Split in two by the mouth of the Pamlico River, Beaufort County is a medium-sized county located in North Carolina’s Coastal Plain. The county was founded in 1705 as Pamptecough Precinct and received its current identity in 1712, making it one of the oldest in North Carolina. Beaufort County contains around 45,547 residents as of mid-2017, although the population has fallen slightly in recent years as some seek to move to the state’s metropolitan areas for economic gain. The county’s shipping industry is not as influential as it was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, although fishing and coastal tourism provide the area with substantial revenue. Cultural heritage is also a prominent source of economic activity in the county – small towns on both sides of the Pamlico River contain prominent cultural heritage sites, and the pirate Blackbeard is thought to have lived in and buried treasure in the area before his death.
Around a quarter of Beaufort County’s population is African American, a typical proportion for North Carolina’s coastal areas but lower than those of the inland Black Belt. Most of the county’s African American population can be found in the county seat and largest municipality of Washington, which is located directly north of the mouth of the Pamlico River. Smaller towns in the county north of the Pamlico River include Washington Park, Pantego, Belhaven, and Bath (the state’s oldest municipality), and towns south of the Pamlico River include Chocowinity and Aurora.
Politically, Beaufort County has historically represented the strongly Democratic heritage of eastern North Carolina – it voted Democratic in every presidential election from the end of Reconstruction to 1964. However, recent decades have seen the county experience a dramatic shift towards the GOP as conservative whites flee the Democratic Party, and it has voted Republican in every presidential election since supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in 1980. Beaufort County’s Republican trend mirrors those of other counties along North Carolina’s coast, most of which overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in 2016.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+12 (Likely Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+21 (Safe Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+23 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+25 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+25 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+23 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+26 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 60.75%
Hillary Clinton – 36.61%
Richard Burr – 60.60%
Deborah Ross – 35.72%
Pat McCrory – 61.42%
Roy Cooper – 37.23%
Beaufort County’s trend towards the Republican Party can also be seen in statewide elections – the last statewide Democrats to carry Beaufort County were Bev Perdue, Roy Cooper, and Elaine Marshall in 2008, and the county has since voted Republican in all statewide races. Today, Democratic support in Beaufort County is largely concentrated among African American voters in the Washington, with the three small, blue precincts in western Beaufort County on the maps above representing the city’s strong Democratic tendencies.
Democrats can also be competitive in some of the county’s rural areas – Deborah Ross won the northeastern precinct containing the small towns of Pantego and Belhaven, likely due to strong support among black voters combined with being less polarizing to white voters than either Clinton or Cooper. Most of the precincts south of the Pamlico River are also generally competitive, although the other precincts north of the river – including the predominantly white suburbs of Washington and the town of Washington Park – are solidly Republican.
On a local level, Democrats have remained somewhat competitive, currently holding two of the county commission’s seven at-large seats after losing their third in 2016. Republicans, in addition to holding five seats on the county commission, control all of Beaufort County’s congressional and legislative representation, with the county currently being represented by Congressman Walter Jones (CD-03), state Senator Bill Cook (SD-01), and state Representatives Michael Speciale (HD-03) and Beverly Boswell (HD-06). The new district map enacted for the 2018 elections places all of Beaufort County in the 79th House District, in which neither Speciale nor Boswell live.
Beaufort County’s support for Republicans has leveled out in recent years, with most conservative whites having already transitioned to voting for Republican candidates. Like most rural counties in eastern North Carolina, Democrats still maintain a voter registration edge in the county (40% of registered voters are Democrats and 33% are Republicans), although this is no longer reflected in the county’s voting record. Looking into the future, Beaufort County will likely stay solidly Republican as the black population decreases and white, conservative retirees continue to move into the area. Democrats in the county will need to promote continued high African American voter turnout in order to maintain their remaining influence in local government, although a much more profound ideological change will be necessary if they wish to regain support among a majority of the county’s voters.