As North Carolina Republicans Celebrate Wins, Their Gains Are No Surprise
Tuesday was a good day for Republicans in North Carolina. President Trump holds a narrow lead over Democrat Joe Biden. The party expanded its majority in the state House of Representatives, and Republicans won or are leading in several other races. But the state remains deeply divided.
The mood was celebratory at a press conference in Raleigh Wednesday morning.
“It was a great day to be a Republican here in North Carolina,” said North Carolina GOP Chair Michael Whatley. He ticked off a list of the party's successes — at least based on unofficial returns before final absentee and provisional ballots are counted.
“Very, very nice wins for us across the board on the congressional races," Whatley said. "When it comes to the Council of State, Mark Robinson winning the lieutenant governor's race by 178,000 votes, very historic and we're excited about that. Of course, Steve Troxler carrying his race for commissioner of agriculture (by) over 400,000 votes. Mike Causey with the commissioner of insurance by 190,000 votes.”
Of course, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper did win reelection over Republican and current Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. But beyond that, Republicans won six of the 10 seats on the Council of State, and they turned back Democrats' efforts to win control of the legislature, losing one seat in the state Senate but adding four in the House.
They now hold a 28- to 22-seat majority in the state Senate, and a 69- to 51-seat majority in the House.
Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis appears to have beaten back a challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham. And down the ballot, Republicans won all three state Supreme Court and all five Court of Appeals judgeships that were up for grabs. That leaves Democrats with a narrower 4 to 3 advantage on the Supreme Court. Whatley said that was the payoff for a year of hard work.
“At the party, we had created last year a judicial victory fund in order to raise money and support our races for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals," he said. "Last night, we saw the fruits of that."
Political junkies like to talk about North Carolina as a purple state, because of the intense competition between the two major parties. Democrats point to former President Barack Obama's win here in 2008 as a sign that the state can swing both ways.
But Duke University public policy professor Mac McCorkle said Wednesday it's no surprise that Trump was on the verge of winning North Carolina or that other statewide races went Republican. McCorkle says 2008 was an anomaly, when not only Obama won but Democrat Kay Hagan beat incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole for U.S. Senate.
“At the presidential level, you would go all the way back to 1976, after 2008, to find … another time when a Democratic presidential candidate won here,” McCorkle said.
McCorkle also disagreed with the conventional wisdom that higher turnouts in North Carolina favor Democrats. He said most of the party's successes in recent years have come during off-year elections.
Wilmington-based political analyst Josh Putnam runs the electoral tracking site FrontloadingHQ.com. He said the past few presidential election cycles have him rethinking the state's political color designation.
“North Carolina remains a purple state," he said. "I think it's just a purple state that leans in a red direction. So maybe magenta, if you will."
Some Counties Switch
This time around, several counties switched sides. New Hanover, including Wilmington, went for Trump in 2016 but flipped to Biden this time. So did Nash County.
But Scotland County shifted the other way, from blue to red. And Trump widened his share of the vote in several other nearby eastern North Carolina counties.
McCorkle pointed out that Trump got 58% of the vote in Robeson County, up from just 51% four years ago. He says that may be the result of pledging support for federal recognition for the area's Lumbee tribe.
“Robeson County has been one of those counties that switch back and forth and has been a national bellwether in the last three elections, being that it went for Obama twice," McCorkle said. "But it's now gone for Trump and went big for Trump. And that probably was a strong Lumbee Indian vote.”
Most counties haven't changed their stripes, though. The state's map remains a sea of Republican red with dots of Democratic blue in urban areas, said Davidson College professor Susan Roberts. She sees North Carolina staying purple.
"It will be a battleground state," Roberts said. "It is not a swing state. But how many more elections?"
Roberts said trends to watch are the growing rural-urban divide and the increasing red tint of suburbs like northern Mecklenburg County, where all but one precinct voted for Trump.
A spokesman for the state Democratic Party did not respond to requests for comment.
Jane Whitley of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party said no matter the statewide trend, she's proud of local results. That included a 67% vote for Joe Biden and a sweep of county commission seats.