Photo of democratic poll worker's station at one of Union County's early voting sites in Mineral Springs
Aaron Canipe

Trump’s Fate Rests on Countrypolitan Counties

In Union County, North Carolina, change is coming—and the GOP is struggling to keep up.

MONROE, N.C.—When he was 9, Jesse Helms got his first job, sweeping floors at the Monroe Enquirer. His father was both police chief and fire chief in this Cotton Belt town, but Jesse’s career in journalism would take him far away—first to the state capitol, in Raleigh, and then to Washington, D.C., where he was a firebrand Republican dubbed “Senator No” for his skill at obstruction and resistance to change. Helms left the area as a teenager and never lived here again, but he often talked about his hometown of Monroe.

Union County remained a stronghold of traditional conservatism after Helms left. Monroe was the site of pitched battles over civil rights in the 1960s. Today the streets are sleepy, with a smattering of shops circling a soaring Victorian brick courthouse, a Confederate monument on the lawn. On a sunny morning last week, the Commodores’ “Easy” wafted from speakers around downtown, which only emphasized how empty the streets were. Elegant old homes surround the area, and beyond the town limits is farmland.

But even Senator No couldn’t keep Monroe entirely frozen in time, which may be why a portrait of President Jimmy Carter, a frequent Helms nemesis, hangs over the bar at East Frank Superette and Kitchen downtown.

“That’s a saint for you!” says Cress Barnes, whose family runs the restaurant, a funky combination bodega, café, and craft-beer bar that would be at home in any hip neighborhood in America. Barnes, a self-described socialist with a pixie cut, beanie, and chunky glasses, warmly greets everyone coming through the door. Her family moved to Monroe from Charlotte, a half hour northwest, four years ago and opened East Frank a year and a half ago. They liked their old neighborhood, a liberal bubble of pride flags and Hillary Clinton supporters, but fell in love with a historic house and decided to move out.

“The further we came out, my kids were like, ‘Mom, we’re counting Trump signs on the way out of town,’” recalls Barnes, an unaffiliated voter who is backing the Democrat Joe Biden this year, though he wasn’t her first choice. “And I’m like, ‘It’s gonna be fine.’ My husband was like, ‘Listen, they want the same things that we want; it’s just a different way.’”

And it has been fine. The restaurant’s clientele is mixed, and many of them know where the proprietors stand, but usually nobody brings up politics. One customer used to try to start debates about President Donald Trump, but finally gave up; a few have groused about having to wear a mask, but mostly people get along. That held even this summer, when there was a Black Lives Matter march in town.

“If you’ve ever done any research on Monroe, racism is a deep, deep vein that runs through this county,” Barnes told me. “A lot of people showed up, and it was awesome, and everyone was kind; it was peaceful; it was great. And we had an open dialogue about taking the Confederate monument and moving it to a museum.”

Union County is what one scholar terms a “countrypolitan” place: Under federal government designations, it lies within a metropolitan area, but it also has a strong rural and agricultural history. For the most part, it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter suburb, nor is it impoverished. In fact, Union is North Carolina’s wealthiest county, according to the Census Bureau. There are places like it around the United States. They are distinct from rural areas, which are mostly Republican, and cities, which are heavily Democratic; many voters in these places are neither die-hard Trump fans nor urban liberals. That makes them pivotal counties, in 2020 and in the future.

Everyone agrees that Union County is changing. The question is how it’s changing, and how fast. There’s no doubt that Republicans will carry the county up and down the ticket this year—Carter, ensconced at East Frank, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win here, back in 1980—but the GOP’s overall success in the state will hinge largely on how big a margin it is able to run up in exurban counties such as this one. Democrats’ control of inner-ring suburbs continues to strengthen, and the future of the Republican Party nationally depends on keeping firm control over places like Union County.

“I think it’s trying to change,” Barnes said. “But I think there’s a lot of resistance to change; I really do. I don’t know if it’s just the grasp of the good-ol’-boy network, or if it’s just, We don’t want things to be different than what they are. Yet sometimes change is good. It’s hard, but it’s good.”

Cress Barnes at East Frank Superette, Monroe, North Carolina

The politics of the Old North State used to break along regional lines, but these days it’s easier to think about density as the divider. Urban centers across North Carolina, such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem, are reliably and heavily Democratic. Rural areas are heavily Republican, though there are pockets of Black rural voters who are Democrats. What’s interesting is everything in between. Political reporters looking to understand the state over the past few years have often focused on suburbs in Mecklenburg County, around Charlotte, and Wake County, around Raleigh. But Democrats already have those counties more or less locked up.

