Donald Trump’s visit to New Hanover County, specifically the Wilmington International Airport, highlights the importance of the “Port City” and its home county, one of two North Carolina counties that embraced Trump in 2016 and rejected him in 2020.
New Hanover has become one of the most purple counties in North Carolina, and the largest one. Winning or losing New Hanover County can be crucial to success or failure statewide.
New Hanover was one of just two counties that flipped from the Republican Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020.
Trump could have presented a focused and moderate message in New Hanover, a county he won and then lost. He should have stuck to a message that President Biden has destroyed the economy and that a vote for Republican Ted Budd for U.S. Senate is a vote to impose a restraining order on the Biden economic agenda of massive inflationary spending.
Instead, Trump’s message included:
- That he won the 2020 presidential election and that it was stolen from him through voter fraud and other irregularities.
- Calling for ending early in-person voting everywhere, including North Carolina. Early in-person voting has grown in popularity with North Carolina Republicans. In fact, Republicans overperformed expectations in early in-person voting in 2016 and 2020, helping Trump win N.C.
- Trump also railed against New York Attorney General Letitia James after James filed a civil lawsuit against him and his family business over allegations of fraud.
- He also provided an analysis of a recent New York Jets football game.
None of these topics are relevant to the 2022 U.S. Senate race between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican Ted Budd.
Will Trump’s visit help or hurt Budd in New Hanover? It is a question that could determine the U.S. Senate race.
Wilmington is nicknamed North Carolina’s “Port City” due to the critical Port of Wilmington. Wilmington has been a major player in the TV and film industry for the last three decades. From Stephen King’s 1984 film “Firestarter” to Dawson’s Creek, “One Tree Hill,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” and “Weekend at Bernie’s” are just a few of the more than 350 feature films and television series filmed in Wilmington, the largest production facility east of Hollywood.
Politics in New Hanover changed dramatically with The Wilmington insurrection of 1898. A riot carried out by white supremacists.
The coup was engineered by 2000 of the state’s white Southern Democrats, encouraged by the Raleigh News and Observer. A mob of around 500 white Democrats overthrew the legitimately biracial government in Wilmington, destroyed the property of black citizens, and killed an estimated 60-300 people.
After the riots and the imposition of Jim Crow, New Hanover went Democrat for president from 1900 to 1968, with the exception of 1928, when Herbert Hoover carried New Hanover, primarily due to anti-Catholic sentiment against Democratic nominee Al Smith.
John F. Kennedy won New Hanover in 1960 by 14.84%, but Democrats started losing ground. New Hanover voted for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 by 1.8%, before flipping to Richard Nixon in 1968. Between 1968 and 2016, only one Democrat, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976 would win the county until 2020, when it was narrowly carried by Joe Biden. Today, New Hanover is considered a bellwether-swing county partly due to its high population of elderly and African American voters and a solid left-leaning college student population.
In 2020, New Hanover County flipped Democratic after voting Republican in the previous five presidential elections. In total, 66,138 people in New Hanover voted for Biden, with 63,331 voting for Trump.
In New Hanover County, 50.2% of the people voted Democrat in the 2020 presidential election, 48.0% voted for the Republican Party, and the remaining 1.8% voted for another candidate.
Not only was New Hanover one of two counties that flipped from red to blue from 2016 to 2020, but it is also one of two North Carolina counties that was red in 2008, Obama’s successful run in North Carolina, and blue in 2020.
In 2020, New Hanover split across several major races. Democrat U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham bested Senator Thom Tillis by 287 votes or 0.22%.
While Republican U.S. Representative David Rouser won New Hanover 51% to 48%, the county also voted for Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper 53% to GOP nominee Dan Forest’s 45%.
New Hanover narrowly selected Republican Mark Robinson for Lt. Governor by less than one point. New Hanover also went GOP for agriculture and insurance commissioners, treasurer, and by just 320 votes, superintendent of public instruction.
New Hanover also went with Democrats for attorney general, labor commissioner, secretary of state, and auditor.
Even more intriguing, New Hanover issued a split decision for the three State Supreme Court races in 2020. Selecting two Democrats and one Republican.
According to the 2020 census, New Hanover’s population was 225,702. New Hanover’s population is dense, with the second-smallest county in land area in the state.
With a 2020 population of 115,955, the county seat of Wilmington is the eighth most populous city in the state.
New Hanover will once again see one of the most competitive state Senate elections in 2022. Republican incumbent Michael Lee handily won the New Hanover Senate seat in 2014 and 2016. Lee lost the race to former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson, a Democrat, by 231 votes in 2018. Lee reclaimed the seat in 2020 by 1,268 votes. New Hanover had the closest state Senate race in North Carolina in 2018 and 2020.
In 2008, John McCain and Sarah Palin won New Hanover 50% to 49% but lost the state to Barack Obama and Biden 49.7% to 49.38%.
Yet Democrat State Senator Kay Hagan crushed incumbent U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole 53% to 43% in a result that closely matched the statewide result.
In 2012, New Hanover went with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan for president, 51.5% to 47%.
2016 Pat McCrory New Hanover nightmare
If you want to see the importance of New Hanover, look to the political fortunes of former Charlotte Mayor and Gov. Pat McCrory.
In 2008, Pat McCrory lost the governor’s election in New Hanover County 49% to 46% in his first of three governor’s races. The New Hanover result once again closely followed the statewide race in Gov. Bev Perdue’s lone successful run for governor.
Four years later, McCrory won New Hanover 56% to 41%.
McCrory won the 2012 statewide race 54% to 43%.
McCrory’s 2012 margin was +15,475 votes in New Hanover.
Fast forward to 2016, McCrory lost New Hanover 51% to 46%. Gov. Roy Cooper secured the coastal county with a margin of +4,865.
Remember, McCrory only lost the 2016 governor’s race by 0.22 % statewide, a margin of 10,227 votes.
At the same time, Donald Trump won New Hanover in 2016 by 4,385 votes. Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr won by 7,159 votes.
McCrory’s underperformance in New Hanover in 2016 compared to other successful GOP candidates in the county almost equals his statewide shortfall.
While New Hanover county’s 2022 U.S. Senate election results won’t exactly match the statewide outcome, bet your bottom dollar it will come close. If I were Ted Budd or Cheri Beasley, I would become a familiar face in New Hanover between now and election day.