Catawba County is a large, populous county in the western Piedmont region of North Carolina. Located directly northwest of Charlotte and east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Catawba County is considered part of the transitional Foothills terrain straddling the Piedmont and the Appalachians. With the Catawba River shaping its northern and eastern boundaries before feeding into the nearby artificial Lake Norman, the county encompasses much of the fertile Catawba River Valley. The county is home to 157,424 residents as of mid-2018, around forty thousand of whom live in the largest city of Hickory. Located in Catawba County’s northwestern corner, Hickory is the anchor city of the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), known locally as the Unifour. Other cities in the county include Claremont, Conover, and the county seat of Newton, all of which are located southeast of Hickory in the county’s central portion. The county also contains four smaller towns – Long View and Brookford are clustered around southern Hickory, while the town of Maiden is south of Newton and the town of Catawba is to Newton’s east.
Catawba County’s economy has historically been dominated by agriculture and manufacturing, particularly the furniture industry. However, recent decades have seen the county become part of North Carolina’s Data Center Corridor – the town of Maiden now contains one of Apple’s iCloud data centers, and job growth has been spurred by optical fiber cable production as companies like CommScope and Corning invest in the area. The telecommunications equipment industry led to significant population growth in Catawba County, with the number of residents increasing by 9% from 2000 to 2010. Although population growth has since slowed, the county is still becoming markedly more diverse – around four-fifths of the county’s current population is white, although the proportions of black, Hispanic, and Asian residents are each increasing. Growth has occurred countywide, with the city of Hickory, the county’s smaller cities and towns, and the county’s rural areas all benefiting from new industry.
In the years following the Civil War, Catawba County established itself as the most heavily Democratic county in the western Piedmont, largely due to the strong Democratic presence in and around Hickory. The county continued to serve as a Democratic stronghold until it began supporting Republicans in the early 1900s, much like the rest of the region. This trend occurred as white Democrats disenfranchised black voters and largely defined politics in eastern North Carolina on racial issues, while politics in western North Carolina was more focused on economic policy championed by the GOP. The county flipped back to the Democrats to support FDR’s four presidential runs from 1932 to 1944, but it has since become staunchly Republican yet again. Donald Trump won the county in a landslide in 2016, marking the eighteenth consecutive election in which it supported the GOP presidential nominee.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+24 (Safe Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+33 (Safe Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+36 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+32 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+32 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+33 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+40 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 66.79%
Hillary Clinton – 29.32%
Richard Burr – 66.12%
Deborah Ross – 29.04%
Pat McCrory – 64.40%
Roy Cooper – 33.08%
Catawba County is also solidly Republican in statewide elections, having voted for the GOP nominee in every contested statewide race since at least 2008. One of those Republicans is longtime NC Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry, who hails from the county seat of Newton. Republicans also dominate in local races, currently holding all five seats on the county commission and the countywide offices of District Attorney, Clerk of Superior Court, Register of Deeds, and Sheriff. Indeed, there was only one Democrat – a 2014 candidate for county commission – who even ran for a countywide partisan office in the 2014 and 2016 cycles. The county’s nonpartisan elected boards are only slightly more competitive – two Republicans and one Democrat are among the county’s elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors, while six Republicans and one unaffiliated voter sit on the county’s Board of Education. It should be noted that Hickory, Newton, and Conover do not participate in elections for the county’s Board of Education, as those cities have separate school districts with Boards of Education elected during municipal cycles in odd-numbered years.
Catawba’s Republican strength is reflected not only in national, statewide, and local elections, but also in voter registration – as of April 2018, 43% of the county’s registered voters are Republicans, while 32% are unaffiliated voters and only 25% are Democrats. The GOP’s voter registration advantage is particularly significant given the general Democratic voter registration advantage statewide.
In Congress, most of Catawba County is represented by Republican Pat McHenry (CD-10), while a small portion of northern Hickory is located in the district of Republican Virginia Foxx (CD-05). The county is represented in the General Assembly by state Senator Andy Wells (SD-42), state Representative Mitchell Setzer (HD-89), and state Representative Jay Adams (HD-96), all of whom are Republicans. The county’s state House districts were drawn to split Democratic support and ensure two safe Republican seats – Setzer’s district ties predominantly African American portions of Hickory to the county’s strongly Republican rural areas, allowing Adams’ district to be swayed by the Republican suburbs and exurbs of Hickory without the influence of black voters.
Within Catawba County, Democrats perform best in southern Hickory, where sizeable African American and Hispanic populations provide strong support for the party. One precinct in the centrally-located county seat of Newton votes solidly Democratic for similar reasons. The small towns and rural areas of the county are much less diverse and staunchly conservative, regularly providing Republicans with their largest margins countywide. Meanwhile, the suburban areas in and around Hickory, Newton, and Conover are generally somewhat Republican but can be competitive – Democrats with local appeal are often able to win some of the suburban precincts in central Hickory, as shown by Roy Cooper’s performance in 2016.
Catawba County has been a bastion of Republican strength in North Carolina over much of the last century, and its role is unlikely to change soon. Democrats may be making inroads in the county’s suburban areas as cities like Hickory diversify and grow in population, but any pro-Democratic trend is likely cancelled out by increased Republican allegiance in the county’s rural areas. Partisan politics in Catawba County has remained remarkably stable over the last few decades, surely a good sign for the GOP – as the county grows in population and maintains its influence in statewide politics, it will reaffirm its position as a valuable part of the state’s Republican base.