The GOP’s shrinking margin in the suburbs

by | Apr 19, 2023 | Editor's Blog | 16 comments

John Hood recently wrote a curious column about the rise of the Republican Party in North Carolina. Much of it is right. The number of registered Democrats has been shrinking continuously for decades. The number of registered Republicans has been growing. However, the shift to unaffiliated is the real story. The GOP controls two-thirds of the state’s county boards of commission and more local offices than at any time in history. In contrast, Democrats control the larger, urban areas in the state. All of this is true and part of the divide happening in the state. 

But then John concludes with a bit of a head scratcher. 

“So, how has North Carolina as a whole become less hospitable to Democratic candidates? Because outside of our urban cores, Republican strength has surged. No, I’m not just talking about rural areas, which taken together represent a declining share of the state’s electorate. The bigger political story is the rapid increase of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in fast-growing suburban and exurban counties such as Union, Iredell, Cabarrus, Gaston, Johnston, Franklin, Harnett, Alamance, Brunswick, and Pender.”

Had John written this a decade ago, he would be right, but, today, the shift of most of the suburban counties he mentioned is what gives Democrats hope. While Pender and Brunswick are growing more Republican due to the influx of wealthy retirees who care about low taxes and low crime and could not care less about public education or improved infrastructure, the other counties are mostly shifting toward Democrats. The growth in exurban counties around Charlotte and Raleigh is coming from a younger, educated, and diverse population. They are slowly, but surely turning the state blue. 

Cabarrus, one of the state’s fastest growing counties, gave George Bush a 35-point margin over John Kerry in 2004. That was the peak. The GOP margin has shrunk every election cycle since. In 2020, Trump carried it by nine points and the number of voters doubled over the sixteen year period. In 2022, Democrats picked up a state house seat there for the first time in ages. 

Alamance tells a similar story. Bush carried the county by 23 points in 2004. Trump carried it by eight-points. Alamance also elected Democrat Ricky Hurtado in 2020, the first Latino to serve in the legislature. 

In Harnett, the margin shrunk from 29 points for Bush to 23 points for Trump.  In Gaston, Bush won by 36 and Trump by 28. In Johnston, the GOP margin shrunk from 36 in 2004 to 24 in 2020. In Union, Bush had a whopping 41 point margin in 2004, but by 2020, Trump’s margin was 24. Iredell is the only county where Republicans have not seen a substantially shrinking margin. Bush won it by 36 and Trump by 32. 

While John may be right that the suburban counties helped the GOP gain a majority, the Republican’s strength has been waning, not increasing, since its peak in 2004. The newcomers who moved to those areas in the 1990s and early 2000s are shifting their priorities. They may have come for the low taxes and lack of unions, but now they are increasingly concerned about the quality of our public schools and access to high speed internet. If these trends continue, Alamance and Cabarrus will become battleground counties over the next few presidential election cycles and most of the other counties will be much more competitive. 

John’s wrong. Republican strength in the state is not due of the GOP strength in suburbs. It’s  dependent on the outsized turnout and margins in rural, mostly white counties. They’ve increased their margins among resentment voters who were outraged at the election of Barack Obama and believe Donald Trump is a savior, immigrants are taking their jobs, and Democrats are coming for their guns. Those voters live in shrinking counties while most Democrats, as John correctly pointed out, are in the dynamic urban areas that are adding far more people to the state’s population and who are giving Democrats increasing margins in their counties. Democrats don’t need to win those suburban counties outright. They just need to keep slowly increasing their margins while younger, more educated, and more diverse voters replace older, more conservative, rural ones. 


  1. Cliff Moone

    Thank you Thomas Mills for pointing out the suburban Republican fallacy in John Hood’s article. When I read it in the Hickory Daily Record, I thought someone needed to make the exact point you’ve argued here. I also think suburban Republican women (and maybe men, too) will also increasingly retreat from the “Big Government, anti personal freedom, pro-book banning, insurrection inciting, 21st Century religious Inquisition promoting radical Right agenda.” But Democrats be warned! These voters aren’t radical Leftists who will jump on board with the “Identity Politics” agenda which shuts down free speech on campuses and elsewhere, focuses constantly on “marginalized” group resentments (even if often justified), and on undermining “traditional values” particularly if those so-called “woke” agendas affect their children. They are mostly still main-line conservative, mostly open-minded, and mostly tolerant individuals who firmly believe in equality of opportunity but not necessarily equality of outcomes. The REAL story is the growing dissatisfaction with both Republicans and Democrats; hence, the major trend toward seeing themselves as Independents. How these folk vote in the next few years in NC and elsewhere will tell the true story of American politics for the near future.

