Note: This post was significantly enhanced through the efforts of Lawrence Shaheen, who assisted in writing the piece. Mr. Shaheen is a GOP political consultant and attorney based in Mecklenburg County who has run, consulted, and helped win a number of elections in and around the region over the past five years. PoliticsNC is grateful for his contributions to this post.
Mecklenburg County is North Carolina’s most populous county, containing the city of Charlotte and several well-populated bedroom communities. Both Democrats and Republicans need to make a good showing in key areas in order to do well both in statewide elections as well as the legislature. Republicans don’t typically win in Mecklenburg anymore (unless you are Pat McCrory), but if they can get to 40%, they’re in good shape statewide.
In 2008, Obama’s landslide victory in Mecklenburg, where he netted over 100,000 votes over John McCain, helped him achieve a tiny victory statewide. Four years later, seeking to put North Carolina in play once again, Democrats went so far as to hold their convention in the Queen City. Once again, Obama’s margin of victory in the county was over 100,000, but his percentage of the vote there overall went down. By winning more moderates in the suburbs of Charlotte, Mitt Romney was able to keep the losses down in Mecklenburg, helping him to win the state by 2 points.
President Obama and Senator Hagan had very similar performances in Mecklenburg. Obama won Mecklenburg by 22.4%, Hagan won it by 21.1%, so Tillis did slightly better than Romney. Despite Tillis’s district being in the northern part of the county, his improved performance can be almost solely attributed to large Democratic dropoff from 2012. While the Hagan campaign struggled valiantly to reassemble the Obama coalition, in the end they came up short. African American turnout in particular lagged behind 2012 levels.
The key to doing well in Mecklenburg County is the suburban vote. in 2014 the suburban vote made up a larger percentage of the votes cast in Meck, but voters in this group were less friendly to Tillis than they were to Romney. This is not surprising: Romney was a good fit for the fiscally conservative, relatively affluent, socially moderate voters in Charlotte’s suburbs. Tillis, on the other hand, spent weeks getting pounded by the Democrats and as a result was perceived by these important moderates as a much more divisive figure. The Hagan team spent millions of dollars in ads insisting that Tillis was trying to wreck their children’s education, and there was some unease about the conservative direction the General Assembly was taking the state.
Therefore, there were quite a few Romney/Hagan voters in suburban Meck; the same type of voters live in Wake County and similar patterns were seen there. Finding an Obama/Tillis voter, however, is like finding a needle in a haystack. If Hagan had completely reassembled the Obama coalition, she would have won because Tillis lost a number of Romney voters. In the end, Hagan did well with the urban, well-educated moderate types who populate the Raleigh and Charlotte areas, but lost because her base did not turn out in the right numbers.
Below are maps of the results in Mecklenburg for federal office for the last three election cycles: the Senate elections of 2010 and 2014, and also the presidential election of 2012.
The Congressional Races
Mecklenburg County contains parts of three congressional districts, with the Charlotte urban core mostly being in the 12th district, the suburbs outside being in the 9th, with a tiny sliver of Charlotte in the 8th.
Mecklenburg Congressional Popular Vote
Thanks to Rep. Robert Pittenger running unopposed, Republicans won 62% of the congressional popular vote. Pittenger was reelected to a second term with opposition from write-ins; Rep. Richard Hudson won a second term against Antonio Blue, and State Rep. Alma Adams was elected to Congress for her first term, winning both the regular election and the special election, taking office right away (the totals above only take general elections into account).
NC Senate Races in Mecklenburg
The road to the majority in the state senate for NC Democrats has to run through NC State Senate District 41 in Mecklenburg County. Unlike Wake County, where three seats could be taken, Mecklenburg County is made up of four extremely partisan seats and one trending swing district NC-41, held by Republican State Senator Jeff Tarte.
