Craven County is a large, populous county located on North Carolina’s eastern Coastal Plain. Craven is bisected by the prominent Neuse River, which flows southeast through the county and empties directly into the Pamlico Sound. The county’s seat and largest municipality is the centrally-located city of New Bern, which sits west of the Neuse at its confluence with the neighboring Trent River. New Bern has a rich history – the second-oldest permanent colonial settlement in North Carolina, the city served as its capital from 1770 to 1792 and was home to its first newspaper and chartered school. With over thirty thousand of Craven’s 103,800 residents as of mid-2018, New Bern today serves as the county’s main commercial and cultural center, containing a lively historic district home to Tryon Palace (the state’s first capitol building) and the pharmacy where Pepsi-Cola was created in 1893. Craven’s other incorporated city, Havelock, is home to over twenty thousand residents near the southern tip of the county and contains Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. The county also contains six relatively small incorporated towns – Cove City, Dover, and Vanceboro are located in the rural portion of the county above New Bern, while Bridgeton, River Bend, and Trent are each suburbs of New Bern.
Recent decades have seen Craven County grow substantially, with incoming residents – particularly wealthy, predominantly white retirees – attracted to the affluent suburbs of New Bern and the relatively rural areas below the city. Meanwhile, areas of the county with large African American populations, including eastern New Bern and the rural communities north of the city, have recently experienced population stagnation, as has the city of Havelock. These trends have resulted in notable demographic shifts in the county, with the proportion of African American residents (currently around 20% of Craven’s population) having fallen well below that of most counties in eastern North Carolina. However, growth in even the suburbs of New Bern has slowed over the course of the last decade, largely due to the impact of the Great Recession. Craven’s overall population is expected to remain virtually unchanged from 2010 to 2020, the first decade without growth in the county since the 1870s. Despite population stagnation, Craven’s economy remains strong – New Bern and Havelock continue to serve as regional commercial hubs, and the county’s rural areas are still driven by agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and tourism (the popular Croatan National Forest covers much of the southern half of the county).
In the decades after the Civil War, Craven County was one of the most Republican in eastern North Carolina, with a large, prominent population of recently-enfranchised African American voters propelling the county to support the GOP nominee in every presidential election from 1868 to 1896. However, the year 1898 saw white Democrats engage in a statewide effort to terrorize African American voters and regain political power through violence – their campaign was successful, with the party retaking control of the General Assembly that year and soon passing a constitutional amendment to disenfranchise African Americans. The impact of the 1898 election was noticeable in Craven, where white Democrats took control in what quickly became their one of their strongest counties in coastal North Carolina. The county voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election from 1900 to 1964, when another noticeable trend emerged – white, rural voters began abandoning the increasingly liberal Democratic Party in favor of more conservative alternatives, with Craven opting to support third-party segregationist George Wallace in 1968 and Republican Richard Nixon in 1972. The county flipped again in 1976 to support Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter but has voted Republican in every presidential election since, with Donald Trump carrying Craven by a sizeable twenty-one points in 2016.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+12 (Likely Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+20 (Safe Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+23 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+23 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+20 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+22 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+24 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 59.00%
Hillary Clinton – 37.51%
Richard Burr – 59.69%
Deborah Ross – 36.48%
Pat McCrory – 59.88%
Roy Cooper – 38.20%
Craven County has also experienced a strong Republican trend in statewide elections, although much more recently. In both 2004 and 2008, Craven supported six Republicans and four Democrats in North Carolina’s ten statewide races, suggesting a relatively competitive atmosphere for statewide candidates. Among the Democrats supported by the county’s voters were Bev Perdue, who represented Craven in both chambers of the General Assembly before being elected Lieutenant Governor in 2000 and 2004 and Governor in 2008, and Beth Wood, a native of the county first elected State Auditor in 2008. However, the county voted Republican in all contested statewide races in 2012 and 2016, rejecting even Wood in her two successful reelection bids.
