Cabarrus County is a large, exurban county located directly to the northeast of Charlotte. With a population of 205,473 residents as of mid-2017, Cabarrus is one of the fastest-growing counties in North Carolina, expected to grow by a total of 22% between 2010 and 2020. The growth of the Charlotte metropolitan area is directly responsible for the county’s population boom – the area is marked by wealthy commuter towns close to Charlotte, as well as small cities ideal for new families, white-collar workers, and retirees.
Formed in 1792 from a then-rural portion of Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County, Cabarrus was initially home to a predominantly agricultural economy. Cotton mills fueled local economic growth for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although recent decades have seen textile production falter as the county develops a more exurban character. Today, much of the population is clustered in wealthy, quickly-growing commuter towns outside Charlotte, with the town of Harrisburg containing nearly twenty thousand residents on the county’s western border. The central portion of the county is home to two large cities – Concord, which contains nearly ninety thousand residents and serves as the county seat, and Kannapolis, which contains nearly fifty thousand residents and is shared by Rowan County to the north. The rapid growth rate of these cities starkly contrasts that of the county’s rural eastern portion, which contains the small municipalities of Mount Pleasant and Midland.
Cabarrus County is notable as the home of the Reed Gold Mine (the first in the nation) as well as NASCAR’s Charlotte Motor Speedway. Robin Hayes, a former congressman who currently serves as chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, is a lifelong resident of the county.
Much like the rest of North Carolina’s southwestern Piedmont, Cabarrus was heavily Democratic in the late nineteenth century but began voting Republican in the early 1900s. The county flipped back to the Democrats in support of Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition but has since become solidly Republican, last supporting a Democratic presidential nominee in 1948 (Truman vs. Dewey vs. Thurmond). Today, Cabarrus’s wealthy, predominantly white commuter towns and small cities make it a boon for the GOP – it was the fourth-largest county in the state to vote for Donald Trump in 2016.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+25 (Safe Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+29 (Safe Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+33 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+31 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+26 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+24 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+22 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 57.69%
Hillary Clinton – 38.08%
Richard Burr – 58.16%
Deborah Ross – 37.10%
Pat McCrory – 56.55%
Roy Cooper – 40.82%
Cabarrus County is also solidly Republican in statewide elections, having voted for nearly every Republican nominee for statewide office in 2008, 2012, and 2016 (the lone exception was its support for then-Attorney General Roy Cooper in his 2008 reelection bid). Republicans have a 36%-31%-32% voter registration advantage over Democrats and Unaffiliated voters in the county, impressive considering Democratic dominance in voter registration statewide. Cabarrus also exhibits strong support for the GOP in local elections – all five members of the county’s Board of Commissioners are Republican, as are its District Attorney, Register of Deeds, and Clerk of Superior Court. Democrats do enjoy some support on the local level, as the county’s Sheriff is a Democrat who has seldom been opposed in his four bids for reelection. The county’s Board of Education, which covers all local public schools except for those in Kannapolis, currently has six Republicans and one Democrat, with the Democrat having defeated a Republican incumbent in the technically-nonpartisan 2016 race.
Cabarrus’s strongly Republican nature is further exhibited by its congressional and legislative representation. GOP Congressman Richard Hudson (CD-08) is a resident of the county and represents a district anchored by its large population, as does GOP state Senator Paul Newton (SD-36). The county is represented in the state House by Republicans Larry Pittman (HD-82), Linda Johnson (HD-83), and Carl Ford (HD-76), although redistricting will result in Ford’s district moving out of the county and a section of GOP state Representative Justin Burr’s district (HD-67) moving in.
Within Cabarrus, Republicans perform the best in the rural precincts east of Concord and the wealthy, densely-populated exurban precincts near Charlotte. Both of these areas are predominantly white and staunchly conservative, although one commuter-heavy exurban precinct did vote for Roy Cooper in 2016. Democrats, meanwhile, are strongest in the relatively diverse urban areas of Concord and Kannapolis, where Clinton, Ross, and Cooper each won multiple precincts. The suburbs around Concord and Kannapolis are less diverse than the urban areas and generally vote Republican, although some can be competitive.
However, Cabarrus County may not be a Republican stronghold indefinitely. Rapid economic and population growth in Concord, Kannapolis, and the county’s commuter towns are bringing greater diversity to the area, leading much of the county to slowly become more competitive in partisan elections. Shifts in the county’s Partisan Voter Index suggest that Cabarrus has been trending steadily Democratic since around the year 2000, and it was one of only thirteen counties statewide where Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance outpaced that of Barack Obama in 2012. Social and economic conservatives still dominate the county’s predominantly white exurban and rural areas, but Democrats will benefit from an increasingly well-educated, diverse population (particularly as the county becomes home to more African American, Asian American, and Latinx residents). Although Cabarrus is still solidly Republican by any measure, future decades may see the county become the first of North Carolina’s large, prosperous exurbs to shift into the Democratic column. One thing is certain – as Cabarrus County continues to experience rapid economic and population growth, its influence in North Carolina politics will grow as well.