Nestled within the Blue Ridge Mountains on the borders with Tennessee and Georgia, Cherokee County is the westernmost county in North Carolina. The county was formed in 1839 and named for the Cherokee tribe, a large portion of which had then recently been expelled from western North Carolina. Although Cherokee County is today home to only a small number of its native people, portions of the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation (officially known as the Qualla Boundary) are scattered throughout the central portion of the county. South of the Qualla Boundary is the county seat of Murphy, the westernmost municipality in all of North Carolina (the common phrase “from Murphy to Manteo” refers to phenomena that extend from the state’s far west to its far east). Northeast of the Qualla Boundary, meanwhile, is the county’s largest town of Andrews. Although both Murphy and Andrews are home to fewer than two thousand residents, the county’s overall population is around 29,853 as of mid-2018.
The last two decades have each seen Cherokee County grow by a sizeable 12%, largely due to the influx of retirees seeking property near the area’s iconic mountains. Outside of real estate revenue, much of the county’s economy is driven by agriculture and manufacturing among the county’s lifelong residents, as well as a few popular casinos operated within the Qualla Boundary. The county is also home to a number of natural and manmade features popular among tourists – Cherokee contains parts of the Nantahala National Forest and the Hiwassee River, as well as the Fields of the Wood, a well-known Pentecostal religious park containing over two hundred acres of Biblical attractions and the largest representation of the Ten Commandments in the world.
Cherokee County historically lacked a strong partisan allegiance, traditionally preferring Republicans in federal and statewide races but Democrats in local races. The county long avoided providing particularly strong margins or loyalty to either party in presidential elections, voting for eight Democrats and eight Republicans in the seventeen presidential races from 1912 to 1976 (the county’s vote was tied in 1916). However, recent decades have seen Cherokee County’s close partisan split evaporate into a strong partisan preference – the county last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee during Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Southern landslide and has since become solidly Republican, supporting GOP nominees by increasingly large margins in subsequent presidential elections. Cherokee gave Donald Trump 76.5% of its support in 2016, his fourth-largest margin statewide and the county’s single most one-sided presidential tally since it first voted in 1840.
The Republican surge in Cherokee County comes as Appalachian voters abandon their Democratic roots in favor of the GOP’s social and cultural conservatism, with Trump’s brand of right-wing populism proving to be particularly popular. The recent influx of conservative, predominantly white retirees from outside of the state have added to the county’s increasingly Republican partisan leaning, although the two groups disagree vehemently on many local, class-centered issues.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+10 (Lean Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+17 (Safe Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+32 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+32 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+46 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+50 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+58 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 76.47%
Hillary Clinton – 20.17%
Richard Burr – 73.22%
Deborah Ross – 23.24%
Pat McCrory – 70.07%
Roy Cooper – 26.77%
Shifts in Cherokee’s presidential PVI illustrate the magnitude of its recent pro-GOP trend, with the county voting fifty-eight points more Republican than the nation as of 2016. Cherokee County is also solidly Republican in statewide elections, having voted for the GOP nominee in every contested statewide race since at least 2008. Democrats are somewhat more competitive in partisan local races, although they can no longer be expected to win regularly. All five county commissioners and the county’s District Attorney, Register of Deeds, Clerk of Superior Court, and Sheriff are Republicans, with around half having been elected most recently without Democratic opposition. Partisan margins in contested elections vary substantially from one local race to the next, although the GOP usually wins whether in a nail-biter or a landslide.
Nonpartisan local races do see substantial success among registered Democrats, with one Democrat, one Republican, and one Democratic-leaning unaffiliated voter currently among Cherokee’s elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors. The county’s school board elections have traditionally also been nonpartisan, with Democrats and unaffiliated voters generally performing well – after the 2014 elections, the board consisted of two Democrats, two unaffiliated voters, and three Republicans. However, the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly has recently made a concerted effort to increase their party’s dominance in local elections, and Cherokee County was a prime target – in 2015, the General Assembly passed a bill to make the county’s school board elections partisan for the first time in decades. This move was largely intended to persuade Republican voters to select candidates by party label instead of personal likeability, qualifications, experience, voting records, or other factors. The effort was largely effective – both of the board’s unaffiliated members were replaced by Republicans in 2016, and the GOP is hoping to take both of the remaining Democratic seats in 2018.
Within Cherokee County, Republicans perform well in every precinct, including those containing portions of the Qualla Boundary. The county’s western and northern central precincts are generally somewhat more Republican than the county’s eastern and southern central precincts, as the latter group includes the relatively populous small towns of Murphy and Andrews. The northeastern precincts containing Andrews occasionally vote Democratic in contested local elections, although all precincts can be expected to vote Republican in the relatively polarizing federal and statewide elections.
Republican strength in Cherokee County can also be seen through its congressional and legislative representation – the county is currently represented by Congressman Mark Meadows (CD-11), state Senator Jim Davis (SD-50), and state Representative Kevin Corbin (HD-120), all Republicans. In terms of voter registration, a 43% plurality of the county’s voters are Republicans as of May 2018, with 32% registered as Unaffiliated and only 25% registered as Democrats.
Cherokee County is by far one of the strongest Republican counties in North Carolina, and its status is unlikely to change soon – the county’s lifelong residents are continuing to embody the overall Appalachian shift from Democratic to Republican, and the recent influx of predominantly white, wealthy retirees is further bolstering GOP support. Moreover, the county’s location places it within the Chattanooga, Tennessee media market, meaning that national or statewide Democrats seeking to win North Carolina are unlikely to invest in the area. Current trends suggest Cherokee will continue to stray further from its former competitive nature, and with mirroring growth in population and support for the GOP, the county will likely develop increasing influence as a boon for Republicans in upcoming years.