Perhaps more telling are exurban counties such as Union or Johnston, just outside Raleigh. Union County is tough to pigeonhole. Starting my tour in Monroe, I drove through woods and fields to the village of Mineral Springs, and then on to Waxhaw, a small mill town that has reinvented itself as a cute boutique-and-antiques-shop destination. As I headed north to Indian Trail, closer to the Mecklenburg County line, the landscape became markedly more affluent—gleaming, white-fenced farms; gated estates; luxury SUVs—until I reached an area with all the markers of placeless American suburbia: townhome subdivisions, strip malls with pizza joints and vape shops, and Target-anchored malls.

Mac McCorkle, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a Democratic consultant, calls Union County a “countrypolitan” jurisdiction, borrowing a term used to label a 1970s movement in country music. (I teach journalism as an adjunct at Sanford.) These areas fit under governmental designations of metropolitan areas, but they’re not purely suburban, and tend to have a more rural and agricultural heritage. McCorkle says these areas are typically politically fluid.

“It certainly is not urban liberal—it ain’t urban liberal at all—but it is not necessarily another word for right-wing,” McCorkle told me. “It’s not a bunch of bitter, left-behind people.” Union County is predominantly Republican, but these aren’t the country-club Republicans who have edged away from Trump, nor are they the evangelical ones who have embraced him.

Dan Barry, a former chair of the Union County GOP and elected official in Weddington, told me that the prevailing political mentality is simple. “When I was the mayor pro tem here, one of the guys that was coaching me for the election said, ‘People move to Union County for three things: low taxes, great schools, and they want to be left alone. They want government to leave them alone,’” he said. “And I think that is still true today.”

Outside Monroe High School, an early-voting site, I struck up a conversation with Christina Helms, who was handing out a Republican sample ballot. Helms was campaigning for a friend who is running for school board, on which Helms is wrapping up a second and final term. Behind us stood a big, carefully maintained facility.

“Union County is a conservative county, with conservative values, Christian values,” she told me. But she’s proud of the public-school system. “It is the feather in the cap of Union County, and we have every intention of keeping it that way. It’s important that we keep that momentum and that upward trajectory of all the things that we are doing for the schools and for these kids. That’s what it’s all about.”

When Jesse Helms was a boy, Union County was reliable Democratic territory, as it had been since the Civil War. “I remember my mother telling me when I was in my early teens, ‘Around here the November election doesn’t really matter. Things are decided in the Democratic primary,” Frank McGuirt told me, with a slow country drawl that marks him as a native. “We seldom saw any local Republicans file for office.”

McGuirt is a repository of local Democratic Party knowledge. He is, by his own account, “older than dirt,” though really only 74, and his father was a county commissioner for 18 years. McGuirt followed his father into public office, serving as sheriff for 24 years. But his party’s fortunes began to change in the 1960s.

“Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act caused some of our more radical, redneck—I won’t get too descriptive—elements to abandon the party,” McGuirt said. Meanwhile, a growing number of outsiders was moving to Union County, bringing more moderate but devoted Republicans.

“Somebody remarked, ‘They’re going to be surprised to learn this is Jesse Helms territory!’” McGuirt said. “Jesse and I were good friends, but we didn’t have much in agreement politically,” he chuckled.

It took years for the full effect of the GOP growth to be felt, but by the time McGuirt retired, in 2002, he was one of the last two Democrats left in countywide office. “Up until about 1990, we had two Republicans elected to the county commission,” he said. “I just hadn’t thought about a Republican winning an election in Union County, and now the whole courthouse is full of them.”

Even in 2008, when Barack Obama narrowly won North Carolina in the presidential election, he won only 36 percent of the vote in Union, to the Republican John McCain’s 63. Four years later, Mitt Romney retook the state, and improved on McCain’s numbers. In 2016, Donald Trump won North Carolina by 3.7 points, but blew Hillary Clinton out, 63 to 33, in Union County.

Those numbers echo the results in similar counties. According to an analysis by Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College and a close watcher of North Carolina politics, Trump and the GOP Senator Richard Burr won by a 2-to-1 ratio in outer suburban counties like Union in 2016, while losing by two to one in urban centers and running almost even with Democrats in the places in between, the suburbs in urban counties. (The Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper was able to outperform his ticket mates, taking 37 percent of the outer-suburban vote; he won his race by barely 10,000 votes statewide.)

Since 2016, Trump’s standing with suburban voters, especially white women, has deteriorated. A progressive wave in the suburbs powered big Democratic gains in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, and those voters appear likely to vote for Democrats again in 2020. But Trump has lost ground in the exurbs too. An analysis by the American Communities Project at George Washington University found that exurban counties like Union went for Trump by an average of 18 points. As of late September, however, Trump’s edge (according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll) was down to seven points.