  2. Andy Stevens

    The news kids on the block running the NC Democrat Party have high hopes and plenty of prayers, but just a few months into their watch and we see party defections and contentious votes against the caucus. The ‘woke” anti-liberty agenda is finally cracking as elected Democrats wise up and realize their crewmen on a sinking ship. Yes, the modern urban utopias will continue to elect Democrats while their streets overflow with repeat, repeat, repeat criminals growing more brazen and more violent by the day. Who can blame them for creating their own version of hell on earth? It’s what they want. The rest of us, nah, not so much.

  3. Laura Brooks

    My thinking is that Democrats and Independents have been complacent in NC. “Oh well, the legislature is horrible, but at least Cooper can veto all their worst stuff”. The Republican decisions haven’t (yet) had a huge effect on middle class voters. That may be about to change. Republicans are salivating at having a new veto-proof majority thanks to that traitor. They’re almost sure to overreach. If they implement an abortion ban and override Cooper’s veto, it will be a sad day in NC, but perhaps the kick in the pants that young people need to wake up and go vote.

    • ringlet86

      “The Republican decisions haven’t (yet) had a huge effect on middle class voters.” )Haven’t they already? Lower taxes, less regulation and higher teacher pay? Wouldn’t this current iteration of Democrats do the same?)

      “They’re almost sure to overreach.” ( Possibly, but Besides abortion (which I think there is a zero chance of them doing anything on it) What else could they do?

      And what is it with our fascination with Murder of children in the womb? I simply don’t get it. Why on earth are Democrats 100% my way or the highway for this terrible act? Its weird really. And really with all they ways NOT to get pregnant (outside of legitimate crimes being committed on the Woman or a medical issue) Who would need an abortion? Safe Legal and Rare right? That is what Bill Clinton said,

  4. TC

    Okay. We’re looking at a drop in Republican support in those areas. George W’s second term run to Don Don’s. But the fact still remains, Trump and I would assume other Republicans down ballot, carried those counties and those portions of those locales. That’s 16 years of elections and outcomes. If I’m remembering this correctly, Republicans have only controlled the legislature now for 11 years in NC. Do we need to re-hash the catastrophe that has been on the state of affairs in NC?

    And while this might be addressing the long game strategy as a means to an end, every election Republicans win, the less affluent pay for that victory. In wages, in education, in opportunity. My question though, is, when does it end? When do Democrats win back the State Legislature? When does sanity return? When are the common people afforded an equal opportunity rather than being offered the crumbs from the table and being convinced this is what they deserve.

    So stipulated, gains have been made. The result though has remained the same.

    • ringlet86

      “Do we need to re-hash the catastrophe that has been on the state of affairs in NC?” (Yes because I’m not seeing it)
      In wages, in education, in opportunity.” (Again where? Wherever I go everything is packed and everyone is making money. The state is doing well. Nationally its a mess.)

      “When do Democrats win back the State Legislature?” (I don’t see it anytime soon really. It likely the Republican’s GAIN SEATS not lose them right now. I know you are Hyper partisan, I’m not but really they are not doing THAT BAD of a JOB. It could be much much worse.)

      ” When are the common people afforded an equal opportunity rather than being offered the crumbs from the table.” (Where are they not? You’ll have to explain this.)

      • TC

        Can’t see it? You’re not looking hard enough. Go look and see where NC is at nationally for wages. Oxfam ranked NC dead last for wages two years in a row. I was going to include the link, but I can’t access it without paying. I’m that cheap so I’m not paying; just to prove a point. North Carolina has always been piss poor on paying people a decent wage for the work they do. Most of the Southeast is. You may also note that is the same group of states that once upon time seceded from the United States. Why? If you dig deep enough and look long enough, you can find your own answers. For me, the South emulates the feudalist system that came from England. And to be certain about how that translates today, upward mobility is a fallacy. Most people age, mature, and die in the same social class they are born into. Sure, you are shown the allusion that, you too, can be anything you want to be with a little hard work, diligence, and maybe a little luck. The common denominator is money. How much you have, how much you can acquire. Now, the big kick is, “you don’t have to go to college.” No, you don’t. But your earning potential increases exponentially when you do across your earning lifetime. In 2020, the CEO to worker pay ratio was 351 to 1. In 1965 it was 21 to 1.

