Republicans in North Carolina are crowing that the election results show that the state is trending red. Don’t believe them. Nothing really changed outside of district lines. The state is still a swing state that tilts toward the GOP. Ted Budd may have won the state, but Democrat Wiley Nickel won the state’s only competitive Congressional race in a district that leans Republican. In higher turnout years, Democrats will do better like they always do.
House Speaker Tim Moore wants to credit Republican policies for their success in legislative races last Tuesday. He claims that all of the GOP’s economic policies are attracting people to the state, but North Carolina grew faster in the first decade of the 21st century when it was under Democratic control than it has in the second decade when Republicans controlled the legislature. In addition, companies like Apple decided to move here in spite of the GOP. Had Republican Pat McCrory won re-election in 2016, GOP social policies would have almost certainly kept them away.
In addition, those new residents are the ones keeping North Carolina from becoming a heavily red state. In urban counties with high growth, Democrats have increased their margins over the past decade and cut their deficit in quickly growing suburban counties. Republicans, in contrast, are seeing their margins growing in aging counties where the population is in decline. The GOP can still do well in low-turnout years like this one, but they will have a hard time keeping the momentum in higher turnout years in the future.
This year, Republicans benefited from depressed turnout by the Democratic base. I suspect when the numbers are all in, they will show young people significantly underperformed 2018 and African American voters had the lowest turnout since before Barack Obama won the state in 2008. Overall, turnout was below 2018 by more than two percent despite a Senate race this year and a Blue Moon election four years ago.
Some of the blame for the low turnout has to lie with the top of the ticket. While Cheri Beasley ran a competent campaign, raising the money to be competitive and keeping the race close until the fall, she failed to engage and motivate the base. She ran a cautious campaign in a year when she needed to take risks, either coming out more forcefully for some of her more controversial positions like legalizing marijuana or taking much harder jabs at Budd down the stretch. According to exit polls, her sensible policy positions won over independent voters by six points, but she still lost because Republican turnout substantially beat Democratic turnout.
But it’s not all Beasley’s fault. Democrats have built a coalition dependent on unreliable voters. Voters under 40 years old come out for presidential campaigns, but vote at much lower numbers during midterm elections. The Republican base is made up of older people who vote much more frequently.
The election showed that White voters in rural areas are continuing to shift toward Republicans but voters in high growth areas like Durham and Orange Counties are voting even more heavily for Democrats. For Democrats to stay competitive in the state, they need to give younger voters both something to vote for and something to vote against. If Republicans keep nominating Donald Trump for president and candidates like Dan Forest or Mark Robinson for governor, Democrats will continue to win at the statewide level in presidential years. The state is really not shifting much. It’s maintaining its deep purple hue.