Brunswick County is the southernmost in North Carolina, with the mouth of the Cape Fear River to its east, the Atlantic Ocean directly to its south, and the coastal beginning of the South Carolina border to its west. Recent years have seen the county’s beaches become a prime destination for wealthy retirees, and economic opportunity along the Cape Fear River has attracted a significant population commuting to the adjacent Wilmington. These forces have together led to immense growth in the county – Brunswick’s 47% growth rate from 2000 to 2010 was unparalleled in the Coastal Plains region, and an additional 31% increase can be expected from 2010 to 2020. As of mid-2017, Brunswick County has a population of 131,726, steadily approaching that of the neighboring New Hanover County (home to Wilmington).
However, simultaneous sources of growth along the beaches and the riverfront have also led to division – Brunswick County has historically been part of the Wilmington Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) due to shared economic resources along the Cape Fear River, but 2010 saw the county move to the Myrtle Beach MSA as growth in the beach communities neighboring South Carolina outpaced growth along the river. Local and statewide government officials of both parties in North Carolina have protested the move, but the federal Office of Management and Budget is unwilling to reverse its decision. Meanwhile, growth on both fronts has largely overshadowed the county’s historical focus on agriculture, with agricultural production in the interior plains of the county now providing only a small portion of its economic output.
Brunswick County is home to nineteen municipalities, more than any other county in the state. The largest municipality in the county is Leland, a town of nearly twenty thousand residents directly across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington. Downriver, the small city of Southport is a popular tourist attraction with its riverfront shops, movie industry, and annual Fourth of July festival, and the neighboring Bald Head Island serves as the southernmost point in North Carolina. Bald Head Island, encased by pristine Atlantic waters and the mouth of the Cape Fear River, is a popular attraction for nature lovers and vacationers, known for its sea turtle population and the historic Old Baldy lighthouse. The island is also one of only five incorporated villages in the state. Most of Brunswick’s remaining municipalities are beach towns along the Atlantic Coast, particularly near the county’s border with South Carolina. One of the few towns located on Brunswick’s interior plain is the county seat of Bolivia, which took the designation from Southport in 1975 due to its central location. However, Bolivia is also the smallest municipality in the county, home to a mere one hundred and fifty-nine residents.
Brunswick County has historically had a mixed voting record in presidential elections, voting for Democratic and Republican nominees in twelve elections each throughout the twentieth century (the county, along with most in eastern North Carolina, also voted for third-party segregationist George Wallace in 1968). Brunswick separated itself from the strong Democratic heritage of the Solid South due to the presence of affluent, Republican-voting residents along the Cape Fear River, even as Democrats in the neighboring New Hanover County asserted control in the violent Wilmington insurrection of 1898. However, the presence of rural Democratic voters in the interior portions of the county did balance the Republican leanings of those along the riverfront, making Brunswick a decent bellwether in national elections – it voted for the eventual winner in all but five presidential elections between 1900 and 2000.
Recent decades have seen Brunswick County shift significantly towards the Republican Party as the incoming wealthy, predominantly white retirees provide near-unanimous support to the GOP. The county’s interior plains have also become more Republican as rural, white conservatives move away from the Democratic Party, although Leland and other densely-populated areas adjacent to Wilmington are becoming more Democratic. The county last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 1992 (Clinton vs. Bush) and has since become solidly Republican on all levels, voting for GOP nominees in every federal and statewide election since at least 2008. Donald Trump’s margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election was the highest the county had given to a presidential nominee in decades.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+0 (Tossup)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+8 (Lean Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+8 (Lean Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+18 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+24 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+27 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+31 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 62.50%
Hillary Clinton – 34.06%
Richard Burr – 62.57%
Deborah Ross – 33.24%
Pat McCrory – 60.26%
Roy Cooper – 37.41%
Brunswick is now solidly Republican in statewide elections, having voted for the GOP nominee in every statewide race since at least 2008. Recent years have also seen Republicans gain a voter registration advantage in the county – as of early 2018, 37% of registered voters are Republican, 35% are Unaffiliated, and 27% are Democrats. This represents a stark change from voter registration statistics in early 2004, at which time 44% of registered voters were Democrats, 37% were Republicans, and only 19% were Unaffiliated. The proportion of Republicans in the county has remained virtually unchanged, while the proportion of Democrats has fallen dramatically as white, conservative voters leave the party and coastal retirees register as Unaffiliated with the full intention of voting straight-ticket Republican.
Republicans have also gained dominance in local government, currently controlling every seat on the county commission and school board. Democrats contest most local races, although they have never garnered over 40% of the vote in any since at least 2014. Brunswick’s strong support for the GOP is also present in its congressional and legislative representation – the county is currently represented by Congressman David Rouzer (CD-07), state Senator Bill Rabon (SD-08), and state Representative Frank Iler (HD-17), all Republicans. However, Leland and a few other precincts in Brunswick County are drawn into the Wilmington-centered state House district of Democratic Representative Deb Butler (HD-18), as was needed to maintain equal district population.
Within Brunswick County, Democrats’ only remaining stronghold is in and around Leland, which has become more Democratic in recent years with a larger and more diverse population of those commuting daily to Wilmington. Democrats have historically performed well in the rural, farm-based precincts above Leland and across the county’s interior areas, although these have trended Republican as African Americans leave the county and remaining white, conservative voters abandon their Democratic roots. Many of the county’s rural, interior precincts have recently voted Democratic in statewide elections and still do in local elections, although 2016 saw them turn red in historically polarizing conditions. Meanwhile, newer, wealthier residents make the county’s beach towns a bastion of Republican strength, becoming more and more of a boon to the local GOP by the year.
In future years, Brunswick County will likely continue to experience rapid population growth due to the continued influx of retirees moving to the county’s beach towns. The conservative leanings of most new residents mean that this growth will be welcomed by local Republicans, in stark contrast to the Democratic strength rising from growth in other parts of the state. Republicans will continue to be encouraged as local development strengthens their cause, while Democrats will likely struggle to find opportunities for victory well into the future.