Elections in North Carolina are frequently close, and the 2020 elections were no exception. With hundreds of millions spent in advertising and dozens of competitive offices up, nearly 75% of North Carolina’s 7,359,798 registered voters turned in their ballots.
The result? A surprisingly strong night for Republicans, who held strong at the federal level while gaining seats in the General Assembly and Judiciary. Democrats, meanwhile, were left scratching their heads at what exactly went wrong.
After a disappointing 2016 performance, North Carolina Democrats seemed poised to win the Tar Heel State for the first time since 2008. Optimism again turned to disappointment, however, as the votes came in throughout the night. An early Biden lead whittled away and then was completely overtaken after the GOP bastions of Union County and Johnston County reported. By the night’s end, Trump held a clear lead.
Despite the relatively limited change in vote share, a lot of change happened under the surface. Only three counties changed hands from 2016. Biden performed better than Clinton in much of the state. He gained quite a bit in the mountains, especially in the area surrounding Asheville. Biden also gained in almost every county in the Charlotte metro area (especially Cabarrus County, which saw a double-digit swing) and surpassed 60% of the vote in Wake County. He even won New Hanover County, which is a traditional sign of a Republican loss.
However, Biden’s gains were stunted by declines in traditional Democratic bastions. Trump made major gains in southeastern North Carolina – especially Robeson County. Trump’s strong nationwide performance with rural minorities also made an appearance here. He flipped Scotland County red for the first time since 1984 and made substantial inroads in the majority-black counties of the northeast. Like I mentioned in a previous article, voting patterns in NC aren’t quite as racially polarized as in some other states. This election proved this pattern as Trump gained with rural white and black voters.
Like in the Presidential race, Democrats were marginally favored to win the Senate race. Thom Tillis had struggled in polling all year and had low favorability ratings. However, the turning point of this race proved to be the October surprise: that Cal Cunningham had engaged in an extramarital affair with the wife of a disabled combat veteran. While polls never quite shifted to favor Tillis, they did narrow, and Cunningham’s favorables took a major hit. By the closing week, the race looked like a real dead heat.
Both candidates ran behind their respective presidential candidates. However, Tillis’s margin of victory was higher than Trump’s. As shown in this map from J. Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Tillis outperformed Trump in almost every urban county. His margins were most pronounced in the Charlotte area as well as in urban Raleigh. He also bested Trump in the Elizabeth City area, home to the largest Coast Guard base in the country. He even managed to win Pasquotank County, which Trump failed to do. For his part, Cunningham, a native of Lexington, was able to make solid inroads into rural counties in western North Carolina like Wilkes, Yadkin, and Davidson. However, this wasn’t enough to overcome his poor urban showings. While both candidates ran behind the top of the ticket, Tillis defeated Cunningham by a larger margin than Trump defeated Biden by
House of Representatives
In addition to the two new safe House seats (NC02 and NC06), Democrats were optimistic they could claim the new NC08, as well as possibly NC09 and NC11. However, they fell short in all of them, and incumbent G.K. Butterfield only won the redrawn NC01 by around eight percentage points. This was a closer margin than NC09 and NC11 and leaves Democrats worried about their long-term odds in the rural seat.
In NC11, some Democrats expected a close race. However, the Republican, Madison Cawthorn, managed to win it by 12.6% – a larger margin than Trump did. In NC09, Republican Dan Bishop won by an 11-point margin, also higher than Trump. in NC08, Democrat Patricia Timmons-Goodson narrowly outran Biden but still lost by over six points.
Council of State
All ten Council of State offices were up in 2020, leaving major opportunities for both sides. Following a slew of close calls on both sides in 2016 and four retirements, the entire Council seemed due for a shakeup. However, ultimately the offices will have the exact same partisan balance as before: a 6-4 Republican majority.
As expected, Governor Roy Cooper defeated Republican Dan Forest in his bid for a second-term. However, the margin was far smaller than expected. If he hadn’t won an astonishing 72% of the over 1 million absentee-by-mail votes, this might have turned out differently. The only other Democratic winners were Attorney General Josh Stein, Auditor Beth Wood, and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.
Republicans also held all of their seats. In the Agriculture Commissioner race, Republican Steve Troxler easily defeated progressive Democrat Jenna Wadwsorth by around 8% – the largest statewide margin this cycle. Dale Folwell also easily dispatched Democrat Ronnie Chatterji in the Treasurer race. In a rematch for the Commissioner of Insurance race, Republican Mike Causey defeated NC Democratic Party chairman Wayne Goodwin. Mark Robinson handily won the closely-watched Lt. Governor race and will become North Carolina’s first African-American statewide officeholder.
In the Superintendent of Public Education race, Republican Catherine Truitt defeated Democrat Jen Mangrum. Finally, Republicans held the Commissioner of Labor’s office as Josh Dobson beat Jessica Holmes. These losses were particularly painful for Democrats, who sought more influence over labor laws and education. Despite the lack of any flipping offices, these races did show one thing: that North Carolina voters are increasingly polarized. No candidates won by double-digits, and only Troxler and Folwell won by more than 5%.
Three Supreme Court races and five Court of Appeals races were up in North Carolina this cycle. Prior to the election, Democrats held a 6-1 advantage in the Supreme Court and an 8-7 advantage on the Court of Appeals. However, pending final results in the Supreme Court Chief Justice race, Republicans appear poised for a clean sweep of all eight races.
At the time of writing, Paul Newby has a lead of over 400 votes in the Chief Justice race over incumbent Cheri Beasley, which would cut the Democratic advantage to 4-3. A recount is currently underway. Republicans also surpassed 51% in every Court of Appeals race. This will leave Republicans with a majority of at least 10-4; previously, Democrats held a 8-7 majority.
Most disappointing of all for Democrats were the General Assembly races. The races were held under new lines that reduced the Republican gerrymander and gave Democrats an advantage in urban areas. Democrats hoped to claim one or both chambers. Instead, they lost ground.
In the House, Republicans flipped six districts. In addition to an expected flip in Republican-trending HD66, they gained two Republican-leaning seats in western North Carolina (HD93 and HD119). On top of this, they made three flips in Democratic-trending urban areas. HD98 (north Mecklenburg) and HD37 (southern Wake) had seemingly strong incumbents, but both narrowly flipped. And in Democratic-leaning HD43 (Cumberland County), Republican Diane Wheatly upset Democrat Kimberly Hardy, a progressive who had herself unseated conservative Democrat Elmer Floyd in a primary.
Democrats did gain two House districts. Ricky Hurtado beat incumbent Stephen Ross in HD63 (Alamance) while Brian Farkas beat incumbent Perrin Jones in HD09 (Pitt). Both seats had become more Democratic in redistricting. They also gained two Senate districts based in urban Wake (SD39) and Mecklenburg (SD18) counties but lost a seat in urban New Hanover (SD9).
The end result will be a 69-51 majority for Republicans (+4) in the House and a 28-22 majority in the Senate (-1). With their victory in the Lt. Governor race, Republicans also maintain a crucial tiebreaker in the event of a tied Senate. By having a majority in both houses, Republicans maintain a check on Cooper’s power as well as full authority in redistricting.