North Carolina’s county races turn on governance

By John Hood

Raleigh, NC – As the fall homestretch of the 2020 election approaches, you’re probably not spending much time considering the implications of county commission races in North Carolina. But I am. I’m just that weird.

photo by Leintz Belony

Our state boasts some of nation’s most-watched electoral contests this year. North Carolina is a likely a must-win for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, for example. And the U.S. Senate seat being defended by Thom Tillis could end up tipping the partisan balance of that chamber.

The reason I’m paying attention to county-level races, as well, is that they provide useful insights about North Carolina’s recent political past — and our immediate political future.

As recently as 2008, 64 of North Carolina’s 100 counties had Democratic majorities on their boards of commissioners. But a decade later, in 2018, even as the GOP lost ground in legislative and judicial races, the share of Republican county commissions rose to 56 — the highest in state history.

As I look at key swing counties where this year’s competitive statewide and legislative races will be settled, I don’t see as many opportunities for partisan flips of commission control. In other words, even if most polls are accurately predicting a rough 2020 for Republicans, the party isn’t likely to lose much ground at the county level.

This fact reflects the down-ballot realignment that began in 1984, when Republicans went from 11 county commissions to 23, and then continued into the 1990s and 2000s. One factor is that in rural counties where conservative voters once split their tickets, voting Republican for federal offices and Democratic for state and local ones, they’ve become more reliably Republican (although Roy Cooper got some crucial split-ticket votes in rural communities to clinch his narrow victory in 2016).

But there are also suburban counties that flipped from Democratic to Republican not just because of changing behavior by natives but also due to an influx of GOP-leaning voters from Northeast and Midwestern states. These counties may have robust elections for county commission and other local offices, but the competition is in the spring, during Republican primaries, than during the general election.

The realignment hasn’t all been in one direction, however. Some places that now boast heavily Democratic boards of commissioners used to be more politically competitive — including the two most-populous counties, Mecklenburg and Wake.

To some extent, this also reflects immigration patterns. New arrivals in our urban counties tend to be disproportionately Democratic, which wasn’t necessarily true a generation or two ago. If you are a Republican or GOP-leaning independent moving to North Carolina to take a job in Charlotte, Raleigh, or Greensboro, you often end up buying your home in one of the neighboring red counties and commuting.

All of which is to say that while Republicans currently control 56% of the state’s county commissioners, GOP boards don’t govern 56% of the state’s population. To compete effectively for statewide office or control of the General Assembly over time, Republicans must regain their footing in major metropolitan areas — winning outer-ring suburbs convincingly while getting a large share of votes in the inner suburbs of urban counties.

To accomplish that, GOP candidates at all levels of government will have to talk about governance, not symbolism. They have to explain how their ideas, translated into actual public policy, will make families and communities better off in practical terms. That was the strategy GOP leaders pursued during the 1980s and 1990s in our state and the rest of the South, as I explained in my 2015 book Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.

“Washington issues are tremendously important and so fascinating,” observed then-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander at a 1986 party gathering. But if GOP candidates talk about them at the expense of specific ideas to “improve the schools, clean up the garbage, [and] fix the roads,” Democrats will win the down-ballot races, he said.

Politics has become more nationalized, admittedly. But when hiring county commissioners, voters are still looking for practical solutions to local concerns.

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.