On election night, focus will be beamed towards the presidential race. Florida and Pennsylvania are what major networks will focus on, and pundits will try to analyze the race by understanding non-college whites, women, and 65+ voters. Yet in North Carolina, a tense Senate race is brewing between incumbent Republican Senator Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. As election day comes closer, this politically divided state could be crucial in deciding who controls the Senate.
In recent polling, Cal Cunningham has earned a slight lead over Thom Tillis. North Carolina is one of the closest states in the country both nationally as well as in statewide races. In 2016, Donald Trump carried the state by less than 4 points. While Trump won the state, the same election saw Democrat Roy Cooper win the Governor’s race by around 10,000 votes. Other Democratic officeholders won the Attorney General, State Auditor, and Secretary of State seats.
In order to understand this race on a deeper level, it is imperative to look at the race by learning about the different cultural regions within North Carolina and how each region could end up voting in this election.
Western North Carolina
This region, dominated by the city of Asheville, its surrounding suburbs and exurbs, and rural towns near the NC-TN border, is an ancestrally Democratic district. It was the former bedrock of Democratic voter. As recently as 2012, Democrat Heath Shuler represented North Carolina’s 11th congressional district. Democrat Kay Hagan even won the currently drawn NC11 in her 2008 US Senate campaign against Elizabeth Dole.
However, in recent years, the district has moved away from Democrats. Republican Mark Meadows was able to capitalize on the unpopularity of Barack Obama to win NC11. Jackson County, a county won previously by Barack Obama, moved dramatically towards Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. No Democrat has won any area here outside of the college towns of Asheville (Buncombe) and Boone (Watauga).
This district still has voters who are willing to crossover and support Democratic candidates, especially compared on the local or statewide level in comparison to the national political scene. Roy Cooper won Jackson County and ran ahead of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Some mayors and sheriffs in this area are still Democrats.
However, Tillis is very likely to win this region in the Senate race. The deeper question is whether or not Tillis can actually improve on his 2014 margin in the region. Will Trump be able to carry him to larger margins than usual, or is the grim national outlook for Republicans spelling trouble in an area willing to show some support for Democrats?
On election night, it is important to focus on how Buncombe and Watauga are holding up. If Democrats are turning out extra voters in these college towns, the question becomes whether or not there are any leftover Democratic voters, particularly younger, that do not turn out for the Senate race. If there are any voter retention problems for Democrats, it can make all the difference. This would lead to narrowing margins and turnout in Boone and Watauga County.
Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte and its surrounding suburbs, has become a Democratic stronghold. Democrats expect to win this county with over 60% of the vote share each year. However, the region outside of the city and its surrounding counties are actually quite red. For example, Union County and Gastonia County are two of the greatest vote sinks for the Republican Party. In those counties, Republicans routinely run in the mid-60s here.
These traditionally Republican suburbs have spelled trouble for Democrats in tough races here previously. The highly active voter base in Gastonia and Cornelius helped Tillis win in 2014 even as he underperformed Mitt Romney’s margins in other smaller counties.
However, as more people have moved into the Charlotte area in recent years, population growth has slowly turned these suburbs into more Democratic-leaning than before. While these counties are expected to go for Republicans down the ballot, more and more suburban voters are identifying nationally with the Democratic Party agenda against the unpopular figure of Donald Trump.
For the Tillis campaign, college-educated women and their shift from 2016 will be vital. In addition, it will be important to see whether or not these voters split Biden-Tillis down the ballot. In 2016, there were 10% of Democrats statewide who supported Republican senator Richard Burr; if there are enough women who decide to give Tillis another shot, we could be in for a close race. However, if Trump’s unpopularity in polling amongst suburban women holds him down, Democrats could potentially excavate votes from an unlikely area.
The Rural Northeast
North Carolina’s rural northeastern corner, composed of counties such as Bertie, Martin, Northampton, and the mid-sized city of Greenville, is contained within the 1st Congressional District. It has long been strongly Democratic. This area is heavily African-American and can sometimes be overlooked in national politics. This is due to its relative lack of votes compared to Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte.
However, voter enthusiasm in this region is crucial for Democrats to run up margins and turn out voters in this region. For example, Pitt County, the majority of votes in this region, cast more votes for Roy Cooper than Hillary Clinton. In addition, Halifax County, another major vote sink, gave more votes and a higher margin to Cooper than Clinton. While there were some voters who voted in favor of Trump but not McCrory in Martin County, this seemed to have little negligible effect.
This shows that Democratic organizing in strongly Democratic areas can be extremely important in getting a narrow win. This could spell trouble for Tillis and his campaign if, as polls indicate, some conservatives are voting for Cunningham. This may seem negligible. However, the consistency in crossover support for Cunningham could make a difference in swingy Martin County and in boosting Cunningham over the finish line.
Ultimately, this race will come down to GOTV efforts on both sides and the swaying of narrow independents. Coalitions matter. As our politics change, both parties have to address potential cracks in their coalition that could have massive effects.