While much of the rest of the country seemed to glow red on Tuesday night, Wake County turned a darker shade of blue.
The capital county carried the torch for the losing campaign of U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, tallying more votes for her than the more populous Mecklenburg County.
And while the state legislature remained solidly Republican, Wake voters favored Democratic candidates by a 6-percentage-point margin.
Moreover, at the end of the night, Democrats here could point to a victory that stood the general national trend on its head: Voters had deposed four Republican Board of Commissioners incumbents, shifting the entire membership to Democrats and turning over control to the party.
It will be another month before the blue bloc is installed. Meanwhile, politicians and analysts are deciphering the magnitude of the win.
If you ask the victorious side, Tuesday night had been a long time coming.
Democratic candidates argued that Republicans weren’t giving enough funding or thought to schools and transit in a fast-growing metropolitan region.
Republicans have controlled the county’s governing board for 10 of the past 12 years, and have held their current majority since 2010.
Total Election Day votes in county board races, by party
What the numbers mean
“What the numbers last night told us is people are ready to start working together in a collaborative way to support the schools system,” said Caroline Sullivan, a Democratic board member who was not up for election.
On the other hand, Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, thinks that Wake County was the rare example where candidates benefited from their affiliation with a federal-level Democrat. While he acknowledged that local issues could have played a role, he thinks Hagan was a major factor.
“The Democrats win all four (commissioner races), and win all four fairly comfortably, in a way that’s exactly a facsimile of the U.S. Senate race in the county,” he said.
He was referring to the fact that the Democrats took each of the four county races by a comfortable average margin of 11 percentage points, while Hagan took a 13.4-percentage-point margin over Tillis in Wake County.
The longest-tenured of the Republicans – Paul Coble and Joe Bryan – fared a few points better but still lost decisively.
“This is an indicator that the county seems to be moving Democratic: It came down in a uniform way from the top of the ticket down to local concerns,” Taylor said.
The Democrats also benefited from the structure of the elections.
Each resident of Wake County may vote in all Board of Commissioners races. That means that the voting power of more heavily Republican geographic areas, such as southwestern Wake County, are diluted by the concentration of Democratic voters in the downtown core.
Another factor in play: the Republican Party is losing registered voters in Wake County. About 28 percent of voters now identify as Republican, compared with about 36 percent a decade ago.
The Democratic Party also has lost a few percentage points as more voters have switched to unaffiliated status.
The Republican candidates could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Donna Williams, head of the county GOP, said they had lost on their message.
“To me, the simple answer to this is that people believed in the message that the Democrats put forth, and they did not believe in the message we put forth,” she said.
She hadn’t analyzed the races enough to say whether Hagan-Tillis had an effect, or what might have gone differently, she said.
What it means
No matter how it happened, the Democratic wins may lead to a shift in the county’s handling of education and transit, among a slate of other responsibilities.
The party also has made gains on the Wake County school board in recent years, posting a seven-member majority, with one Republican and one unaffiliated member.
“I think that Wake County voters, they reacted to frustration from the lack of leadership and vision coming from the outgoing county commission leadership,” said Karen Rindge, director of the nonprofit advocacy group WakeUP Wake County.
Like Sullivan on the Board of Commissioners, Rindge expects the commissioners’ relationship with the school board to be among the first orders of business. The county board is in charge of funding schools, and Rindge expects the new commissioners to look for money both from the state legislature and in county coffers.
“They need to take a leadership role with the legislators and the General Assembly,” she said.
Transit issues, however, might continue on the same track for several months. While Democrats have criticized Republicans for their slow action on a regional transit plan, the board likely will wait for a report from a board-hired consultant.
In addition, under a state law passed this year, the general election of 2016 would be the earliest commissioners could hold a sales-tax referendum to pay for transit.
For now, the Democrats are settling into their new seat of power – and saying they want to play nice.
“Hopefully, what we’ll see from this new board is an ability and a willingness to work with other groups,” Sullivan said.