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.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans rose steadily into competition for local offices. Then they blasted through their previous blue ceiling in 2010. They didn’t just win congressional seats and take over both chambers of the General Assembly.
They won 49 county commissions. Over the next four cycles, the GOP became the majority party in North Carolina county government.
The trend continued this year, as well. 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 (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.