North Carolina Democrats loosened the GOP grip on the General Assembly on Tuesday with help from an unlikely place — metropolitan suburbs that were once reliably Republican.
That was one of a confluence of factors that helped Democrats virtually sweep urban counties such as Mecklenburg and Wake and defeat GOP lawmakers in other urban counties.
Democrats broke Republican legislative “supermajorities” that diluted the power of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper by making it easy to override his vetoes.
Though some races could face recounts, Democrats unofficially picked up nine seats in the House and six in the Senate. Republicans still have majorities but not the three-fifths needed to override vetoes.
While Republicans held on to win the state’s three most-watched congressional contests, Democrats swept to convincing victories in the state’s urban centers.
▪ In Mecklenburg, Democrats defeated four GOP lawmakers — Sen. Jeff Tarte and Reps. John Bradford, Andy Dulin and Scott Stone. Sen. Dan Bishop and Rep. Bill Brawley could be the only Republicans left in the 17-member delegation. And Brawley, leading by just 52 votes, faces a possible recount.
Democrats also unseated three GOP county commissioners, sweeping the nine-member board.
▪ In Wake, Democrats flipped seats held by Republican Reps. Chris Malone of Wake Forest, John Adcock of Holly Springs and budget writer Nelson Dollar of Cary. In the Senate, Sam Searcy beat Republican Tamara Barringer of Cary. Sen. John Alexander, who narrowly beat Democrat Mack Paul, is now the lone Republican in the 16-member delegation.
The county’s transformation started in 2011, when Democrats took control of the Wake school board. It continued when they swept the county commissioners’ races in 2014 and chased Republicans off the Raleigh City Council in 2015.
▪ In Cumberland County, Democrat Kirk DeViere beat GOP Sen. Wesley Meredith. GOP Sen. Trudy Wade fell to Democrat Michael Garrett in Guilford County. And Democrat Harper Peterson edged GOP Sen. Michael Lee in New Hanover County.
In Mecklenburg, southeast Charlotte and the county’s northern suburbs have long been Republican territory. But the GOP lawmakers defeated Tuesday all came from those areas.
“In 2018 you saw the suburbs turn into two groups,” said John Hood, chairman of the board of the conservative John Locke Foundation. “Inner suburbs in Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford and New Hanover turned more Democratic.”
Political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College said suburbs in metropolitan counties have grown more diverse while those in surrounding counties remain more conservative. In the 9th District, for example, Democrat Dan McCready carried most of southeast Charlotte while apparent winner Mark Harris won heavily in suburban Union County.
“That classic southern wedge of Republicanism . . . has been shifting over several elections,” he said. “This year it was very clear . . . . that that is no longer a Republican stronghold.”
Other factors contributed.
Democrats ran strong and well-funded campaigns to “break the majority.” The party poured millions of dollars into urban legislative races. At least two Democratic legislative candidates — Rachel Hunt in Mecklenburg and Sam Searcy in Wake — raised more than $1 million. Hunt narrowly trails Brawley in House District 103. Searcy edged Barringer in Senate District 17.
And McCready’s multi-million dollar campaign helped turn out Democratic voters in several legislative races. And according to Hood, GOP messaging — ads about the “caravan” of Central American refugees for example — didn’t appeal to moderate suburban voters.
“There was a disconnect between what Republicans were emphasizing in their campaign messages and what those swing suburban voters wanted to hear,” he said.
In Wake County, Democrats have been winning with help from unaffiliated voters.
Between 2010 and 2018, Wake added more than 110,000 unaffiliated voters. Over the same period, it added about 30,000 registered Democrats and 11,000 registered Republicans. Democratic Wake Sheriff candidate Gerald Baker also benefited from the ACLU spending $100,000 on an ad campaign to raise awareness about Sheriff Donnie Harrison cooperating with ICE.
Virginia Reed, executive director of the Wake Democratic Party, said voters were turned off by the “petty games” GOP leaders used to weaken Cooper. Voters saw the six proposed constitutional amendments “blatant power grabs,” she said.
“That was the last straw for a lot of first-time voters and voters who split their ballots or switched entirely from red to blue,” Reed said.
Lawrence Shaheen, a Republican consultant from Charlotte, suspects Trump and other prominent firebrands have soured moderate voters that the party has historically won.
“We lost voters who had traditionally voted Republican because of the economy, but can’t stand the type of politics we’ve got at the moment,” Shaheen said. They may hold conservative views, “but they also want to feel good about who they vote for.”
The sharper partisan lines around metropolitan counties could exacerbate the existing urban-rural divide.
Rolin Mainuddin, a political science expert at N.C. Central University, says urban and rural areas are responding differently to identity politics and American’s changing demographics.
While urbanites tend to value multiculturalism, “white, rural people see cultural change as an intrusion into their way of life,” he said.
“It’s not just an economic and job issue, it’s a threat to their identity and existence as Americans,” Mainuddin said. “So if someone talks to them as if they matter, they’ll be attracted to them. Trump has a populist appeal.”
Some urban Democrats fear than GOP legislative leaders could be less likely to listen to them.
Pat Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat and county commissioner, said she’s concerned about the county losing clout in Raleigh with a delegation composed almost entirely of legislators from the minority party. “They’re not going to have the power the Republicans did,” she said. “How much will we be listened to now?”
Bishop, soon to be Mecklenburg’s lone GOP senator, said, “Having only one Republican Mecklenburg member in each chamber might facilitate communicating.”
“But to serve Charlotte’s interests adequately,” he added, “my Democratic delegation colleagues will have to set aside grandstanding and resume-building long enough to fashion policy that can gain majority support.”