As the dust settles from Election 2020, it’s clear that while North Carolina remains politically purple, Columbus County has turned bright red. County voters overwhelmingly favored Republican candidates in every partisan race on the ballot — federal, state and local — with the exception of one. But across North Carolina, statewide races were much more competitive, with Democrats either winning or losing by fairly close margins.
“North Carolina is a purple state, but that doesn’t mean that every county is equally purple,” said Chris Cooper, political science professor from Western Carolina University. “There are more red counties than blue counties, but there are more people that live in blue counties.”
In Columbus County, Board of Commissioners District 3 was the only race with a Democratic winner, Giles E. “Buddy” Byrd, who won with 65.2%, according to official results from the Columbus County Board of Elections.
Franklin Thurman, chair of the Columbus County Democratic Party, attributed Byrd’s success to his work ethic. “Byrd is a hard worker,” he said. “He doesn’t take anything for granted.”
Thurman said he believes that many registered Democrats in the county ended up voting Republican due to the “Trump effect.” “They were told to vote all Republican, regardless of the candidate,” he said. “It’s something that happened all over the state.”
Democrats make up 46% of registered voters, compared to 28% unaffiliated and 26% Republicans. Even though the Democratic Party has the highest number of registered voters in the county, a significant proportion of those are actually ideologically conservative.
“One of the last things someone wants to do is change their party’s affiliation,” especially since it doesn’t matter in presidential elections, Cooper said in a previous interview. “In some way it’s not a pressing concern; it’s an administrative detail.”
Thurman congratulated the Republican winners, but promised a comeback for his party. “I guarantee you in four years, people will be glad to put Democrats in those [county] commissioner seats,” he said, referring to Republicans winning districts 2, 4 and 5, leading to a majority-GOP board for the first time in recent history.
Columbus County Republican Party Chair Sammy Hinson was proud of his party’s success, especially with the Columbus County Board of Commissioners. “I wish we had gotten all four commissioners, but I’ll take 75% any day of the week,” he said.
Hinson added that the party’s success was mainly due to county residents’ hard work during the campaign. “We organized; we put our heads together; we got our hands dirty,” he said. “All we want to do is make Columbus County be the best it can be.”
Like Thurman, Hinson also credited the “Trump effect” for Columbus County going red this election. “His popularity helped,” he said. “A lot of candidates rode on his coattails.”
National politics, incumbency influence
The presidential race and national debates played a big role not just in Columbus County, but across the state, according to Steven Greene, political science professor at North Carolina State University.
“National politics has so come to dominate our thinking of politics,” he said. “The truth is the issues that you’re deciding on a school board or a county commission are so different than what’s being debated in Washington. People should be splitting their tickets more in these kind of races.”
Because of this party division, incumbency wasn’t as impactful as it had been in elections past, according to Greene. “Incumbency is not dead, but it is diminished,” he said.
Cooper added that incumbents often have the opportunities, and war chest, to win elections. “Like anything else, you get better with experience,” he said.
The four Democrats who won statewide elections were all incumbents: Roy Cooper for governor, Josh Stein for attorney general, Beth Wood for auditor and Elain Marshall for secretary of state. They all beat their opponents by less than three percentage points. The recount between Rep. Paul Newby and Dem. Cheri Beasley for supreme court justice is ongoing.
These close margins indicate to both Greene and Cooper the future of North Carolina’s purple hue. “For good or ill, we can expect another four years of swing state status,” Cooper said.