Conservative western North Carolina hopes to keep state from turning blue in 2020 election
MACON COUNTY, North Carolina — Just before the State Line Package store on U.S. 441 North, and before you cross the Georgia-North Carolina border, is an outsize blue sign promoting President Trump’s reelection bid.
In 2016, the sign was red. Aside from the color of the sign, not much has changed in this part of the country, known for conservative mountain values and strong support for the president.
Locals will even say that far western North Carolina delivered Trump the White House in 2016.
“I’ve heard him say it,” North Carolina House Deputy Majority Whip Rep. Kevin Corbin told the Washington Examiner with his seventh-generation mountain twang.
“President Trump will tell you that he is in the White House today because of western North Carolina,” Corbin said. “He got such a strong vote in western North Carolina, he wound up winning North Carolina by a very slim margin.”
Corbin, a second-term Republican representing the seven westernmost counties, describes a state of strong contrasts and voters who will cross party lines. But recent demographic changes elsewhere in the state could threaten the president’s chances, he believes.
“Rural North Carolina is very, very red, very Republican, and urban North Carolina is very, very blue,” explained Corbin. “Neither one of the major political parties can now say, ‘We got this.’”
A Fox News poll from Thursday has presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden edging out Trump 47% to 45% in the state, while a New York Times/Siena College poll on the same day has Biden ahead by 9 points at 49% to 40%.
North Carolina State University political science Chairman Michael J. Struett told the Washington Examiner that in the last four years, population gains in urban areas have made a purple state in play for the Democrats. Turnout also favors Democrats over Republicans.
“Some people, I think, are misled by looking at our legislature and our congressional delegation as well, that makes North Carolina appear more red than it is,” he said. “North Carolina is generally a 50-50 state.”
Struett compared the 2020 race to the 2008 race, where North Carolina had a presidential election, a governor, and a senatorial seat all in play.
In 2008, Barack Obama at the top of the ticket turned out Democrats who sent Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue to Raleigh and unseated Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole in favor of Kay Hagan.
In 2012, Obama narrowly lost the state to Mitt Romney.
By 2016, Trump carried the state with slightly fewer votes than Romney, beating Hillary Clinton by a margin of 3.66%.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of supporters of Trump in rural North Carolina and in parts of the center of the state,” Struett said. “But those folks are not where North Carolina has added voters since the last four years.”
Democratic voters move in
In progressive Asheville, the largest city in western North Carolina with a population of 92,000, craft breweries have reopened with strict coronavirus protocols.
At the New Belgium brewery, picnic tables are spread some 30 feet apart on a grassy lawn. Indoor seating is closed, and mask-wearing and reservations are enforced.
“I’m sorry, you cannot order a beer while waiting. The wait is 40 minutes,” a mask-wearing host said to successive groups of eager beer drinkers one Friday afternoon.
“We are more in the purple category trending towards blue,” Buncombe County Democratic Party Chairman Jeffrey Rose told the Washington Examiner. “People are really getting fired up about electing Joe Biden and reelecting Gov. Cooper.”
Rose said that looking at the election maps, one can get the wrong impression about folks in western North Carolina.
“People tend to have a pretty independent streak,” he said, pointing to the runoff election that made 24-year-old newcomer Madison Cawthorn the Republican nominee to replace Mark Meadows over Trump’s hand-picked candidate.
“People in western North Carolina understand that they’re not voting for AOC, they’re not voting for Nancy Pelosi,” he said. “Those are not the Democrats that are running here.”
With the tourism economy battered, coronavirus cases surging, and other issues such as affordable housing, minimum wage, and access to broadband, Rose thinks most voters, including Republicans, are focused on what’s going to impact their lives this election cycle.
“Before COVID, we had the strongest economy in the United States and in North Carolina that we’ve had ever,” he said.
Struett said urbanites have moved into Mecklenburg and Wake counties in the past four years, increasing the populations of the banking center of Charlotte and the Research Triangle formed by Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.
Republican-leaning, suburban voters may not turn out this election, he added.
“There’s a lot of just dissatisfaction with Trump’s extremism, and even people who might traditionally vote R are likely to either not turn out or not vote for Trump, given the pandemic,” he said.
Meanwhile, North Carolina is nearly 10% Hispanic, and many first-generation Latinos who lean Democratic will vote in their first presidential race.
“The years that the D wins are the ones with higher turnout, and the demographic trends out there are towards adding more likely Democratic voters,” said Struett. “In a presidential year like this, where Democrats are motivated, there’s every reason to think there could be a big blue wave in North Carolina.”
Corbin believes strong Trump supporters will “100%” vote Trump again, but perceptions about the coronavirus and the economy will drive the “soft support both ways.”
“I think that’s the ones he’s going to have to continue to reach out to,” said Corbin. “Turnout is going to be critical.”
Corbin, who runs an insurance agency in the town of Franklin, which has two craft breweries and a mountain view, also acknowledged that demographics do not favor Trump this year.
“My district is very rural, and it’s grown primarily due to the fact that it’s a beautiful area and people move there when they retire,” said Corbin. “But urban North Carolina has grown exponentially faster.”