The GOP’s Metro Implosion

April 2, 2024

Summary:

  • Republicans have collapsed in North Carolina’s urban and suburban counties
  • These counties account for nearly all the state’s booming population growth
  • Moderate voters are abandoning the MAGA-fied GOP

 

In the 2024 election, the single most important county in North Carolina for Donald Trump, Mark Robinson, and other Republican statewide candidates will be Wake County.

Frequently derided by Republicans as “Woke County,” Wake went for Joe Biden by a whopping 26.5 points in 2020. But even though Wake is deeply blue, its population is so large that Donald Trump still picked up about 226,000 votes there. In other words, even in lopsided defeat, Republicans still picked up more votes from Wake county than any other in the state by a very large margin. Wake county alone contributed more Republican votes than a whopping 14 counties of Western North Carolina, all the way from Murphy (Cherokee) to Spruce Pine (Mitchell). That sum that also includes Buncombe, whose Democratic tilt itself outweighed all 8 heavily Republican counties to its west, with tens of thousands more to spare.

This is a glimpse into the power of political geography, and a flashing red-alert sign for the Republicans. Because even as metro-county votes are becoming ever-more critical to winning statewide, the Republican Party brand is imploding in them. This trend has massive effects on both statewide as well as legislative elections, and will be a key element in the 2024 general election.

But first, a reminder about the basic political geography of North Carolina.

Essential geography

For over 15 years now, a majority of North Carolina’s counties have been shrinking in population, and many more are essentially stagnant. This is not a prediction or even a trend – it has already happened, and is accelerating. While North Carolina is also one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, the large majority of this growth has accrued to just a handful of urban and suburban counties – all of which are voting Democratic by increasing margins in each election cycle.

According to the U.S. Census, fully 41% of all of North Carolina’s eye-popping population growth as a state from 2010 to 2020 accrued to only two counties: Wake (22%) and Mecklenburg (19%). We have covered this phenomenon in detail here, here, here and here.

This would not be an issue if North Carolina’s heavily Republican, majority-white rural counties were also growing by leaps and bounds. But they are not – in fact, the opposite is happening. Nor are there clear opportunities for finding new GOP voters. The largest county where Republican margins are increasing even modestly is Davidson county, which ranks #17 in the state for population.

Suburban Extinction

North Carolina Republicans are seeing a rapid implosion of their brand in not just North Carolina’s cities, but also its booming suburbs, which together are the source of nearly all the state’s growth. Worse, there is no clear way for them to address it. A brief recap of the two largest counties in the state demonstrates this in stark relief.

  • Across Mecklenburg county, Republicans once routinely won and held legislative seats. Today, the party is almost extinct. The list of defeats is a who’s-who of the state political battles of the 2010s: Bob Rucho (who quit); Dan Bishop (also quit); Scott Stone (defeated 2018); Bill Brawley (defeated 2018, and again in 2022); Andy Dulin (defeated 2018); and Jeff Tarte (defeated 2018). Perhaps the most famous example, though, is Pat McCrory, who was the last Republican to win the mayorship of Charlotte for the foreseeable future. In 2023, the Republican mayoral candidate was defeated by 52 points.
  • In Wake county, the situation is similar. Republicans have experienced a die-off of legislative candidates: Paul “Skip” Stam (quit); Nelson Dollar (defeated 2018); Marilyn Avila (defeated 2016); Tom Murry (defeated 2014); Chris Malone (defeated 2018); John Adcock (defeated 2018); Gary Pendleton (defeated 2016); Tamara Barringer (defeated 2018); John Alexander (quit). Wake Republicans are no longer capable of meaningfully competing at the county level in Wake, prompting the legislature to change the county’s electoral system instead.

After the 2024 election, there may no longer be a single Republican in Mecklenburg county’s state legislative delegation. Only two Republicans represent Mecklenburg in the state legislature today: Rep. John Bradford (HD-98) and Rep. Tricia Cotham (HD-105). Cotham, of course, was not elected as a Republican at all. Her race, while competitive, is quite likely to flip Democratic this fall. Bradford announced he was quitting the legislature altogether in 2023. Bradford’s seat, House District 98 (once held by Thom Tillis), is also a likely Democratic flip this fall.

In Wake, Rep. Erin Pare is the sole Republican legislator left standing – and even she faces a tossup election this fall against Democratic challenger Safiyah Jackson (an endorsee of the Carolina Forward Slate).

It bears mentioning that every single candidate in the list above was defeated in a district drawn by Republicans, specifically to maximize Republican partisan advantage. But gerrymandering simply was not enough to contain these counties’ Democratic shift. In fact, the GOP’s urban collapse has been the key reason why Republicans are no longer able to gerrymander a safe legislative supermajority. In 2013, after Republicans passed the most aggressive partisan gerrymander possible, Democrats held 43 seats in the State House and 17 in the State Senate; in 2023, after an unusually difficult cycle under a fresh Republican gerrymander, they held 49 House seats (prior to Cotham’s defection) and 20 in the Senate.

In short, while Republicans can still gerrymander themselves a reasonably safe majority, the statewide steady realignment towards Democrats has made it much more difficult. And this shift is still ongoing.

It’s about the margins

In the 2024 general election, it’s entirely possible that President Biden’s winning margin in Wake will exceed 30%, and even 40% in Mecklenburg. If the final result winds up even approximate to those figures, Donald Trump’s winning 2020 margin of just 73,000 votes statewide (1.3 points) statewide would nearly evaporate. And that doesn’t even factor in similarly growing Democratic margins in every other big county, like Guilford, Forsyth, Buncombe, Cumberland and New Hanover.

Of course, Donald Trump still has a very strong chance of winning North Carolina for a third time. To do so, he must once again squeeze out strong over-performance in white rural counties, many of whom are very sporadic voters. But more importantly, he must stop the GOP slide in the suburbs, nowhere more than in Wake and Mecklenburg. If Trump can hold Joe Biden to approximately the same urban county margins he won in 2020, he is likely to carry the state.

The problem? Metro county Republican voters seem uninterested in helping.

There are many reasons why suburban voters are turning away from the Republican brand in droves. Among them are the offputting extremism of the MAGA-fied Republican party, post-Dobbs abortion politics, and educational polarization, all trends seen nationally. Yet as moderate voters have abandoned formal Republican party structures, the shrinking core of emboldened true believers have embraced exactly the “weird” extremist fringe politics and candidates that alienate moderate voters even further – a vicious cycle with no clear solution.

This, in a nutshell, is the Republican Party’s “MAGA Problem.”

If the Biden campaign is successful in flipping North Carolina in 2024 – as they are clearly serious about doing – this is how they will do it. Perhaps only a spectacular electoral loss will convince Republican base voters to embrace moderation once again. On the other hand, that’s what many assumed in 2020 as well.

Help build progress for North Carolina.

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