Wake County voters swept out all four Republicans on the seven-member Board of County Commissioners in Tuesday’s election, but that result is not as stunning as it is a portrait of what may be increasingly predictable in a divided state, a top political observer says.
“I think it indicates that North Carolina is a very diverse state. The Democrats have areas of strength like in Wake County, where they picked up all of the county commissioner seats that they were running for, and then other areas of the state where Republicans ran stronger,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College’s Institute for Political Leadership.
“I think we’re seeing as years go by an increasing polarization in the state between urban and rural, or urban and suburban areas,” McLennan said.
“Wake County seems to be trending a little bit more Democratic, but in other areas of the state it may be trending a little bit more Republican. So I’m not at all surprised that there was relatively small overall net change in county commissioner seats,” McLennan said.
Todd McGee, a spokesman for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, said Wake County was one of four boards of county commissioners that flipped to Democratic majorities. The others were Chatham, Jackson and Lee. Jackson was a 2-2-1 neutral split in 2012.
Republicans picked up majorities in formerly Democratic-controlled boards in Dare and Montgomery counties, McGee said.
Statewide, Republicans now have majorities on 52 county commissions, Democrats control 47, and Perquimans is a 3-3 neutral split. Prior to Tuesday’s election, Republicans held majorities in 53 counties, Democrats in 45, and two were split.
There are now 310 Republicans serving as county commissioners statewide — the highest level in more than a century — 270 Democrats, and four unaffiliated, McGee said. Before the election there were 303 Republicans, 271 Democrats, and six unaffiliated.
Four new seats were created this year. Clay County went from three to five commissioners, and Stanly County went from five to seven.
Republicans first won a statewide majority of county commissions in 2012. Going into that election Democrats held a 50-49-1 edge.
“We keep charts on how many new commissioners there are each year, and if you look back at the charts it seems in line with recent years, not significantly higher or lower,” McGee said of results in this year’s midterms.
“Every election you would always have a few boards that would change over, so it’s not unusual” to see six boards change hands this year, McGee said. In some elections as many as 10 or 15 boards have changed political majorities.
“We don’t have the ability to analyze each race to figure out what’s going on with certain things. It just seems like it’s kind of a general statewide trend right now” to see political leadership fluctuate, McGee said.
“It’s a fascinating set of outcomes from an election that most people painted as a very simple picture of a Republican tide,” McLennan said. “If you drill down into the various counties across North Carolina you see it’s a little bit more complicated than that.”
“I think Wake County as an entire county is moving slightly left. In countywide elections Democrats do well,” and incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan won Wake County by a double-digit margin despite losing by 2 percentage points statewide to North Carolina Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, McLennan said.
But interestingly, he said, Republicans hold a number of Wake County’s General Assembly seats, so key pockets of “very Republican” influence remain.
McLennan said ordinarily a state would be considered a “red state,” or Republican, if, like North Carolina, Republicans controlled both legislative chambers, the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices, the state Supreme Court, 10 of 13 congressional seats, and a majority of county commissions.
“But as someone who looks at this a little bit more holistically, you compare a Wake County to Harnett County for example, and you see that even though geographically they’re relatively close, politically they’re pretty far apart,” McLennan said.
“There are red areas in the State of North Carolina, and there are blue areas in the State of North Carolina, and there are [purple] areas of North Carolina that are fairly evenly divided between red and blue. The colors are sort of a shorthand way, but an inaccurate way, of describing the diversity of North Carolina,” McLennan said.
A more accurate description of North Carolina’s overall politics would be center to right-of-center, he said, but that is changing as urban areas are expanding and becoming more progressive.
“We’re not San Francisco by any stretch of the imagination politically, but I don’t think characterizing North Carolinas as Texas is accurate either,” McLennan said.
One expected outgrowth of the growing differences between urban, suburban, and rural areas is governance complications.
“I think it creates some issues. We’ve seen in the last couple of legislative sessions the General Assembly attempt to take some power away from municipalities,” such as the Asheville’s control of its water system, and Charlotte’s control of its airport, McLennan said.
“I think that we’re going to see some more additional conflict between local areas and state government,” he said. One potential example, he said, would occur if the new Democratic majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners proposed a tax increase for rail transit and conservatives in the General Assembly intervened.
“I think that’s going to be the new normal in politics,” McLennan said. “There’s going to be intergovernmental conflict.”
Dan Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.