North Carolina’s 2016 Council of State election: the unseen Republican wave

North Carolina Democrats are looking to 2020 with high hopes. With an incumbent Republican Senator on the ballot in Thom Tillis and President Donald Trump on the ticket, as well as a slew of newly-competitive state legislative and congressional seats, Democrats are primed to compete for a number of offices across the state in 2020. Most importantly, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper remains a favorite to hold his office for a second and final term.

Despite their control of the Governor’s office, however, Democrats don’t actually have full control of North Carolina’s executive branch – six of the ten offices in North Carolina’s Council of State (comprising the governor, lieutenant governor, and eight other popularly-elected statewide offices), a rare split executive with some minor powers, are Republicans. But how did this happen, how did the votes play out, and how did Republicans take the council while losing the gubernatorial race? The answers are actually pretty simple.

In 2016, Republicans seized control of the Council of State away from Democrats for the first time since 1900, a monumental achievement in state politics. Across the ten races, Republicans garnered 23,347,698 votes (51.5%) compared to 21,978,395 (48.5%) for the Democrats; divided among the 10 races, this is an average margin of 136,930 votes per race. Despite the relatively close vote totals, only one Democrat secured a win with over 50.5% of the vote (Secretary of State Elaine Marshall with 52.3%); the other three Democratic victors (Governor Roy Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein, and Auditor Beth Wood) won with only 49%, 50.3%, and 50.07%, respectively. In other words, Republicans were only a relative handful of votes away from securing nine out of ten seats.

Another element of the map was how it reverted to the state norms to a degree; although it looks relatively similar to the national one, with only a few traces of ancestral Democratic rule in the east, the trends become apparent when you compare it to the Presidential results.

Donald Trump’s overperformances from the average statewide Republican come from a diverse range of areas. In the west, he overperformed throughout the far west and northwest (with the exception of Watauga, a college county), and in the east he overperformed throughout the ancestrally Democratic areas: the majority-black northeastern counties ranging from Vance to Bertie, the working class counties in the southeast ranging from Anson to Columbus, and the diverse inland counties from Sampson to Greene.

In comparison, the average statewide Republican performed dramatically better in every single urban county. Mecklenburg and Wake (ancestrally Republican areas that have since shifted blue with blue-trending suburbs) saw massive differences of over five percentage points, as did the entirety of the Piedmont Triad and Research Triangle regions. Interestingly, Trump also performed worse along the entire eastern coast of the state, with Brunswick and New Hanover being the most affected. Finally, Trump underperformed in some western Republican strongholds; the suburban Republican bastions of Cabarrus and Union were among the most severe, but even deep red Iredell and Gaston saw slight underperformances.

The most curious of the underperformances might be my home county of Catawba, a rock-ribbed Republican county which saw Trump underperform the average statewide Republican by 1.1%. Catawba is often cited by some experts as an example of a white-working class manufacturing area that Trump can appeal to, but Trump actually ran behind. This is unusual given how he ran ahead in the rest of the Hickory metro counties (Alexander, Burke, and Caldwell).

Finally, let’s look at the highest Republican vote-getters in each county:

The results here are quite interesting. Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry and Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler both won statewide by over 11%, so it’s no surprise they have the most counties. Troxler, a tobacco farmer, performed best in the east of the state and the Asheville area, while Berry did the best in the interior as well as along the coast and the Outer Banks.

Despite a 6.5% landslide win, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest only performed the best in one county, rural Alexander; in contrast, Dale Folwell, who won the Treasurer race by a smaller 5.5%, won the state’s three most western counties. Finally, despite his narrow loss, former Governor Pat McCrory ran ahead of all other Republicans in the many of the diverse eastern counties, including the ancestral Democratic stronghold of Robeson; this can likely be attributed to his successful hurricane relief measures as well as perhaps some social conservative support for HB2, the notorious “bathroom bill” that might have cost him re-election.

The results of 2016 show both positives and negatives for 2020. Democrats aren’t likely to hold up as well in the east this time, but Republicans might not hold in the urban areas as well. Additionally, some statewide officers like Cherie Berry are retiring and even Elaine Marshall might face her first real fight in decades. Regardless of how things go, 2020 will prove to be an important election in North Carolina’s history.

Eric Cunningham is the editor-in-chief of Elections Daily. He is a lifelong resident of North Carolina and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in Communication, Journalism; his work has appeared in The Federalist, The Appalachian, and Ordinary Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @decunningham2.

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