News: CJ Exclusives

Counties Featured Close, Telling Races

In the 2004 election cycle, county commissions across North Carolina featured some competitive and telling races. The results were mixed. Overall, Democrats improved their fortunes with a net gain in partisan control of three county commissions. Six counties went from Republican to Democratic majorities: Lenoir, Mecklenburg, Wayne, Rockingham, Watauga, and Yancey.

In two of those places, Mecklenburg and Watauga, well-financed and organized efforts to register new Democratic voters and get them out to the polls seem to have played a key role in upending Republican majorities, as reported in Charlotte’s Creative Loafing newspaper.

In three counties — Camden and Currituck in the northeastern part of the state, plus Cleveland in the west — Republicans seized commissions from the Democrats. Perhaps just as importantly, the GOP retained its edge in Wake County despite a spirited ground-level effort by Democrats and good results for statewide Democratic candidates in the county —possible significant indicators for the future.

Cleveland is the center of one of North Carolina’s most politically competitive regions (stretching from Shelby northwest toward Asheville). Camden and Currituck are on the fringe of another battleground region, Coastal Carolina, which mixes old-time eastern Democrats with transplants, retirees, and younger Republican-leaning voters who commute elsewhere to work.

The two parties split urban Carolina, yet another battleground, as Mecklenburg went Democratic and Wake went Republican. In Mecklenburg, county results reveal one reason why one of the traditional centers of North Carolina Republicanism, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, has become less predictable: burgeoning, attractive bedroom communities in Union, Cabarrus, Iredell, Lincoln, and Gaston counties appear to be acting as magnets attracting GOP-leaning voters who dislike Mecklenburg schools, housing prices, and tax rates. The suburbanizing counties are becoming more Republican as a result, Mecklenburg a little less so.

The party breakdown appears to be as follows: 56 county commissions with Democratic majorities, 42 Republican boards, and two that remain unresolved at this writing, according to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. It is likely that the two remaining counties will split, leaving a 57-43 Democratic majority. However, Republicans appear to have achieved a net gain of 12 county-commission seats this year (the boards are of varying sizes).

Not long ago the Democratic Party controlled the vast majority of county governments in North Carolina. GOP strength was confined to some mountain and Piedmont counties. Now, there is much more competition. Mecklenburg and Wake counties, in particular, have seen several changes in partisan control over the past decade. But Democrats are still better organized at the local level, recruit better candidates, and enjoy an inherent advantage in many communities.