Located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Carteret County epitomizes the geographic, demographic, and political trends of the state’s coastal region. Many of the county’s 70,260 residents are concentrated in the beach communities of Bogue Banks, a large, south-facing barrier island separated from the county’s mainland by Bogue Sound. The communities of Bogue Banks largely form the coastline of the Southern Outer Banks (SOBX), popularly known as the Crystal Coast. Incorporated towns on the banks include Emerald Isle, Indian Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, and Atlantic Beach. Carteret’s population center, however, is located on the mainland – the county’s largest town is the centrally-located Morehead City, which is home to nearly ten thousand of the county’s 70,260 residents as of mid-2018. The town of Newport is located slightly to the north of Morehead City, while the county seat and oldest town of Beaufort is located slightly to its east. The county’s other towns – Peletier, Cedar Point, Cape Carteret, and Bogue – are west of Morehead City on the Onslow County border, with many residents commuting to Jacksonville daily for work. The far eastern portion of the county contains no towns and is sparsely populated, largely due to the heavy presence of wetlands.
Recent decades have seen Carteret’s population increase rapidly, with beach properties on the Outer Banks and the mainland attracting retirees, second-home shoppers, and other affluent new residents. Growth has slowed somewhat since the 2008 recession – the county is expected to grow by a moderate 7% from 2010 to 2020 – but the county is expected to continue attracting beach-seeking incomers well into the future. Although real estate now plays a major role in the local economy, manufacturing and farming are still valuable in terms of economic output, largely among inland farmers native to the county’s rural areas. Tourism is also an asset to the county’s economy, with visitors streaming in to enjoy the county’s beaches, rivers, and other features (some of the best known include Cape Lookout National Seashore, Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, Croatan National Forest, and Harkers Island).
Like other counties in eastern North Carolina, Carteret was strongly Democratic for much of its history, voting for every Democratic presidential nominee from the end of the Civil War to the early 1900s. The county dabbled in Republican politics during the GOP landslides of the 1920s, but it eagerly flipped back to the Democrats to support Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition in 1932. Carteret continued to vote Democratic in every presidential election until 1968, which saw the county support Richard Nixon as white conservatives began to abandon their Democratic roots. The county has since become solidly Republican on the presidential level, only returning to the Democrats to elect Southern champion Jimmy Carter in 1976. Recent years have seen Carteret continue to trend Republican, with Donald Trump becoming the first presidential candidate to garner over 70% in the county since Nixon’s reelection bid in 1972.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+16 (Safe Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+28 (Safe Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+33 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+36 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+42 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+45 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+46 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 70.32%
Hillary Clinton – 26.31%
Richard Burr – 70.05%
Deborah Ross – 25.86%
Pat McCrory – 69.45%
Roy Cooper – 28.44%
In 2003, Carteret became the first county in eastern North Carolina to give the GOP a voter registration advantage, and Republicans have now developed a notable 42%-23%-34% lead over Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Today, Carteret County is by far the most heavily Republican in eastern North Carolina, and not just in presidential races – the county has also developed a solid GOP track record in statewide elections, voting for the Republican nominee in every statewide contest since at least 2008. Within Carteret, Democrats perform strongly in only two precincts – one coastal precinct containing the relatively diverse county seat of Beaufort, and another inland precinct containing rural, heavily African American communities along the banks of the North River. Other than those exceptions, Republicans perform uniformly well across the county. Carteret’s rural, inland areas have become solidly Republican as white conservatives abandon their Democratic roots, and the county’s coastal areas have become GOP strongholds as wealthy, predominantly white newcomers stream into the Outer Banks and mainland beach communities. The influx of white residents has also had the effect of lowering the county’s proportion of African American residents, further damaging Democratic prospects in an area now nearly 90% white.
As in many now-solidly Republican counties in eastern North Carolina, local elections in Carteret can still be competitive. All seven county commissioners, the Sheriff, the Register of Deeds, and the Clerk of Superior Court are Republicans, but the county’s District Attorney is a Democrat who has been unopposed in recent elections. Moreover, one of the county’s three Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors is a Democrat, and Republicans maintain only a small 4-3 advantage over Democrats on the county’s Board of Education. However, the North Carolina General Assembly has recently passed legislation to make elections for the county’s Board of Education partisan, likely in an attempt to wipe out the three remaining Democrats. The Democratic incumbents may be well-liked, but with parties listed on the ballot, GOP voters in the heavily-polarized Carteret may feel pressured to vote straight ticket.
In terms of congressional and legislative representation, Carteret County furthers its Republican credentials. The county is currently represented by Congressman Walter Jones (CD-03), state Senator Norman Sanderson (SD-02), and state Representative Pat McElraft (HD-13), all Republicans.
Carteret County made news after the 2004 elections, when over four thousand local ballots were lost due to a malfunction in voting machinery. The number of votes lost was greater than the margin in the race for state Commissioner of Agriculture, in which Democratic incumbent Britt Cobb was being challenged by Republican Steve Troxler. The State Board of Elections called for a special election to be held in the county the following January, which Troxler proceeded to win by an overwhelming margin. Troxler’s victory made him the first GOP Commissioner of Agriculture elected in North Carolina, further demonstrating Carteret’s position as a boon to the Republican Party.
Looking into the future, Carteret County will likely continue to trend Republican, solidifying its position as the most pro-GOP county in the eastern part of the state. Wealthy, predominantly white newcomers provide increased support for Republicans as they stream into beach communities, and white voters native to the county’s rural areas are continuing to abandon their Democratic roots – these trends together make for a future that leaves Democrats largely out of the picture. Democrats may be encouraged by signs that the Republican trend in Carteret is slowing, as the GOP appears to be approaching its ceiling of support in the county – Trump performed only slightly better in 2016 than Romney did in 2012. However, the local GOP should rest assured of its continued dominance well into the future, and with the Carteret’s population and political influence on the rise, the county may yet again put the GOP over the top in a statewide or federal contest.