Located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, Chatham County is considered by most measures to contain the geographic center of the state. With the Durham-Chapel Hill area directly to its north and the Raleigh-Cary area directly to its east, the county is an unmistakable part of the state’s Research Triangle. Although it doesn’t contain any of the Triangle’s urban centers, Chatham’s population has soared in recent decades due to the region’s growth – the county contains 76,383 residents as of mid-2018, the product of impressive 28.8% growth from 2000 to 2010 and additional estimated 24.6% growth from 2010 to 2020. A bulk of the county’s new residents come from cities elsewhere in the Triangle, with many wishing to use Chatham as a place to retire, raise a family, or commute from for work.
Chatham’s county seat is the centrally-located town of Pittsboro, home to a quickly-growing population currently approaching five thousand residents. The western portion of the county contains its largest town, Siler City, home to a largely Hispanic population of around nine thousand residents. Below Siler City near the county’s southern border is Goldston, a much smaller town with around three hundred residents. A small portion of the town of Cary extends into Chatham from the east, although most of Cary’s residents are in the neighboring Wake County.
Agriculture has traditionally driven the local economy, although industry now plays an important economic role – textile, lumber, energy, and mineral production are prominent, particularly in Siler City and the unincorporated community of Moncure on the county’s southeastern border. Once the westernmost inland port in North Carolina, Moncure marks the beginning of the Cape Fear River at the confluence point of the Haw and Deep Rivers. Upstream, the Haw River runs through the popular B. Everett Jordan Lake (commonly known as Jordan Lake), a large manmade reservoir in eastern Chatham County covering nearly 14,000 acres. Jordan Lake is a popular destination for recreation and incoming residents, further contributing to the county’s economic growth.
Chatham has a long history of supporting Democrats, unsurprising given the ancestral Democratic leanings of the county’s many white, rural farmers. The county has only voted against Democratic presidential nominees four times since the turn of the twentieth century, most recently for Ronald Reagan in his 1984 reelection landslide. However, Chatham has also developed a reputation for being stubbornly close in presidential elections – only FDR and Nixon have ever won over 60% of the county’s presidential tally since 1900, and 2004 saw John Kerry best George W. Bush in Chatham by a mere five votes.
Although Chatham’s support for Democrats has been remarkably consistent, the driving forces behind its leanings have changed. Rural, white farmers have traditionally propelled Democrats to victory in the county, although recent decades have seen that demographic flip to the GOP en masse. A notable drop in Democratic support among rural whites occurred between 1992 and 1996, when the county’s presidential PVI dropped from D+10 to a mere D+1. However, Democrats have maintained strength in Chatham due to the recent influx of liberal, well-educated voters from the Triangle’s cities, as well as a surge in the local Hispanic population. The power of these two pro-Democratic trends was particularly evident from 2012 to 2016, when Hillary Clinton outperformed Barack Obama in Chatham by the fifth largest margin of any county statewide. The county’s presidential PVI moved from D+1 in 2012 to D+8 in 2016, suggesting a substantial shift back to Democratic stronghold status.
1992 Presidential PVI: D+10 (Lean Democratic)
1996 Presidential PVI: D+1 (Tossup)
2000 Presidential PVI: D+1 (Tossup)
2004 Presidential PVI: D+3 (Tossup)
2008 Presidential PVI: D+2 (Tossup)
2012 Presidential PVI: D+1 (Tossup)
2016 Presidential PVI: D+8 (Lean Democratic)
Hillary Clinton – 52.86%
Donald Trump – 42.92%
Deborah Ross – 51.71%
Richard Burr – 45.46%
Roy Cooper – 55.43%
Pat McCrory – 42.77%
Chatham is also heavily Democratic in statewide races, voting for Democrats in nine of ten statewide elections in 2008, seven of ten in 2012, and nine of ten again in 2016. Democrats further dominate locally – four of five county commissioners, all five members of the Board of Education, two of three elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors, the Sheriff, the Clerk of Superior Court, the Register of Deeds, and the District Attorney are all registered Democrats. Local races are often uncontested, although Republicans seldom win even when they do run. A notable exception was 2010, when the GOP won control of the county commission by picking up three of its five seats (each by a margin of less than six hundred votes). 2014 saw Democrats retake two of the three seats they had lost, returning the commission to Democratic control.
Within Chatham, Democrats have three main areas of strength – Siler City, Pittsboro, and a collection of precincts in the northeastern portion of the county bordering Chapel Hill. Siler City’s sizeable Hispanic population provides much of its Democratic support, while many Democrats in Pittsboro and the northeastern precincts are newer residents from other parts of the Triangle. However, Democrats need not win all three areas in order to win countywide – Clinton and Ross both won in 2016 without carrying Pittsboro’s precinct on Election Day, and Ross won without the support of most of the county’s northeastern precincts. In fact, Ross won Chatham with the support of only two precincts – Siler City and one precinct bordering Chapel Hill – on Election Day. Republicans, meanwhile, perform best throughout the county’s rural areas, including the precinct containing the small town of Goldston. Unfortunately for GOP candidates, rural conservatives seldom produce the margins necessary to overcome Democratic strength in Siler City, Pittsboro, and the northeastern precincts.
Within Chatham County, Democrats have also maintained a voter registration advantage – as of May 2018, 39% of registered voters are Democrats, while 36% are unaffiliated and only 25% are Republicans. Chatham’s Democratic leanings are also apparent in its legislative representation – the county is currently represented by Senator Valerie Foushee (SD-23) and Representative Robert Reives (HD-54), both Democrats, in the General Assembly. Reives’ seat was formerly occupied by Democrat Joe Hackney, who served as Speaker of the NC House from 2007 to 2011. In Congress, however, the county is currently represented by Republican Mark Walker (CD-06) – although Chatham voted for Walker’s Democratic opponent in 2016, the district is based in heavily Republican exurbs around Greensboro that are likely too conservative to overwhelm.
Chatham County is certainly one of a kind in North Carolina politics, as it is the only predominantly Democratic county statewide without a major urban center, a significant African American population, or a large college campus. Future years will likely see Chatham become even more Democratic as it grows and diversifies, solidifying its position as a boon to Democrats statewide. The county’s population is expected to nearly double in upcoming years, with the planned Chatham Park mixed-use development adding 60,000 residents and over 7,000 acres of new homes, stores, offices, and other amenities to the Pittsboro area. Growth like this will likely further benefit Democrats, and with the GOP’s path to victory in the county continuing to narrow, a heavily Democratic future in Chatham is almost certain.