Craven’s Republican trend is also evident in terms of voter registration. Democrats long held an advantage over the GOP among registered voters in the county, although Republicans finally took the lead in January 2017. As of July 2018, 35% of registered voters in the county are Republicans, while 33% are Democrats and 31% are unaffiliated. The relatively high proportion of unaffiliated voters can be explained by wealthy, predominantly white retirees new to the county, most of whom choose not to identify with a party despite their strong electoral preference for Republican candidates.
In local races, however, Craven County is still notably competitive. Republicans have a slight a 4-3 advantage over Democrats on the county’s Board of Commissioners, while Democrats hold a 5-1-1 majority over a Republican and an unaffiliated voter on the county’s Board of Education. Craven’s elected Register of Deeds, Clerk of Superior Court, and Sheriff are all Democrats, while its elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors include two Republicans and one unaffiliated voter. In total, Craven’s elected officials include eleven Democrats, seven Republicans, and two unaffiliated voters, suggesting Democrats in the county are still popular on the local level.
Within Craven County, Democrats perform best among African American voters clustered in New Bern, while Republicans are strongest in the suburbs around New Bern, the predominantly white Havelock, and the county’s rural areas. The rural areas in the northern half of the county are further from coastal development and have largely avoided the recent influx of affluent white residents, meaning the proportion of African American voters is still high and Democrats are sometimes able to perform well. Hillary Clinton, for example, won one rural precinct on the county’s northern border. The southern half of the county, meanwhile, is closer to the coast and has experienced much more development in recent years, meaning the proportion of newer, affluent white residents likely to vote Republican is much higher. In the 2016 presidential election, the northern half of the county and the African American neighborhoods of New Bern trended Republican as African American voter turnout decreased, while the suburbs of New Bern and the southern half of the county (including Havelock) trended Democratic as affluent white voters were relatively hesitant to support the GOP nominee.
Craven County is currently represented by Republican Walter Jones (CD-03) in Congress and Republican Norman Sanderson (SD-02) in the state Senate, while the county’s state House delegation consists of three representatives: Republican Michael Speciale (HD-03), Republican John Bell (HD-10), and Democrat George Graham (HD-12). Graham’s district was drawn as a Democratic vote sink, taking in predominantly African American areas of Greene and Lenoir counties before stretching into Craven County to incorporate the African American neighborhoods of eastern New Bern and a pocket of African American voters near the county’s southeastern tip. Bell’s district, meanwhile, was drawn to favor Republicans by encompassing predominantly white portions of Wayne, Greene, and Lenoir counties before snaking into suburban New Bern, while Speciale’s district achieves the same goal by joining predominantly white portions of Beaufort and Pamlico counties with most of Havelock and some rural areas of southern Craven. As Graham’s district was struck down as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in 2017, Craven’s state House map was redrawn, with the county’s state representatives to be elected in 2018 from two new, strongly Republican districts: HD-03, which now stretches from Havelock to New Bern, and HD-79, which now joins the rural areas above New Bern with the neighboring Beaufort County.
Political trends in Craven County have remained remarkably stable over the last few decades, with the county’s Partisan Voter Index staying within the same four-point range from 1996 to 2016. Republicans have benefitted as an influx of retirees increases the white proportion of the population, while Democrats have improved among suburban voters isolated by the right-wing populist rhetoric of the GOP. In future years, Craven’s politics will likely be defined by demographic change – the county’s population will become less racially diverse and more concentrated in suburban neighborhoods as affluent, predominantly white residents continue to enter the area, while the proportion of African American and rural residents will continue to decrease. Racial demographic shifts will likely benefit the GOP, while shifts from rural areas to suburbs may favor Democrats. One thing is for certain – in a county where Republicans dominate in federal and statewide elections but Democrats succeed locally, increasing polarization will soon begin to threaten any remaining diversity of political control and electoral success.