        Without that degree, what do you think your chances are of getting to occupy the big office? What does that indicate about upward mobility if you are lower class or lower middle class as you grasp the ladder and look up? You like what you do for a living, but if you don’t like the conditions or the pay, hit the road. You have no ability to negotiate salary or benefits. Your choice is a straight-up accept/reject of the offer and continued employment.

        Look at skilled trades. Most are family based. Passed from one generation to the next. In the past, there was no apprenticeship or journeyman pathways to get into those trades. Now, suddenly, we need those folks just like we needed to focus on science, technology, engineering, and math a few short years ago. I think we need a well-educated person that can choose their own life path without being born into it, or having to borrow a small fortune to obtain the means to get where they want to go. School systems are opening “skills centers” as a means of drawing workers into the fold. How much of that training has a business management dynamic to it? You know, to help them succeed on their own? No one talks about that aspect, do they? To close this paragraph, look outside North Carolina at what other states were doing and when. Compared to some others, NC is over 40 years behind in this regard. Yes, I know what party was in power then. Terry Sanford worked to address it and was quite successful with it through the institution of the community college system. But the other states were doing it in their secondary schools, not community college.

        Look at where NC is at on teacher pay. 43rd in the nation.

        Sure they’re proposing a raise for teachers. Across the next two years. And at the end of that, how far behind will they still be? They’re breaking even or less rather than catching up and falling further behind the other systems in the country. Let’s be clear. Education is a primary foundational premise for the nation. Not just for a good job, but for good citizens. “A well informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” If it’s nothing more than question the status quo and seek answers outside of those that you’re fed in an attempt to delude you into an episode of ‘group think.’ But is also means that you’re savvy about the economy. That, despite what you are told, you look in your wallet and after paying for the things you have, want, or need, do you still see green or is there a galactic black hole forming in your wallet? It means that you’re savvy about social issues and mores. Which is where we find ourselves astraddle the daily news cycles each day. Social issues and mores ebb and flow rather quickly. Can you imagine laws and legislatures trying to keep pace with public opinion? Neither can I. So law and public policy should grow slowly, foment across time, and allow for the most freedom of the people; not for the benefit of some to the detriment of others.

        How has life improved under Republican tutelage? Have your civil rights expanded? This legislature finally expanded Medicaid. It took them how many years to do the right thing? And it came with a Federal funding stream to do it, all they had to do was pass it. Just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. They want to cut taxes. And they did. My tax liability went up. XYZ Inc. saw a tax cut. Now, they’re wanting to cut corporate taxes altogether. Corporations use the roads and the infrastructure, but they aren’t going to pay for it like the rest of us. Besides, how do you grow for the future if you cut taxes today? State employees were given “bonuses” for a couple of years in lieu of a raise. That’s 25 cents an hour, 10 bucks a week. Don’t spend it all in one place. Why do you think the State is averaging over 1,000 job vacancies per week? Because of that firm hand on the tiller over at the State Legislature. The state used to entice people to enter public service with a lower wage but a benefit package that was fantastic. Well, now they’ve cut that back since the promises made now have to be kept. Did they take that money cut from the budget and push it toward paying a better wage? Hardly. Just a few years ago, the legislature allowed DOT to adjust salaries in their department to help counter a retention problem. Some of the upper levels got 50 and 60% raises. The people that actually went out and did the work got the crusts that fell from the table. Let’s talk about someone in DOT figuring out they overspent the budget and employees were furloughed to offset the cost.

        Am I saying to just throw money at everyone and everything? Nope. But North Carolina can afford to do better than it does. It wants to low ball everybody. Not pay a fair wage or what the job is worth. North Carolina wants to reward entrepreneurs. Okay. That is someone’s passion. They get it up and off the ground. I applaud their effort. Once that is done though, who actually does the work to keep it going and growing? That’s right. So they end up making money off someone else’s labors.

