Deep-red Johnston County, with an all-Republican board of county commissioners, has backed a Democrat for governor only twice in the last six elections, both more than a decade ago.
Yet Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Roy Cooper was in Clayton Wednesday morning, stumping for N.C. House candidate Rich Nixon and making the argument that while the county might not be completely in play, votes for Democrats are out there.
“This is a home area for me,” Cooper said. “I grew up in Eastern North Carolina and know the challenges we face in our rural economies. People cannot be happy with what’s happening over four years with Pat McCrory. People in Johnston County and other areas of the state will look past party and will look to the best interest of their kids and the future.”
The east and west sides of Johnston County might feel differently about how things have gone the past four years, with Clayton in the west seeing significant industrial and residential growth and communities in the east still searching for prosperity.
March’s primary results didn’t give a hint as to how November might play out. Cooper and McCrory both found their strongest precincts in and around fast-growing Clayton.
In recent election years, even a half-hour campaign stop in Johnston County would have been optimistic for Democratic candidates, but that wasn’t always the case. Former Gov. Jim Hunt attended Wednesday’s Clayton rally and said Eastern North Carolina was once a region the party counted on.
“I ran for governor back in the years when a Democrat carried Johnston County,” Hunt said. “I believe (Roy Cooper) is going to carry Johnston County. If he doesn’t quite carry it, he’s going to scare it to death.”
Johnston backed McCrory two to one in 2012 over Democrat Walter Dalton and also backed him in 2008 in a losing bid to former Gov. Bev Perdue. County voters narrowly picked Republican Patrick Ballentine in 2004 over Gov. Mike Easley, who won reelection and was the last Democrat to carry Johnston when he won in 2000. Johnston supported Hunt in 1996 but not in 1992.
The 25,000 vote gap between McCrory and Perdue in 2012 seemed to solidify Johnston as a dependably Republican county. But Johnston is also home to 33,000 unaffiliated voters. Former Democratic state senator Allen Wellons says many of the county’s new residents are independents, and he thinks this tumultuous election year is the kind of climate where a shake-up is possible.
“It’s a new day,” Wellons said. “The old rules do not apply anymore, where we’re looking at counties and expecting how they’ll vote. Everything is changing so fast. It used to be generations were 20 years, then 10; now it’s five.
“Johnston County has been proud to call itself conservative; well, a conservative wants to keep things the same. There are a lot of new people and young people who want things to get better.”
Johnston County Republican Party Chairman Patrick Harris sees a changing county too, but he said many of the newcomers to Johnston are coming to his party. In November, he thinks Johnston will continue its streak of backing Republicans in November.
“We’re certainly happy to have a strong Republican base in the county,” Harris said. “We’re making sure voters see that Republican candidates stand for the values of North Carolina. You never know until election day, but the county has been historically strong for Republicans.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson