Democrats Hope Rural Robeson County Goes Blue Again
President Trump won North Carolina by 3.6 percentage points in 2016. But the way he won it surprised longtime political observers, including surprising victories in Richmond, Bladen and Robeson counties, which had voted twice for Barack Obama.
Phillip Stevens, chair of the Robeson County Republican Party, was asked how long has Robeson has been a Democratic stronghold.
“Well, I used to say since the Civil War,” Stevens said. “But somebody pointed out to me, 'You just want to say the word 'forever.''”
Robeson did vote for Richard Nixon in 1972, but then gave the Jimmy Carter the candidate’s highest vote share of all 100 North Carolina counties four years later.
Robeson then voted for Democrats in the next nine presidential elections. But underneath, things were changing.
“So the Democratic registration was like 90% since the Civil War,” he said. “And today it’s like 57%.”
That led to the 2016 election when President Trump won with 51% of the vote.
“And by the way, these are the same people here,” Stevens said. “We haven’t had a lot of transition of people leaving and migrations and that sort of thing. These are the same conservative Democrats. It’s one of the last bastions of what you would call Blue Dog Democrats.”
Robeson is one of North Carolina’s poorest counties.
Textile plants are mostly gone. Food processing is one of the county’s biggest industries. The county had outbreaks at meat-packing plants early in the pandemic, and its per-capita rate of coronavirus cases is one of the highest in the state.
Downtown Lumberton is mostly empty, and the city’s commercial hub has moved west, with Interstate 95 arguably its main street. There is a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse — and there hasn’t been any serious discussion about taking it down.
When Stevens talks about Robeson having the “same people,” he’s talking about people like Tom Taylor, a county commissioner who owns a new-and-used furniture store that his father opened in 1956.
“Everybody I grew up with was a Democrat,” Taylor said. “In 1973, they went to the high school and registered us, and we registered Democrat. You hear nothing about Republican. All you hear is Democrat."
Taylor has remained a registered Democrat, but he first voted for a Republican president in 1980 for Ronald Reagan.
“But just like electronics has changed and technology has changed, so has our country,” he said.
He voted for Trump four years ago and will do so again.
In Lumberton, there are Trump signs throughout the city. In fact, it seems like there are far more yard signs for all candidates — local, state and national — than in Charlotte.
“I can tell you. I go around and the first thing that pops up is, ‘We’re voting for President Trump,’” Taylor said. “I hadn’t even seen any Biden signs until a couple of weeks ago. But that’s just the way the younger people’s looking. They’re voting Trump.”
Taylor represents aging white conservative Democrats who have been tilting toward Republicans for years.
But white people like Taylor are not a majority in Robeson County. Minorities are, with Black residents making up a quarter of the population and the Native American Lumbee tribe making up 40%. The Latino population is 9%.
The county manager is Lumbee, as is the district attorney.
Harvey Godwin, the tribal chair, says Lumbees historically voted for Democrats, but more started voting for Republicans 10 years ago. He believes they tipped the county to Trump.
“The Lumbee tribe is considered the swing tribe now,” said Godwin. He said the key is getting Native Americans engaged. “The African Americans turn out to vote at a little bit higher percentage than American Indians do.”
Stevens, the GOP chair, notes that whoever wins Robeson has to peel off voters from other racial and ethnic groups. In other words, President Trump didn’t win the county by appealing only to white voters.
Wixie Stephens is an African American who owns an insurance agency. She said some friends — and her sister — voted for Trump.
But she said they have regrets.
“I’ve had several people — in fact, several Republicans — who have come in and said, 'Hey, we’ve changed our parties,'” she said. “We can’t stand four more years of President Trump.”
She added: “You know, four years ago, President Trump painted a picture that he’s going to make America Great again. So everybody wants greatness.”
She voted for Hillary Clinton but thought a Trump presidency might be OK.
“I did wake up that morning and was very disappointed. But I felt like, hey, we can live with it. But you know, all of us have things in our background. But the way he disrespected women, that was not going to be presidential,” she said.
Tony Paylor owns a barbershop in a downtown building that used to be a department store. He’s an African American man — a demographic the Trump campaign has targeted.
He said he wishes the president had told the country about the dangers of the coronavirus sooner. But in the end, he said the virus was going to spread no matter what.
Paylor, a veteran, said he appreciates what Trump has done for the military.
“There’s a lot of allies now that I was really messing with Obama, but now they don’t say too much about Trump because he’s not going to play games with you,” Paylor said.
He doesn’t share Wixie Stephens’ disdain for the president but said he will likely support former Vice President Joe Biden.
“In the end, I’ll probably vote Democrat,” he said. “My fiancé is a Democrat, so I’ll probably vote Democrat.”
In the 2018 midterms, Robeson returned to form, giving losing Democratic 9th U.S. House District candidate Dan McCready 56% of the vote.
But the North Carolina State Board of Elections voted to hold a new election because of alleged mail ballot fraud — mostly in neighboring Bladen County but also in Robeson.
In that 2019 special election, Republicans bounced back, producing a result similar to President Trump’s surprise in 2016. McCready won the county, but with barely above 50%.
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