As Donald Trump became the dominant figure for national Republicans, white suburban voters across the country trended heavily toward the Democratic Party. This shift has seen states like Colorado and Virginia become solidly Democratic at the federal level and was the pivotal factor in Joe Biden’s 2020 victories in Arizona and Georgia. 

North Carolina has been an exception to this trend. After Barack Obama’s narrow victory in the state in 2008, Democrats believed North Carolina, the ninth largest state, would become a key part of the Democratic coalition. Instead, the state has voted Republican in every presidential and U.S. Senate election since. 

“The thinking was that it would be a down-the-coast change. Once Democrats lock down Virginia, then they’d take North Carolina and Georgia—but that’s not what happened,” said J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “North Carolina has slipped away.”

Compared to its blue neighbors, North Carolina’s population is less diverse, less educated, less affluent, and less concentrated in urban areas. North Carolina lacks the suburban megacounties of Georgia and Virginia; instead, the population is scattered across a half-dozen major metropolitan areas. In Georgia, over 56 percent of people live in the Atlanta metro area. In North Carolina, the largest metropolitan area—Charlotte—is home to only 21 percent of the population.

“[North Carolina] doesn’t really have the equivalent to a Gwinnett or a Loudoun County,” said Coleman. “It hurts Democrats that things are so spread out.” Coleman noted that the state’s outer-suburban counties, known as exurbs, routinely give Republicans anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent of their votes.

But the state is still changing beneath the surface, especially in the inner suburbs of the state’s biggest cities. These white, wealthy, and historically Republican areas have been a key part of the Republican coalition. But as Trump has reshaped the Republican Party, they’ve begun to realign, creating an opening for Democratic politicians. 

Supporters of President Donald Trump arrive to hear him speak at November 1, 2020 campaign rally at Hickory Regional Airport. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Donald Trump speaks during the North Carolina Republican Party Convention on June 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Mecklenburg’s Democratic Shift

For decades, Republicans maintained a stranglehold on the Charlotte suburbs. While the urban core of the city became more diverse and more Democratic, the whiter, wealthier southern suburbs comprised what became known as the “Wedge”—a roughly triangle-shaped Republican bulwark.

The Wedge and its counterpart, the diverse Arc across north Charlotte, aren’t just visible in historical voting patterns; they are apparent in demographics, income, and school performance. Dominance in the Wedge was what enabled Republicans to remain competitive in mayoral races as recently as 2015, and it played a decisive role in Pat McCrory’s win in Mecklenburg in his 2012 gubernatorial bid—the last time a Republican has carried the county in a statewide election.

Today, federal Republican strength in Mecklenburg County is nearing extinction. In 2022, U.S. Senate candidate Ted Budd won only six precincts in the Wedge. “It’s more or less becoming a pretty reliable Democratic constituency,” said Coleman, who grew up in the Wedge. Some exceptions remain, he said: “In Charlotte specifically, the closer you get to downtown, the more likely [voters] are to split their tickets.”

Republican support has, however, proven surprisingly stubborn downballot. In 2018, Mecklenburg voters decisively supported a Republican-backed ballot initiative to cap the maximum state income tax at 7 percent. And in last year’s local elections in Charlotte, Democrats failed to unseat Tariq Bokhari, one of only two Republicans left on the 11-member city council.

Bryan Segers, 50, is a loan specialist from south Charlotte’s Beverly Woods neighborhood. He became an unaffiliated voter after his husband, Kyle Luebke, a Republican, ran for city council. For Segers, local elections have different priorities than federal ones, where he generally votes Democratic.

“When Kyle ran for city council, I was amazed at how many people thought city council could impact abortion,” he said. “For me, I need to understand who I’m voting for locally. For me, it’s really just understanding that person. I care about their background. … I care about seeing that they’ve done other things.”

The Wedge-based 113th state House district, based in portions of Charlotte and Matthews, is an example of the county’s broader trends. In 2022, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley won the area by 11 points.