The race in SD-41 was the closest of all the Mecklenburg Senate races, and the incumbent there took over 60% of the vote. This can be attributed directly to excellent campaigning on behalf of Senator Tarte. He was a prolific fundraiser, raising more than $300,000 for his campaign despite facing only a moderately challenging opponent. He was also able to contribute over $130,000 to the NC Senate Caucus, despite having to run his own race. However, over time Senate 41 in Mecklenburg will become more and more competitive as it grows. In 2014 it was an R+4 seat on the PVI. As the suburban cities of Cornelius, Davidson, Matthews, Mint Hill and Huntersville within the district continue to grow, the demographics of the district will likely take on a more moderate aspect, making this district one of the most important by 2020.
The remaining Senate districts were all uncompetitive due to the disproportionate makeup of the demographics. Senator Joel Ford (D) was the only other candidate to face general opposition, which he defeated handily. Senator Bob Rucho (R) faced primary opposition in the form of Charlotte trial attorney Matt Arnold, however that race was never in any doubt due to Rucho’s long history of service.
Senate District 37: Sen. Jeff Jackson (D) runs unopposed, wins first full term.
Senate District 38: Sen. Joel Ford (D) elected to second term against Republican Richard Rivette, with almost 80% of the vote.
Senate District 39: Sen. Bob Rucho (R) wins reelection unopposed.
Senate District 40: Joyce Waddell (D) wins seat of retiring Sen. Malcolm Graham. Unopposed.
Senate District 41: Sen. Jeff Tarte (R) wins a second term, beats Democrat Latrice McRae by 21%.
The popular vote for State Senate in Mecklenburg County: 58% Democrat, 42% Republican. Democrats won two-thirds, or 67%, of the seats.
NC House Races in Mecklenburg
The close results of the races run in Mecklenburg County strengthen the fact that the battle for the majority in the North Carolina House will likely bring Mecklenburg to the center stage in the next few election cycles. There are no less than four seats (HD 88, 92, 98, 103) that were won by Republicans in 2014 that could potentially be successfully challenged by strong Democratic challengers.
NC House District 88 Rep. Rob Bryan beat back a well-funded and organized effort to oust him from his suburban south Charlotte seat. He was the beneficiary of the NC House Legislative Partners, a 501c4 designed to assist House members, and ran a focused campaign against Margie Storch, a longtime activist within the Democratic Party. So long as Rep. Bryan continues to raise money, he will likely hold on to this R+2 seat, although his margins will continue to be close.
NC House Caucus Chairman and District 92 Rep. Charlie Jeter got off lucky this last race, facing off against an opponent, Robin Bradford, that he had defeated, albeit closely, in the previous cycle. Her inability to fundraise and lack of support from the caucus guaranteed Rep. Jeter’s reelection. However he currently represents a D+2 district and will be the most likely targeted Republican House rep in the state. With the right candidate and a well-run race, it would not matter how much money Rep. Jeter puts in to his race, he would be facing a serious uphill battle.
Freshman District 98 Rep. John Bradford faced a well-funded and organized opponent both in the primary and in the general, but was successful through excellent campaigning and fundraising. His seat will likely be the least challenging of the four in Mecklenburg due to his history of service in Cornelius and the R+4 nature of the district.
The biggest unknown of the four house districts is NC House District 103, represented by Senior Finance Co-Chairman Bil Brawley. Having not faced an opponent since his victory over Professor Anne Newman in 2010, Rep. Brawley has established himself as a fair minded advocate of the two towns in his district, Matthews and Mint Hill. He has been a friend to many legislative Republicans who had to run competitive races and has raised his profile through fundraising and public policy every session. While he holds this R+3 seat, it will be difficult to take.
All this being said, these house seats could become targets of an independent expenditure program much like what happened in Buncombe County. When IE efforts targeted Tim Moffitt and Nathan Ramsey, they spent in the same media market to get more bang for their buck in attacking two members with one ad. This likely attack could occur in Mecklenburg and be successful if the local Republican legislators are not prepared for their campaigns. The NC Democratic House Caucus has to know that there is no majority in NC without picking up at least two of these seats in Mecklenburg. It will be interesting to see in the coming years how both caucuses defend or attack these seats.
House District 88: Rep. Rob Bryan (R) wins a second term, beating Margie Storch (D) with 55% of the vote.
