Point of View

N.C. counties shift to red

March 14, 2013 



Following the 2010 election, we analyzed county commission seats in North Carolina and recorded a shift from almost completely Democratic in the early 1970s to a near even split between Republicans and Democrats.

The parity in 2010 was striking: 51 percent of commission seats were held by Democrats, 48 percent were held by Republicans and 2 percent were unaffiliated. Moreover, Democrats controlled the majority of seats in 50 commissions, and Republicans controlled the majority in 49. Jackson County was the outlier with two Republicans, two Democrats and an unaffiliated commission chair.

This analysis led to three primary conclusions:

• That county commission elections are an important signal for what partisan distribution is likely to look like in the future. Just as we might look to the quality of the players in the Atlanta Braves’ Class-A minor league team in Rome, Ga., as a sign of the quality of the major league team in 2020, today’s county commissioners will become future state legislators and members of the North Carolina congressional delegation.

• That county commissions are not just important as a sign of times to come but also are in a position to shape many of the policies that matter most in our lives. Local Republicans will now have an influence in decisions regarding planning and zoning, school quality and even trash pickup.

• That North Carolina politics were at a true crossroads – a purple state with what appeared to be genuine two-party competition.

Today, we stand behind our first two conclusions. The third, however, may need to be revisited in light of the 2012 election results. Although the media did a terrific job covering the outcome of the legislative, congressional, gubernatorial and, of course, presidential races, it is difficult if not impossible to find any reporting of the partisan distribution of North Carolina’s county commissions.

Fortunately, the folks at the N.C. Association of County Commissioners compile these data and make them available to the public. Based on a review of the association’s data, 2012 was another bad year for Democrats, who lost their long-held majority on the state’s county commissions.

Today, Democrats hold just 47 percent of the county commission seats and have majorities in only 46 percent of the state’s counties.

What is even more astonishing than Democrats’ no longer holding majorities is the size of the shift.

From 1972 to 2012, Democrats lost an average of about 1 percentage point of the total number of seats per year. However, the number of Democratic seats declined by 10 percentage points between 2008 and 2010 and by 4 percentage points between 2010 and 2012.

Put simply, more than one-third of the partisan shift in county commissions in North Carolina from 1974 to 2012 took place over the past four years.

It is, of course, not surprising that Republicans took over North Carolina’s county commissions in 2012. Most observers probably would have predicted something similar.

What is surprising, however, is the size of that shift. There is a healthy debate about whether North Carolina remains purple or has moved unequivocally to a red state. We have generally argued that it is more purple than red. That argument, however, is getting more difficult to make by the day.

Christopher Cooper is department head of political science and public affairs at

Western Carolina University. Gibbs Knotts is professor and chair of political science

at the College of Charleston.

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