But in the state House race, incumbent Democrat Laura Budd only won by around 5 percentage points. A slightly stronger Republican year—or a slightly different legislative map—might have been enough to flip the seat.

The North Carolina state House reviews proposed maps during a committee hearing on Oct. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

Under a new map proposed last week by legislative Republicans, Mint Hill and Matthews would be reunited in the 115th state House district, which Trump would have carried by two points. State Rep. Tricia Cotham, who switched from Democrat to Republican in April, could run here, setting up a race she’d be favored to win. 

The 98th state House district in north Mecklenburg is another example of this suburban trend of Republicans running stronger down the ticket. This suburban district contains all of Cornelius and Davidson and most of Huntersville; Thom Tillis held the seat before his run for U.S. Senate, but Biden won it in 2020 by 3 percentage points.

It swung even further left in 2022, with Beasley winning it by over 5 points. Despite this, Republican John Bradford III was able to narrowly stave off a challenge from former state Rep. Christy Clark, who had been elected to the seat in 2018’s blue wave before losing a rematch in 2020. House District 98 is one of five pivotal House districts that split their tickets for Beasley and a state House Republican.

“In my experience, swing voters are focused on current events and at times culture wars,” Clark said. “In my first race, I focused on an issue local to the area—managed toll lanes. … My opponent was vulnerable on the issue due to his support of the toll lanes.”

She attributed her victory in 2018 to a strong campaign that incorporated social media, direct mail, television advertisements, and phone banking. She felt that her 2020 and 2022 losses in the district were in large part due to Republican messaging on national issues like defunding the police and crime. 

Clark, who is running for mayor of Huntersville instead of making a fourth bid for the district, expects swing seat voters will once again be focused on national issues in the 2024 cycle. 

The Remaking of New Hanover

Southeastern North Carolina has experienced a different kind of political transformation. 

Decades of political realignment have changed eastern North Carolina’s rural, Democratic bastions into Republican strongholds. And on the coast, an influx of retirees has helped Brunswick County’s population nearly double between 2010 and 2020. 

Despite Brunswick’s rapid growth, adjacent New Hanover County, home to Wilmington, remains the largest population center on the coast. After voting for Richard Nixon in 1968, New Hanover stayed in the Republican column in 11 of the next 12 presidential elections. 

However, young, college-educated urban professionals have taken a liking to Wilmington’s historic waterfront and trendy environment. Moreover, the historic growth of UNC-Wilmington, which saw enrollment soar by 39 percent from 2009 to 2020, has seen the left-leaning college vote become increasingly important. 

This influx of new voters has transformed New Hanover; it now ranks as one of the wealthiest and most college-educated counties in North Carolina.

In 2020, the Trump team showered New Hanover with attention. The man himself arrived on Air Force One, and his daughter, daughter-in-law, and vice president all made appearances within the span of several weeks. But in large part due to new voters, the county swung Democratic in that presidential race—the first time it had done so since 1976. 

Sierra Coomer, a Democratic voter in Wilmington. (Photo by Johanna Still)

Sierra Coomer, 30, was among the voting bloc that halted this local presidential red streak. The UNCW graduate said she identifies with more socialist ideologies but finds herself constrained to the two-party system. “I’m a big Bernie Sanders fan but I feel like I need to affiliate as Democrat to vote,” she said.

After growing up in the Sandhills, Coomer came to Wilmington for college, where she studied environmental science. She was a fundraising coordinator for former state Sen. Harper Peterson’s 2018 run, which he secured with a just 231-vote difference (Republican state Sen. Michael Lee narrowly defeated Peterson in the 2020 rematch). 

In Coomer’s first year voting in 2012, she identified as a Republican on her absentee-by-mail ballot. “My parents mailed me and filled out the ballot for me—Republican all the way down,” she said.

