The last Wake County Republican in state office, state Senator John Alexander Jr., campaigns on the fact his wife is a Democrat. In a 2014 ad, John and Susan Alexander stand smiling in their kitchen, saying while they don’t agree on everything, they both believe in raising teacher pay and investing in education.
“Plus, he’s got this Democrat to hold him accountable,” Susan says, handing John a bag of trash.
Alexander’s district swipes into the more rural and conservative Franklin County, cresting three country clubs. Even so, he won this year by fewer than twenty-five hundred votes.
Alexander is among a dying breed in Wake County—the endangered species of conservative politicians being driven out by urban demographics and a general disdain for President Trump, experts say.
Out of sixteen partisan state House and Senate races that include Wake County, Alexander is the only Republican left standing. The midterms also saw the ouster of longtime Republican Sheriff Donnie Harrison and Republican clerk of the Superior Court Jennifer Knox, the reelection of Democratic District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, and a Republican-free Wake County Board of Commissioners.
So what, if anything, can the Wake County Republicans do to stage a comeback?
“Get our heads out of our asses,” suggests Brent Woodcox, a Republican attorney and special counsel for the General Assembly.
Republicans have been losing ground in Wake County since at least 2014, when Democrats retook the previously GOP-controlled Board of Commissioners. But changes in the county’s demographics—trending toward a more diverse and educated voter base—have been underway for much longer. Wake’s population has more than doubled since 1990, when whites made up 76 percent of the county’s 423,380 residents. Now, whites comprise just 61 percent of the county’s million residents as of 2014, and over half of Wake residents have attended college.
“This demographic in particular, and especially college-educated women, have moved dramatically toward the Democratic Party,” says N.C. State political science professor Steven Greene. “Wake County is an area with a lot of white, college-educated voters. As long as that trend just maintains, this is basically a one-party county.”
In a sense, this is more evidence of the state’s—and the country’s—growing rural-urban divide. But a closer look paints a more nuanced picture. Wake’s blueness is concentrated in its urban core, where Democrats like Yvonne Lewis Holley and Rosa Gill snagged nearly 80 percent of votes each. It’s more diluted toward the outskirts, which had some of the closest legislative races. Incumbent state representative John B. Adcock, whose district spans Fuquay-Varina, lost by fewer than eight hundred votes to Democrat Sydney Batch. Longtime state representative Nelson Dollar lost to Julie von Haefen by fewer than a thousand votes; his district encompasses part of Apex and stretches toward Holly Springs.
These communities are the real battlegrounds, says Duke political scientist Mac McCorkle, who describes these towns as “countrypolitan”—caught between a rural legacy and a suburban future.
“Those areas aren’t really rural anymore in any way you can define,” McCorkle says. “Their legacies might be rural, but more of those people are commuting in, or working in factory or desk jobs. They are not out in the field anymore. It’s these in-between, countrypolitan places that have rural legacies but are connected to the city in some way that are contested areas.”
If Republicans hope to regain traction in Wake, they’ll need to target those districts. To succeed, McCorkle says, they’ll need to distance themselves from state and national politics. Or, more simply, they need to dump Trump.
Democrats’ success in Wake County “really was, in the end, a rejection of Trump,” McCorkle says. “Whether it was a rejection of Republicanism, that remains to be seen, but I think the Republicans are worried that it could [have been]. There’s this growing perception that these guys aren’t about really governing and doing things for the state of North Carolina. It’s all about how can they get one more manipulation of power.”
National politics have become so polarized, Greene adds, that most races are predetermined by districting and the “R” or “D” that appears on the ballot next to a candidate’s name. But in close races, reputation and campaign rhetoric can make a difference—and may have helped Alexander hang on.
“To win as a Republican in Wake County, you have to talk about certain things like [education] that are going to appeal to more Democratic voters,” Greene says. “If [Alexander] had run as a hardcore Tea Party Republican, he would have lost. Any Republicans who want to win anything in Wake County are going to run as more moderate Republicans.”
For Woodcox, Wake Republicans need to reinvigorate the party with younger candidates and tell a better story that connects with voters. That could involve advocating for cutting red tape on issues like accessory dwelling units that Raleigh Democrats have dragged their feet on.
“[Republicans] need to take a long look inside and understand that the county is changing, and it’s changing very quickly, and the party is not changing as quickly as the county is,” he says. “The message that the party has been running on for a long time just isn’t relevant enough with the voters who are voting in these elections, and we’re not connecting with them. Now, hopefully, they’ve hit rock bottom and can turn things around and start to think differently.”
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