Clay County is a small, rural county located near North Carolina’s western tip in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The county borders Georgia and is separated from Tennessee only by the neighboring Cherokee County, from which Clay was formed in 1861. The smallest county in North Carolina by total area, Clay also has notably few residents – the county’s population is only 11,654 as of mid-2018, the seventh smallest statewide. Clay’s only municipality and county seat is the town of Hayesville, home to around three hundred of the county’s residents.

Farming and manufacturing are central to the rural county’s economy, although tourism also plays an important role – popular sites include the area’s numerous mountains, the Nantahala National Forest, and the Nantahala and Hiwassee Rivers. Lake Chatuge, a man-made reservoir completed by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1942, consumes much of the county’s southern portion and is popular for fishing and boating. Clay’s mountain scenery has also attracted an influx of retirees, many from the Atlanta metropolitan area or other parts of North Carolina. This trend has contributed to significant local population growth in recent decades – Clay County’s population, while small, grew by 21% from 2000 to 2010 and is expected to increase by an additional 13% from 2010 to 2020. However, growth has not led to demographic diversification – the county’s population is currently around 95% white, a figure unlikely to change as retirees continue to move to the area.

Clay County was the most heavily Democratic county in western North Carolina for much of its early history, supporting every Democratic nominee from its first presidential election in 1868 until 1908. However, after supporting Theodore Roosevelt’s third party bid for the presidency in 1912, Clay joined much of western North Carolina in becoming a Republican stronghold. Since 1916, the county has voted for the Republican nominee in all but five presidential elections, last supporting a Democrat in 1976 during Jimmy Carter’s Southern landslide. Recent decades have seen Clay quickly become one of the most Republican counties in North Carolina – Donald Trump won 73.8% of Clay’s votes in 2016, his tenth-best performance statewide and the single best performance of any presidential candidate in the county’s history.

1992 Presidential PVI: R+13 (Likely Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+17 (Safe Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+28 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+30 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+43 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+46 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+53 (Safe Republican)

2016 President:

Donald Trump – 73.83%

Hillary Clinton – 22.75%

2016 Senate:

Richard Burr – 71.42%

Deborah Ross – 25.30%

2016 Governor:

Pat McCrory – 68.58%

Roy Cooper – 28.77%

 

Clay’s strong Republican trend comes largely as the county’s rural, white conservatives – both longtime residents and incoming retirees – seek to distance themselves from the increasingly liberal Democratic Party. The county last voted for a Democrat in a federal election in 2008, supporting Congressman Heath Shuler in his penultimate reelection bid. Shuler, however, was a relatively conservative Democrat allied with the Blue Dog Coalition, a faction that has largely dissipated in recent years. Clay is also heavily Republican in statewide elections, having supported the GOP nominee in every contested statewide race since at least 2004.

Clay County is somewhat more competitive in local elections – while all five members of the County Commission, the Clerk of Superior Court, the District Attorney, and the Sheriff are Republicans, the county’s Register of Deeds is a Democrat most recently elected in 2014 with 54% of the vote. Moreover, all three of the county’s elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors, while selected on a nonpartisan basis, are registered Democrats. Before 2016, the county’s nonpartisan elected Board of Education consisted of one registered Democrat, two Democratic-leaning unaffiliated voters, one registered Republican, and one Republican-leaning unaffiliated voter. However, the North Carolina General Assembly opted to make the board’s elections partisan in 2015, likely in an attempt to oust its Democratic and Democratic-leaning members. The 2016 elections saw Republicans replace both Democratic-leaning unaffiliated voters on the board, and the remaining Democrat will likely face a tough reelection bid in 2018.

Every precinct in Clay County is solidly Republican, although those in and around the county seat of Hayesville are sometimes slightly more competitive. Clay’s loyalty to the GOP is further exhibited in 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. The GOP also has a clear advantage in voter registration, with a 42%-22%-36% margin over Democrats and unaffiliated voters as of June 2018. The large proportion of unaffiliated voters is mainly due to the influence of retirees newer to the area, as many choose not to identify with either political party despite their overwhelming electoral preference for Republican candidates.

Clay County is by far one of the most socially conservative in North Carolina, and not just in terms of partisan politics – nearly 60% Southern Baptist, the county is considered by multiple metrics to be the most religious in the state, and only in 2009 did Clay vote by referendum to legalize the sale of alcohol. Future years will likely see the predominantly white, rural county become even more Republican than it already is, with longtime residents and incoming retirees alike allying with the GOP as partisan politics becomes increasingly polarized on social and cultural issues. Clay is likely too small to have an impact on statewide politics, and its location within the Atlanta media market means statewide campaigns have little incentive to focus on the area. However, the county’s conservatism is remarkable even for one of its size, and as its loyalty to the GOP strengthens, Clay will continue to lead much of rural North Carolina in emerging as a sea of red.

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