The smallest county in North Carolina by land area, Chowan County is the innermost of the five long, narrow “finger counties” located north of the Albemarle Sound on the state’s northeastern Coastal Plain. Chowan has a rich history – it was formed as Shaftesbury Precinct in 1670 as one of the state’s four original subdivisions still recognized today, and its only town of Edenton was founded in 1658 as the first permanent European settlement within North Carolina’s current borders. Edenton, located on the county’s southwestern coast where the Chowan River meets the Albemarle Sound, served as an early state capital and was home to many early national political figures – the first US Secretary of the Navy, a member of the first US Supreme Court, and one of North Carolina’s first US Senators all hailed from the area. The town’s eighteenth-century architecture and large collection of historic buildings have also long been prominent, today serving as a primary source of heritage tourism.
Fertile soil conditions across the Coastal Plain led to widespread plantation farming and slave labor during the Antebellum era, resulting in high African American populations in places like Chowan County and other parts of the South’s “Black Belt” region. However, recent decades have seen Chowan’s African American population – largely clustered in the majority-black Edenton – decrease as residents opt to move to surrounding metropolitan areas for social and economic reasons, with only one-third of the county’s population identifying as black as of the 2010 census. This trend has contributed to overall population loss in the county – Chowan is home to approximately 14,177 residents as of mid-2018, but its population is expected to decrease by around 5% from 2010 to 2020 and fall below 14,000 by the end of the decade.
Outside of Edenton, the county’s population is rural and predominantly white, with an economy driven largely by agriculture and some manufacturing. Population loss in Edenton has been partially countered by a substantial number of incoming retirees in other areas of the county, with many promoting the county as part of North Carolina’s “Inner Banks” region to attract tourism and development. Economic trends and increased development in the county have furthered disparities in demographic change – recent years have seen its black population decrease as its white population increases, coupled with a reduction in Edenton’s population as other areas of the county grow.
African Americans in the South gained substantial political influence in the decades after the Civil War, with black voters persuading Chowan County to vote for every Republican presidential nominee from 1868 to 1900. However, the year 1898 saw white supremacists across North Carolina engage in a concerted effort to disenfranchise black voters, and the situation in Chowan was no different – white, conservative Democrats soon took control of local politics, leading the county to become a Democratic stronghold in every presidential election from 1904 to 1964. The latter year saw Democratic support in the South begin to crumble as white conservatives repudiated the increased social liberalism of their national party, and by 1968, Chowan had opted to support third-party segregationist candidate George Wallace over either major-party presidential nominee. The county then became a tossup in presidential elections, although it slowly began to abandon the Democrats for good – Chowan last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 2000 when it supported Al Gore by a mere fifteen votes, and it has since opted for the Republican nominee in every election. Donald Trump won the county in 2016 with a substantial 55.5% of the vote, the largest proportion of any presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter’s reelection bid in 1980.
1992 Presidential PVI: D+5 (Tossup)
1996 Presidential PVI: D+5 (Tossup)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+0 (Tossup)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+7 (Lean Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+8 (Lean Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+8 (Lean Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+16 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 55.53%
Hillary Clinton – 41.39%
Richard Burr – 57.19%
Deborah Ross – 40.92%
Pat McCrory – 57.12%
Roy Cooper – 41.87%
The county’s pro-GOP presidential PVI more than doubled from 2012 to 2016, indicating a significant Republican trend in federal elections. A similar phenomenon has occurred in statewide races, although somewhat more recently – the county voted for all ten Democratic nominees for statewide office in 2008 and nine of ten in 2012, although 2016 saw the county vote Republican in eight of the ten races. Pat McCrory was the only Republican to prevail in Chowan in 2012, while Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and then-Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin were the only Democrats to win in 2016. Pat McCrory’s performance in Chowan was noticeably strong even as he lost the 2016 gubernatorial election statewide – polarization surrounding the House Bill 2 issue energized the county’s large base of social conservatives, and then-Governor McCrory’s hurricane response efforts further increased his popularity in Chowan and across eastern North Carolina.
Chowan’s Republican trend in local races is less profound, with Democrats still prevailing in most local elections. The county commission currently has five Democrats and two Republicans, while its nonpartisan Board of Education is composed of six registered Democrats and one unaffiliated voter. Both bodies consist of seven members total, with one elected at-large and two elected from each of three districts – one district contains the strongly Democratic town of Edenton, while the other two encompass rural areas that generally vote Republican in polarizing races but regularly support Democrats in local elections. The county’s Register of Deeds, Clerk of Superior Court, and Sheriff are all Democrats, while the District Attorney and one of the three elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors are Republicans (the other two are unaffiliated voters). Despite general Democratic dominance in local elections, however, it should be noted that most are uncontested – the local GOP would likely gain greater representation upon running more candidates.
Chowan’s Republican trend is noticeable in terms of voter registration – although Democrats have a 47%-26%-27% voter registration advantage over Republicans and unaffiliated voters as of May 2018, this margin is much less pronounced than the 65%-23%-12% advantage Democrats had over Republicans and unaffiliated voters in January 2004. Although Republicans have improved slightly in terms of voter registration, the most prominent trend is the decrease in Democratic registration as unaffiliated voter registration skyrockets – this comes as rural, conservative whites abandon the Democratic Party and incoming white retirees prefer to register as unaffiliated voters despite their loyalty to the GOP at the ballot box.
Within Chowan County, Democrats perform best in the two central precincts splitting Edenton, while Republicans tend to perform well in the rural, predominantly white precincts north and south of Edenton. The precinct directly northeast of those containing Edenton has a somewhat high African American population is generally the most competitive, opting to support Republicans in most federal and statewide races but Democrats in most local contests.
Due to its small population, Chowan’s congressional and legislative representatives are generally determined by the political preferences of its neighboring counties. Chowan is currently represented by Republican state Representative Bob Steinburg (HD-01), Democratic state Senator Erica Smith (SD-03), and Republican Congressman Walter Jones (CD-03), with only Steinburg hailing from Chowan County itself. While both of Chowan’s current NCGA districts are considered to be safe for the parties of their respective officeholders, legislative redistricting ahead of the 2018 elections will change this – the new version of HD-01 still contains Chowan but is expected to be much more competitive, while Chowan was redrawn out of SD-03 and into the highly competitive SD-01. Both seats are open – the state House race will see former Chowan County Commissioner Ed Goodwin (R) compete against Bertie County Commissioner Ron Wesson (D), while the state Senate race will pit current state Rep. Bob Steinburg (R) against Washington County Commissioner D. Cole Phelps (D).
Chowan County’s political trends mirror those of eastern North Carolina as a whole, with voters deserting Democrats in federal and statewide elections but remaining loyal to the party in most local races. These trends come as rural, socially conservative white voters abandon their Democratic roots, incoming white retirees overwhelmingly prefer Republicans, and African American populations decrease as families move to surrounding metropolitan areas. For Democrats to prevail in Chowan, candidates will need to maintain their remaining support among white, rural voters while increasing African American turnout in Edenton and across the county. This may prove to be easier said than done, and if current trends continue, Chowan will likely shift more and more to the GOP in future years and decades.