        Let’s talk about abortion. Republicans are all about the “right to life” until that life is on the ground. Then, they could care less. I’m a man so it’s none of my business. I have no say in it. If it’s a sin, well, that will be between the woman and God. But the politicians fight tooth and nail over a woman’s right to decide about a lifetime choice and take the ability to make that choice away. Now, how does that factor into class? Because the affluent woman can go to another country and get that service. The poor woman is going to be forced into having the child. If the pregnancy is high risk, that’s too bad. If the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life, I guess that is God’s will. That choice should be between the woman, her doctor, and her conscience. The state nor politicians should be afforded a say.

        December 1st, 2019, the law went into affect that defined a juvenile until attaining the age of 18. The effect of that? Look at the incidents in the public schools every day in this State. Talk to a teacher about the manifest disrespect and discipline problems. How many teachers are assaulted by students every week?

        Hyper partisan? I’m actually not. I’m moderate if anything. I’ve voted for Republicans in the past. I will do so in the future. Do Democrats and Republicans go too far at times? They do. Usually when they start believing they’re on a mission from God and have a mandate from the voters. Look at the percentage of people who actually vote compared to the actual population. Mandate? Both concern themselves with things that really don’t matter a whole hell of a lot to a majority of people. The Democrat Party was/is supposed to be the party of the little guy. The common folks. The representative of the masses against the overbearing lords and land barons who take, take, take. I’ve never changed my voter registration. I never will; on the basis of that sentence. Now, am I blue collar? No, I’m not. I’m likewise not a selfish money-grubbing ass either. I’m likewise not what today would be expressed as “progressive.” Yes indeed, Republicans will likely continue to control the legislature as long as they can control the ability to make the district maps.

        More than anything else though, there needs to be parity in the legislature. One to provide oversight on the other. To work together for the common good of all rather than the shortsightedness of a few. Much ado is made about “veto-proof” majorities. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should. Too many are drunk on their own power and the sound of their own voice. The call themselves “leaders” when in fact, they should be humble representatives.

        You’ve got to look deep and behind the facade Ring. At a glance, sure, it doesn’t look too bad. Until you start digging.

        • ringlet86

          Thanks for that.

        • Josie Medlin

          OXFAM rated North Carolina the WORST place in the nation to be a WORKER. Three consecutive years. #52 out of 52 (includes Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia). It’s not even close. North Carolina politicians of all stripes love to gloat over the State’s ratings as one of the best / the best to start a business. Duh. That comes at the expense of working class people in NC.

          Working class people who flipped to MAGA did so because they saw political elites whose public schools got the most resources expressing no concern for fair wages, the right to organize and working conditions. Everyone in Raleigh is a cheerleader for the Chamber of Commerce. When studies like OXFAM are released, nobody pays attention.

          The truth hurts. North Carolina is where shitty jobs are the norm.

  5. Fetzer Mills Jr

    What else would you expect from Art Pope’s butler?

    • James

      That’s funny.

  6. Tom Fehsenfeld

    Great fact checking. Thanks for making the effort. John Hood’s column had me worried.

    • ringlet86

      You should be worried. Hood is correct. the state legislature shows it to be true.

      • Laura Reich

        The state legislature is heavily gerrymandered.

        • Bill Cokas

          Criminally so.

          • ringlet86

            I recall I think it was when the Republicans first won a majority and made the maps for the first time, and of course the lawsuits were filed before they maps were ever made!

            Anyway I recall the judge stated “yes the maps are drawn in their
            (Republicans) favor, but they are no worse than what the Democrats when you made they made the maps.

            I found that “turnabout is fair play” pretty funny! Those maps stood. and the recent ones where the political court ( Dem bias at the time) tossed out will be put back. (Again turnabout is fair play!) And nothing that was done in NC is nearly as bad as what NY and IL did. So hey it could be even WORSE! Republican threw us a bone, we’d be fools to throw it back in their face.

            That is where we are. And Democrats just have sour grapes about it and just are a bunch or Sore losers! We need to just grow up and stop whining all the time.

            Regardless The left in this country is well out of step with “normal people” and hawking for an ever more radical unhinged left, and for policies that are objectively making life hell for our voters. Once again Look at NY, Chicago, LA San Francisco, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle…And on and on.

            Democrats have got to change the course. Its wrong and its clear as day.

            It has to be on purpose to distribute “excess votes” out of blue areas into red ones, but the blue places are so bad (and growing worse) its ruining our brand.

            We’ve played oursleves.

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