Accustomed to low expectations, Coomer said she’ll back “anyone who’s competent” in the upcoming presidential run.

New Hanover County voted for Democrat Cal Cunningham in the 2020 U.S. Senate race, the first time the county had done so since 2008. But despite these trends at the top of the ticket, Democratic strength failed to follow downballot.

In 2022, Democrats once again performed well at the top of the ticket; Cheri Beasley won New Hanover by nearly 2 percentage points. But just like in 2020, Democrats struggled downballot; Republicans carried the 9th state Senate district and 20th state House district by a combined margin of 2,557 votes. 

If either seat had gone the other way, Republicans would have been denied a supermajority in the legislature.

The Robinson Factor

Counties like Mecklenburg and New Hanover represent a great vulnerability for North Carolina Republicans. In neighboring Georgia and Virginia, wealthy, college-educated white voters have revolted against Trump Republicans. 

But in North Carolina, these voters have been willing to split their tickets for many state-level Republicans, even as they vote for federal Democrats and statewide Democrats like Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein. 

To many suburban voters, the image of the North Carolina Republican Party hasn’t fully aligned with that of the federal party. But that might soon begin to change. Republican leadership has coalesced behind Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s campaign for governor. 

Robinson won in 2020 despite a history of making inflammatory and controversial remarks on social media. As lieutenant governor, the socially conservative Robinson has inserted himself into a slew of hot-button culture war issues, most notably LGBTQ rights. 

Vivian Fugee, a Republican voter in Brunswick County. (Photo by Johanna Still)

For Vivian Fugee, a retired nurse living in Brunswick County, Robinson’s “takes no prisoners” approach is a draw. 

“I support him 100 percent,” she said. Robinson is more cautious than Trump, Fugee said, but he’s loyal. “He’s more careful, but I like that he stands behind Trump. I can’t stand these politicians that say, ‘Well, I’m going to support him,’ and then they turn around and—like [Ron] DeSantis, turns around and stabs him in the back.”

Fugee, 70, moved to Brunswick County from New Jersey because the cost of living is lower. She finds liberal policies invasive: “I’m not into the LGBTQ politics. … Trying to make everything woke, it’s ridiculous.”

But candidates like Robinson don’t resonate with 74-year-old Steve Givens, another Brunswick retiree. He voted Republican his entire life but now proudly identifies as independent. “I don’t see any prospect of me going back,” Givens said as he finished a game of pickleball in Leland.

Democrats talk a nice game but lack follow-through, Givens said, and Republicans lie. “I can defend my position with logic,” he said. “That differentiates me from a good share of Brunswick County.”

Steve Givens of Brunswick County now identifies as an independent voter. (Photo by Johanna Still)

The track record for culture war candidates in North Carolina isn’t especially strong. In March 2016, the Republican legislature passed and Gov. McCrory signed into law House Bill 2, more commonly known as the “bathroom bill,” which restricted transgender access to public restrooms in government buildings. 

The bill sparked national outrage, and McCrory lost his bid for reelection, losing both Mecklenburg County and New Hanover County in the process. While it would be an exaggeration to blame his defeat entirely on HB2—McCrory also faced pushback in the Charlotte area for his support for the controversial I-77 toll lane—his fall underscores the risk of embracing hot-button social issues.

The path to a Republican legislative supermajority runs through the suburbs. Even under the legislature’s proposed new maps, Republicans will need to win at least two Biden districts in order to hold their supermajority in the House. 

They owe their supermajorities to their ability to receive crossover support from Democratic voters. It’s unclear whether this past support will hold if state Republicans become indistinguishable from the national party. 

Eric Cunningham is a lifelong resident of western North Carolina and the editor-in-chief of Elections Daily.

Johanna Still is The Assembly‘s Wilmington editor. She previously covered economic development for Greater Wilmington Business Journal and was the assistant editor at Port City Daily.

Correction: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of Loudoun County, Virginia.