As NC goes red, Wake County continues along its own blue path

Amid a Republican wave nationally and across the state, Democrats at nearly every level of government enjoyed more support in North Carolina’s capital county than in previous years.

Wake County not only flipped from supporting Gov. Pat McCrory in 2012 to backing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper this year, voters also approved a half-cent sales tax increase to fund new transit systems and reinstated a Democrat-run Board of Commissioners that raised the property tax rate each of the last two years.

Wake’s votes in the governor’s race may prove to be the most pivotal.

McCrory on Wednesday trailed Cooper by roughly 5,000 votes with about 9,000 ballots still uncounted. After carrying Wake by about 1,000 votes in 2012, McCrory this year trails Cooper by roughly 114,000 votes in the county.

If the results hold, Wake could potentially help North Carolina become the only state that supported a Republican president but elected a Democratic governor.

It’s no surprise that a county with 265,800 registered Democrats and only 188,900 Republicans favored Democratic candidates and issues. But political experts say McCrory may have fared better in Wake if he hadn’t supported House Bill 2, the state law that regulates public bathroom use by transgender people and forbids local governments from enacting protections for LGBT people.

Many, including the business and collegiate athletics communities, consider the law to be discriminatory toward the LGBT community. Forbes Magazine estimates North Carolina lost $600 million in economic investments as a result.

Voters didn’t elect or expect McCrory to be heavy-handed on social issues, said Mac McCorkle, an associate professor of the practice in public policy at Duke University.

In 2012, McCrory’s “strength as a politician was his identity as a modern, conservative metropolitan mayor,” McCorkle said. “It’s clear that because of HB2 and other issues, (McCrory) kicked away that identity.”

Each of North Carolina’s five largest counties – Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland – voted Democrat for president and governor, with Wake, Mecklenburg and Forsyth abandoning their previous support of McCrory.

It’s hard to tell which Wake precincts flipped from supporting McCrory to supporting Cooper. The Wake County Board of Elections groups results from previous elections by precincts. But it won’t group absentee, provisional and early voting ballots in the geographical precincts they belong until between Nov. 18 and Dec. 8, said Gary Sims, director of Wake’s board.

McCrory won 147 of Wake’s 202 precincts in 2012, but appears to have won only 80 precincts on Election Day.

While McCrory garnered more support than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Wake, preliminary results suggest that some Trump voters in Apex, Holly Springs, Wendell, northwest Raleigh and North Hills split their ballots for Cooper.

For instance, precinct 20-01 just southeast of Apex favored Cooper with 483 votes and Trump with 473. Those few precincts, though mostly small, show that voters could be upset by the fallout from HB2 but “drawn to Trump because of his issues on immigration and trade, or that they’re anti-establishment,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

“Trump showed last night that he had an ability to pull from voters who could presumably still be Democrats,” Taylor said. “They’re there, but they’re pretty rare.”

Democrats otherwise enjoyed success in the presidential race in Wake. Hillary Clinton received 298,000 votes in the county, which is 100,000 more than Donald Trump and 30,000 more than Barack Obama received in 2012. She also beat Trump in Wake by a wider margin than Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012.

Meanwhile, at the local level, Wake overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates for the second election in a row.

Democrats in 2014 gained control of all seven seats on the Wake Board of Commissioners. Since then, they’ve raised property taxes twice to boost funding for schools. They also put a half-cent sales tax referendum on the ballot to fund an expanded transit system.

Though the referendum garnered most of its support from Wake’s urban core, it passed. And Democrats Erv Portman and Greg Ford each defeated their Republican opponent by more than 50,000 votes.

“This is the Wake County populous saying yet again that they want the government to reinvest tax dollars in their roads, their transit system and things that make people want to live here,” said Brian Fitzsimmons, chair of the Wake Democratic Party.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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