John Hood: Parity extends down the ballot

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 17, 2020

RALEIGH — In 2020, North Carolina Republicans and Democrats took their respective cases to the public. Each party asked voters to put them fully in charge of North Carolina government. 

The voters said, “No.”

Well, to be more precise, the vast majority of voters actually said, “Yes” to the pitch — each party’s base vote was about 46% of the electorate — but the remaining 8% chose to split their tickets. Some of them left individual races blank or went third-party, most notably in Senate race (4.4% voted for neither Thom Tillis nor Cal Cunningham). Others chose an assortment of Republicans and Democrats, depending on the office.

Longtime readers know that I like to look at outcomes beyond the headline races to get a better handle on the state’s political trajectory. Thanks to data gathered by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, and crunched by my colleague Anna Martina, I can now supplement what you’ve already heard about the elections with a closer look at county commissions.

Going into the 2020 cycle, 56 of North Carolina’s 100 counties were governed by Republicans. That was a high-water mark for the state GOP. For most of the 20th century, their local candidates had been irrelevant in all but a handful of Piedmont and mountain counties. As recently as 1976, 89 counties had Democratic boards.

Higher up on the ballot, the 1970s was the time that true two-party competition arrived in North Carolina. Republicans won ground-breaking gubernatorial and Senate races. It just took several cycles for the effect to filter down to counties. Republicans secured 20 county commissions in 1980, 33 in 1988, and 42 by the big red-wave election of 1994.

At that point, however, the GOP’s rise to political parity began to stall out. During the rest of the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, North Carolina Democrats enjoyed significant success in rebuilding their previous electoral majorities, with coalitions that included progressives, moderates and even rural voters with conservative leanings.

As recently as 2004, way more than 8% of voters split their tickets. President George W. Bush won reelection that year, with 56% of North Carolina’s vote, even as Democratic Gov. Mike Easley won reelection with, yep, 56% of the vote.

Those days are past, however. During the first midterm of President Barack Obama’s tenure, state Republicans blasted through their previous blue ceiling. They didn’t just win congressional seats and take over both chambers of the General Assembly in 2010. They also won 49 county commissions. Over the next four cycles, the GOP became the majority party in North Carolina county government.

So what happened in 2020? The trend continued. The number of Republican-controlled boards jumped from 56 to 61.

A decisive outcome? Not so fast. While each has its own government and political climate, counties differ widely in population. Even as Republicans have been winning more and more local offices in rural and suburban counties, they’ve been losing ground in urban ones.

It wasn’t that long ago that the most populous one, Wake County, had a Republican county commission. Not long before that, Mecklenburg’s board was also up for grabs. Not anymore. While a few high-population counties still have GOP boards, the party lost its majority this year in the county with the third-highest population, Guilford.

As a result, while 61 of the state’s 100 counties now have Republican governments, approximately 51% of North Carolinians live in counties with Democratic governments. Before the 2020 election, most North Carolinians lived in GOP-run counties.

Looking at these county trends brings the state’s overall political picture into sharper focus. Democrats used to be competitive in much of rural and small-town North Carolina. They are less so today. On the other hand, when Republicans first became a competitive force in state politics, much of their strength was found in the suburbs of Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, and other metros. That strength has ebbed.

The net effect? We are a closely divided state — which is evident all the way down the ballot.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.