they are instead unsullied by the system, unaffected by its charms, and able to defeat it because they’ve never been close enough to it to experience its irresistible seduction rays.
This speaks to a lot of voters. They see corruption brought on by bureaucrats staying in the job for decades, implementing nonsense, accountable to no-one. They even see the same thing from long-term elected officials, especially in Congress, who get re-elected for decades no matter what they do. And those things are real. But they blame the length of time the person has been in the system for their level of entrenchment, rather than the system itself that allowed it to happen. It’s an understandable position, but a misdirection of righteous anger.
But Trump and Johnson both, to some extent, represented this mindset: “I’m an outsider, but I’m smart. Let me try it. I can’t do worse than the folks doing it now.” In 2016, that was a really good stump speech.
Johnson was up against an incumbent who had spent over a decade in the office. In his situation, running as an outsider was the only rational option. He couldn’t run on experience, or his record. His only available pitch to voters was, “Atkinson is an entrenched educrat who will just give us the same old failed policies. Elect me, I have fresh ideas and will bring new energy to the position.”
And it worked.
So, to wrap up – I think Johnson deserves credit for taking on a smart campaign strategy at the right time. That’s why he won. In 2016, North Carolinians were in the mood for something different, specifically outsiders, and in part, that took the form of Trump and Johnson. Perhaps voters found Johnson’s youth hopeful and energetic rather than inept, and feeling adventurous, let him have a shot at the job. Even though he spent little, he also proved himself to be a gifted fundraiser, which obviously doesn’t hurt.
He didn’t win because of Trump, nor did he win because of PAC support (even though he got a ton of it, he didn’t spend it). He didn’t win because of the general popularity of Republicans. He won because he was new, fresh, and performed well on the campaign trail, both in terms of presentation and fundraising. And it was the right time for a candidate like him, and timing is everything in politics.
Johnson had the right message at the right moment, and like Trump, used it to propel himself into an impressively high position under unlikely circumstances. No coattails, no huge money spend. Just good old-fashioned, well-timed politics. And maybe a little PAC money.
It’s just too bad his actual term as superintendent didn’t go a little better, but that’s a topic for a different day.