North Carolina state Senate leader Phil Berger bristles at claims that Republicans have a lock on the General Assembly because of extreme gerrymandering. He says the real reason Democrats can’t win the majority is because they have a geography problem.
In a speech on the Senate floor in August, Berger noted that Democrats are concentrated in the state’s cities and are losing more of the rural counties. He noted, for instance, that while Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won a narrow victory in 2016, he won only 28 of the state’s 100 counties. Berger’s unsolicited advice to Democrats was to stop blaming gerrymandering and instead run candidates whose politics would be more appealing to rural voters.
Berger’s advice overlooks his own party’s geography problem: A party based primarily on the support of rural whites is running out of voters. In North Carolina and across the nation, cities are growing and rural populations are shrinking. With that change in demographics is coming a sharper divide in politics – blue cities vs. red rural counties. Judging by recent demographic and political trends, Republicans had better start figuring out how to run candidates who appeal to urban and suburban voters.
The online journal Facing South focused on the issue in its Nov. 17 report: “The deepening divide between the South’s blue cities and red states.” The report examined the split through the results of this month’s mayoral elections. It found that among the South’s 30 largest cities, there are 10 Republican mayors and 18 Democratic ones, with two unaffiliated. That balance contrasts sharply with the fact that Democrats control none of the South’s state’s legislatures and hold only three governorships.
Republicans may see the contrast as the Democrats being safely contained in dense urban districts. But this is not a static situation. The nation is becoming more diverse. The 2016 census shows that for the first time whites are now the minority in the U.S. population under age 10. Meanwhile, the population is shifting to cities. Between 2010 and 2016, non-metropolitan counties declined 0.4 percent while metro areas grew by 6 percent.
This is especially true in North Carolina. Mike Walden, an N.C. State University economist who studies North Carolina’s economy and demographic trends, wrote in a column this month:
“Four decades ago North Carolina was a rural state, with more people living in rural and small town areas than in urban areas and big cities. Today North Carolina is a majority urban state, and dominance of metropolitan regions will likely increase in future decades. Indeed, some of our big-city counties, like Wake (home of Raleigh) and Mecklenburg (home of Charlotte) could double in population between 2010 and 2050. In contrast, one-third of the state’s counties – mostly in rural regions – will lose population during those 40 years as jobs and workers are drawn to the bright lights of the big cities.”
Rural whites still have clout. They were the key to Donald Trump’s presidential win and they account for solid Republican control of most state legislatures. But this month’s elections in Virginia and elsewhere also made it clear that urban and suburban voters can assert political power that Republicans cannot dismiss as a contained urban vote.
Demographic changes are making this once moderate-to-conservative state more progressive. That showed in the recent mayoral elections, as Facing South noted. In Charlotte, the state’s largest city, Democrat Vi Lyles defeated a Republican City Council member by 18 points to become the city’s first African-American woman mayor. In Raleigh, Republican candidate Paul Fitts attracted only 15 percent of the vote in a three-way general election that included Mayor Nancy McFarlane, an unaffiliated candidate backed by some Democrats, and Democratic candidate Charles Francis. McFarlane won a fourth term in a runoff election.
In Fayetteville, Democrat Mitch Colvin ousted Republican Mayor Nat Robertson and in solidly Democratic Durham turned further left with the election of progressive Democrat Steve Schewel to succeed retiring Mayor Bill Bell.
The Republican-led legislature has tried to resist the progressive urban tide by using state power to overrule some local laws. That effort became disastrous when the legislature passed House Bill 2 to block a Charlotte ordinance expanding LGBT protections. Suppressing or forbidding certain local laws is within the legislature’s power, but ultimately will only further diminish Republicans’ appeal to urban voters.