House District 92: In a rematch, Rep. Charles Jeter (R) wins a second term, beating Robin Bradford (D) with 53% of the vote.
House District 98: Incumbent and NC House Speaker Thom Tillis ran for U.S. Senate, leaving this an open seat. John Bradford (R) beats Natasha Marcus (D) with 55% of the vote.
House District 99: Rep. Rodney Moore (D) reelected, unopposed.
House District 100: Rep. Tricia Cotham (D) reelected, unopposed.
House District 101: Rep. Beverly Earle (D) reelected, unopposed.
House District 102: Rep. Becky Carney (D) reelected, unopposed.
House District 103: Rep. Bill Brawley (R) reelected, unopposed.
House District 104: Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R) retired, leaving open seat. Dan Bishop (R) beats Eric Cable (L) with 75% of the vote.
House District 105: Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer (R) wins a second term, unopposed.
House District 106: Rep. Carla Cunningham (D) reelected, beats Trey Lowe (R) with 87% of the vote.
House District 107: Rep. Kelly Alexander (D) reelected, unopposed.
The popular vote for NC House races in Mecklenburg broke down like this: 55% Democratic, 42% Republican, 3% Libertarian.
Mecklenburg is a strongly Democratic county, but was carried by Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, just barely, in 2012. The last time Meck went Republican in a Senate race was in 2002, where again it went just barely to Elizabeth Dole. The last Republican presidential nominee to carry Mecklenburg was George W. Bush, he won it by 2 points in 2000 and lost it by about the same margin four years later.
Even though 2010 was a strongly Republican year and she was at a considerable monetary disadvantage, Democrat Elaine Marshall carried the county in her 2010 race against Richard Burr by a comfortable margin. In federal races, Mecklenburg is pretty much lost for any GOP candidate, but successful candidates understand that if they can lose by less of a margin in Mecklenburg, they can rely on rural and more conservative regions to help make up those loses.
Below are three maps – all of Mecklenburg county, the first being the precinct map of the Burr/Marshall race in the county, the second being the Obama/Romney presidential race, and the third being the Hagan/Tillis contest:
The partisan breakdown of Mecklenburg County residents who registered to vote after November 6th, 2012 and were registered by the 2014 elections:
31,043 Unaffiliateds (42%)
27,855 Democrats (37%)
15,969 Republicans (21%)
Partisan ID is the best indicator of who voted for whom in partisan elections. Remove the unaffiliated voters from the equation and you have 64% of new Mecklenburg voters being Democrats and 36% being Republicans, an indication the county continues to trend to the left, nudged in part by an aggressive voter registration operation by the Hagan campaign.
The breakdown of the new voters by race: 53% White, 31% Black, 9% Other, 7% Unknown. Only 17% of new Mecklenburg voters were actually born in North Carolina. Another 13% were born in another state in the South (Florida excluded). 9% were born in New York. And 6% were born in another country. This means that 70% of newly registered Mecklenburg voters were born somewhere outside the Southern United States, an indication of the new demographic realities confronting North Carolina Republicans.
Racial Voting Patterns
The following was the racial breakdown of the electorate on November 4th:
White – 62%
Black – 32%
Unknown – 2%
Other – 2%
Asian – 1%
From these numbers and from the statewide exit polls, Thom Tillis won an estimated 59% of the white vote in Mecklenburg County. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried about 61% of this group. Thus, even though whites were less likely to support Tillis than Romney, Hagan failed to build on Obama’s margin in Mecklenburg because racial minorities made up a smaller portion of the electorate.
Mecklenburg County is the largest county in NC by population but has only the second-largest number of voters, after Wake. Hagan and Obama achieved almost the exact same performance in Mecklenburg in two separate electoral cycles. If Hagan had the turnout advantage enjoyed by Obama in his presidential campaigns, her vote share compared to Obama’s would have been higher. Going forward, the GOP needs to hold Democrats below 60% countywide in order to continue being successful in presidential cycles. Moderate, unaffiliated voters provide a path to growth for both parties and will continue to be influential, especially in the legislative races.
John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.