Despite underwhelming performances nationally, republicans had a largely successful night in North Carolina. Not only did they sweep all statewide offices up for grabs– including retiring Sen. Richard Burr’s U.S. Senate seat and two seats on the State Supreme Court– they also made gains in the General Assembly, even winning a supermajority in the senate, but falling just one short in the house. One of those legislative gains came from the rural, predominantly Native American Robeson County.
Republicans benefited from having an exceptional candidate in Jarrod Lowery, who handily defeated Democrat Charles Townsend in North Carolina’s 47th House District, held by retiring Democrat Charles Graham since 2011. Lowery, a member of the Lumbee Tribe whose résumé includes service in the Marine Corps and on the Lumbee Tribal Council, will become the first Native American Republican to serve in the General Assembly. Lowery’s election is historic in other ways, too: he’ll be the first Republican to represent District 47, and upon taking office, it will be the first time that Robeson County sends an all-Republican delegation to Raleigh.
In addition to being a strong candidate, Lowery’s twenty-two point victory was aided by rapid Republican momentum among Robeson County voters, especially Lumbee Native Americans. In 2012, the county delivered Barack Obama a victory margin of 17 points. Four years later, a Trump victory by four points, and in 2020, by 18 points. In Native American precincts, the trend is even more apparent. The precinct that voted for Donald Trump by the biggest margin in 2020 happens to be the second most Native American-heavy, with 95% of its residents identifying as Native American.
Lowery trounced Townsend in predominantly Native American precincts, winning by margins as high as seventy points (keep in mind, these same precincts voted for Barack Obama by similar margins in 2008 and 2012). Even in precincts that Democrats traditionally relied on, Lowery had strong showings. Townsend, a former Mayor and City Commissioner of Fairmont, only won his former constituency – which is nearly 50% African American and voted for Joe Biden won by sixteen points in 2020 – by a mere 17 votes.
In other races, Republicans performed exceedingly well. Republican Senate nominee Ted Budd ran about even with Donald Trump’s 2020 performance as well as a few points ahead of Sen. Thom Tillis’s margins the same year. One of Budd’s final “Get Out The Vote” rallies was held in Pembroke, where he reiterated his support of full federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe. Additionally, Republican State Senator Danny Britt cruised to re-election in his new district that includes all of Robeson, Hoke, and Scotland counties. In Robeson County, Britt always exceeds his previous margin of victory. This year, he won with 66 percent of the vote compared to 63 percent, 62 percent, and 52 percent in 2020, 2018, and 2016, respectively. Britt’s stellar performance is attributed to his popularity among White, Native American, and African American voters in the county. In most of the county, Britt is almost always the best-performing Republican on the ballot.
Robeson County is still much more friendly to democrats down ballot local races, given the Democratic Party’s historic dominance of local office. On Election Day, six county and/or district offices up for election went without a Republican candidate, including Sheriff and District Attorney. Of the four contested county elections, Republicans won only two of them, but Democrats were caught off guard when Republican candidates for County Commission seats 4 and 8, with very little money and limited support from the local party, came within striking distance of unseating their well-known, well-funded incumbent Democrat opponents. In Commission District 6, the Republican incumbent trounced his Democratic opposition 2-1.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of republican momentum down the ballot in Robeson County were the results for the County’s competitive District Court Judge race. Republican Leah Britt Lanier, an Assistant District Attorney, defeated Democrat MaryJane Richardson, also an Assistant District Attorney, by a 16-point margin. Britt Lanier and Richardson, the daughter of a well-known retired judge, had been campaigning for the seat for well over a year, with a consistent presence at street fairs, high school football games, holiday parades, and community events.
Britt Lanier’s election is significant in Robeson County: she will be Robeson County’s first Republican elected District Court Judge and the first republican elected to county-wide local office.
In an ancestral area like Robeson County, many voters are Republican in everything but their registration— they maintain their Democratic or unaffiliated label to have influence in Democratic primaries for county and local office, which have been controlled by Democrats for as long as they can remember. Republicans in Robeson County are banking on Britt Lanier’s victory to signal to those voters that Republicans can win local elections in Robeson County, and that their votes would be more influential in Republican primaries instead.
But it’s not just voters that Republicans believe received a message, but current democratic officeholders (some who represent districts that Donald Trump carried by double digits in 2020) as well, many of whom now realize that they likely won’t have the benefit of enjoying competition-free general election campaigns anymore.
Graham’s Bid for Congress
In addition to local races, observers in Robeson County were closely watching North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District. Republican U.S. Rep. David Rouzer was all-but guaranteed victory in this southeastern North Carolina district that voted for Donald Trump by a 13-point margin, but how he performed in Robeson County against his Democrat challenger, Lumbee State Rep. Charles Graham, would be a barometer for just how much Republican momentum among Lumbee voters had materialized.
Graham was first elected to the State House in 2010, but has been running for office in Robeson County since 2008. Graham’s 12-year stint in the State House had earned him household name status in the county, and his viral campaign announcement video highlighting the story of the Battle of Hayes Pond amassed six million views, garnered national headlines, and landed Graham prime-time interviews on cable news. Graham was also widely regarded as a conservative Democrat, often willing to vote with Republicans on cultural issues like abortion.
Graham made an aggressive play for Lumbee voters, consistently attempting to tie Rouzer to his former boss and ex-U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who notoriously opposed congressional efforts to grant full federal recognition to the Lumbee Tribe. Graham’s yard signs blanketed streets and intersections, and billboards attacking Rouzer were visible throughout the county. Graham attacked Rouzer on a wide range of issues, from Social Security and Medicaid to Rouzer’s objection to the 2020 election results.
Graham’s name recognition and campaign efforts were not enough to overcome the simmering discontent with Democrats among Lumbee voters. Despite overperforming nearly every other Democrat on the ballot, Graham still lost by around 1,300 votes (over five percentage points) in the county that had repeatedly elected him to the General Assembly since 2010 by substantial margins. Graham even struggled in precincts where Native Americans are the majority. In Prospect, where 95% of residents identify as Native American, Rouzer trounced Graham 62% to 38%. Of the 14 majority-Native American precincts in Robeson County, Graham carried just one of them.
Graham possibly suffered from his pivot away from his conservative brand. Almost immediately after launching his campaign, Graham issued an apology for his 2016 vote in favor of a controversial bill to require transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their biological sex. On social media, Graham repeatedly expressed support for President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda and for codifying abortion rights – both deeply unpopular in Robeson County and among socially conservative Lumbee voters. One quote from Graham’s social media in which he stated that “abortion is healthcare” and the issue was “not about saving babies” was seized on by Robeson County Republicans who attempted to portray Graham as “too far left” for the county’s socially conservative electorate through social media ads.
Despite a visit to Robeson County by Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison in May and an aggressive attempt by Graham to court Lumbee voters back into the party’s fold, support for Democrats in what once was a Democratic stronghold appears to have eroded to a point of no return, and this year’s results indicated that Republicans still have more room to grow. Years of outreach initiatives by the Republican Party, including the establishment of a Native American Community Center this year in Pembroke, seem to have paid off.