Anson County’s flip to red highlights a shift in rural NC counties
In a three-part series, WFAE looks at why Democrats continue to lose in most statewide races. Here in Part 2, we focus on political shifts in rural regions of North Carolina.
There’s a stretch of rural counties on U.S. 74 heading east from Charlotte to the beach that used to be reliably Democratic.
In the 2008 and 2012 elections, Barack Obama won them all — Anson, Richmond, Scotland and Robeson. All but Richmond are majority-minority counties. But after Obama’s reelection in 2012, they started flipping in federal races. Anson County was the hold out — until last month’s election.
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Republican Ted Budd won this year’s Senate race in Anson County with nearly 52% of the vote. If you want to know the last time Anson County went for a Republican in a federal race, county clerk of court Mark Hammonds will warn you it’s going to take some digging through his files.
“I'd like to have on a pair of blue jeans and some boat shoes on, and I could feel real relaxed and get down on my knees with gloves, and maybe even a dust mask,” laughs Hammonds.
The answer appears to be Richard Nixon in 1972. Before that likely in the Reconstruction era, a century and a half ago.
Some people here say they saw this year’s shift coming. After all, Democrats have been losing ground here over the past 10 years.
Others, like Marshall Ray, a staunch Democrat, were surprised. He’s a retired school teacher who now works at H.W. Little, the hardware store in the center of Wadesboro. It’s surrounded by a few tidy storefronts, a restaurant, a stately courthouse, and some churches. A couple of people are out and about. The quiet street is a far cry from the 1960s, when he was a kid here.
“Sidewalks were just full. There were five or six restaurants uptown, two or three men's clothing stores, four or five women's clothing stores, two grocery stores, three car lots,” recounts Ray.
But over a couple of decades, the textile mills closed and a Walmart moved in. After driving out a lot of businesses, the Walmart ended up closing too. Just over 20% of Anson County residents now live below the federal poverty line.
“Anson County is poor, and anybody that gives them hope of coming out of poverty is going to get their vote,” says Ray.
Does Ray think Democrats have been able to speak to that?
“The message didn't come across this time,” he replies.
Democrat’s coalition leaves rural voters out
Over the last decade, national Democratic strategists have focused on their new coalition of young voters, college-educated voters, and voters of color. There has been a debate in the party as to whether their support among rural, white, working-class voters can fall any further.
This year’s North Carolina election shows that it can.
“Democrats used to be for poor people. And now, I don't even know what they're for,” says Kristie Goodwin.
She’s a surgical technician. Her family owns a logging business. She’s lived in Lilesville, a town of a few hundred in the eastern part of the county, her whole life. Early on, she leaned toward Democrats. But she’s voted Republican in federal elections for many years, even though there have been a series of moderate Democrats on the ballot.
“When Obama was in office, everything went crazy. Trump gets in office, everything goes back down, interest rates are down, jobs are booming. And then bam, a Democrat gets back in office. You're paying three times as much for stuff,” says Goodwin.
Rural voters shift away from Democrats in federal elections
Shifts like this are happening abruptly now, says political analyst and Democratic strategist Thomas Mills, who grew up in Anson County.
“What we're really seeing is a rapid shift, mainly of white, working-class voters towards Republicans, some of whom voted Democratic for a long time,” says Mills.
It’s not just Anson, which is roughly half African American. These dynamics are playing out in rural areas throughout the state. Margins are tightening in Democratic strongholds in the northeast, such as in Warren and Halifax counties.
Mills says a smaller shift is happening among Black voters in rural areas too.
“It's not dramatic, but in a state where elections are routinely decided by less than 10,000 votes, that makes a difference,” says Mills.
Most people agree that the recent sheriff’s nomination had an impact on the Senate race too. It divided Democrats, often along racial lines. A former chair of the Anson County Democratic party, Gloria Overcash, heard a lot of people say that controversy was making them vote Republican.
“They were disgusted with what was going on locally,” says Overcash.
Politics often comes up at Whit’s gas station and convenience store in Lilesville. The early morning crowd tends to be Republican. The Democrats show up a bit later.
“If you get them mixed in together, they'll start arguing. They'll be in here arguing, fussing,” says Adrienne Martin who works there.
Martin votes Republican whenever she can. She says she knows Democrats who recently shifted.
“A lot of people have switched because they're tired of the way things are going,” says Martin.
Charles Rorie is a Democrat who won’t be swayed. He’s a retired police officer and is involved in ministry. Rorie says he was disappointed to see other religious African Americans vote Republican this time around over abortion.
“A lot of them went Republican because of that,” says Rorie.
Lower turnout among African Americans
There’s another factor at work in Anson and neighboring counties that flipped Republican: turnout among African American voters has declined since 2012, when Barack Obama was on the ballot. In Anson County that year, he received 62% of the vote.
The Democratic New Rural Project focuses on getting younger people of color to vote in North Carolina. They gather community members for conversations and give COVID-19 vaccines and gift cards for groceries. Cynthia Wallace helped found the group.
“That kind of effort that we're just in the beginning stages can, hopefully, bring back those voters that have felt unheard, that have felt left behind. That kind of attention over the long term, on a day-to-day basis, is, I think, what's going to cause us to see a turnaround,” says Wallace.
Another factor: Since 2018, the number of registered voters in Anson County has dropped nearly 9%.
Democrats hoped having a Black woman run for Senate would drive more Black voters to the polls. Cheri Beasley made campaign stops in all 100 counties, including a couple in Anson.
Leon Gatewood runs Holla, a group helping kids and their families in the small, largely African American town of Morven.
“I did my part to motivate people to get in line to vote. But I don't tell people which way to vote,” says Gatewood.
That precinct, along with others in mostly Black parts of the county, saw a significant drop in voters this time.
- In the last midterm election, Democratic congressional candidate Dan McCready was at the top of the ballot. He won Anson County with almost 58% of the vote. He picked up about 4,586 votes in the county.
- This year, only 3,324 votes in Anson County went to Beasley.
- That’s only 19 more votes for Beasley in Anson than Democratic congressional candidate Scott Huffman, who was making his third unsuccessful run for Congress since 2018. Huffman raised little money and was never thought of as having a chance to win.
“Some people, especially young African American guys, they don't feel like they get anything out of elected politicians. That's not my point of view. I think you have to get in the fight,” says Gatewood.
Gatewood points out the Senate race wasn’t a landslide in Anson. Beasley only lost by about 400 votes. But that makes him think with some more work, Anson could turn blue again.
If Gatewood is correct, Democrats might have a chance to break their losing streak in narrow Senate elections. If not, they’re likely to fall even farther behind.