Bitzer says the threshold to watch in Union County is roughly 60 percent: If Republicans win more than that percentage of the vote, it’s going to be a good election for them up and down the ballot. But if Democrats can eat into that margin, it bodes well for the party in not only the presidential race but also Cal Cunningham’s attempt to unseat Senator Thom Tillis (also a tight race) and Cooper’s reelection bid (in which he is favored to win). Only once in recent history have Democrats managed to hold Republicans to less than 60 percent. In a 2018 U.S. House race, the Democrat Dan McCready ran up the score in Mecklenburg County and took 39 percent of the Union County vote, against 59 percent for the Republican Mark Harris. But the results of that election were eventually thrown out over a massive election-fraud scheme in favor of Harris. In a do-over election last year, McCready performed slightly better in Union County—but the Republican Dan Bishop got 60 percent, and won the House seat. Democrats hope those results are a portent for 2020 and beyond, while Republicans want to see them as an anomaly.

“The question for this race is whether that kind of countrypolitan resistance to metropolitan liberalism, if you want to call it that, starts to crack even more,” McCorkle said.

Scenes from Union County

The reason Union County is changing is simple math. When Helms was born, about 4,000 people lived in Monroe. Today, nearly 36,000 do. Since 1990, the overall county population has almost tripled, from about 84,000 to roughly 240,000. As I traveled around the county, I began to notice something peculiar: Virtually everyone I talked with was a transplant. Some of them had moved only recently, and others had been around for 10 years, or 20.

A wave of new arrivals helped turn the county red 30 years ago, and now a new wave could reshape its politics again. In Indian Trail, Lynn Hoosier, an Army veteran and a retired police officer, told me that he’d moved down from upstate New York in 1975. Hoosier, who drives a red-white-and-blue-bedecked car with a Gadsden flag on the side, christened the “Patriot Wagon,” loved the area then, and he loves it now, though he is a little skeptical of the newer arrivals. “When I see a lot of the things being built, called condominiums and townhouses and homes and residence areas, to me it’s sounding like they’re illegally bringing in voters,” he said. It was unclear whether, or how much, he was joking.

A good number of the recent arrivals are likely to be to Hoosier’s left. First, there’s the sprawl of Charlotte, as suburbs bleed out from Mecklenburg County into Union County. Suburbs are already trending heavily Democratic, and that’s unlikely to stop at the county line. Then there are people like Barnes, who are leaping well out from Charlotte into eastern Union County. Like the rest of North Carolina, Union has also seen fast growth in its Hispanic population—from 6 percent of residents in 2000 to more than 10 percent in 2010, and an estimated 11.5 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, Millennials are getting older and more established—the oldest members of the generation are now in their 40s—and moving to the suburbs.

“The national dynamics of that generation are considerably more Democratic than any other generation on record,” Bitzer says. “To me, it just feels like time is ticking, and it’s getting close to the bell being rung.”

This change is most evident in Union County’s towns. Monroe’s nonpartisan city council now consists of four registered Democrats and three registered unaffiliated voters, but no Republicans. (It also has a more concentrated Black population than the county overall.) Not only did Monroe see Black Lives Matter activity; even Waxhaw had a demonstration in June, whose turnout shocked the organizers, according to The Charlotte Observer.

McGuirt recalled attending the county Democratic convention in 2018 and being stunned to see that the room was packed and that he barely knew any of the attendees. “I’m hoping that the tide will change,” he said. “I don’t know that it will this election, but maybe two years, four years, six years down the road it will.”

But although liberals have put their hopes in migration to purple-red states tipping the political balance toward the Democratic Party, the influx isn’t politically homogeneous.

“Not everyone moving to North Carolina is a Democrat,” says Rob Christensen, the dean of North Carolina political journalists and a former columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh. “A lot of the people moving in are Republicans or independents, but they tend to be more moderate and want a higher level of services. They don’t believe in the culture wars.”

Although Millennials may be moving to urban centers such as Durham or Asheville, seeking walkable downtowns and craft breweries with lower rent than in big cities, there are also out-of-staters who are fleeing the suburbs of cities up north, and many want something different.

“When they get here, they came here for two reasons. It’s a great place, but they were leaving somewhere they were unhappy with,” Barry told me. “So when folks from the north move here, they move here because they sold big houses in Connecticut, and they came down and they can have all this green space and they’re only 30 minutes from work. They’re used to having to drive hours to do that.”

And although Mecklenburg’s encroachment threatens to change the character of western Union County, there are also folks who are trying to get away from Charlotte and find lower taxes and a more socially conservative lifestyle. “They are very cognizant of the fact that ‘we don’t want to bring’—their words, not mine—‘those crazy ideas to Union County. You got something that’s good and working. Let’s not mess it up,’” Barry said.

Main Street and Windsor, Monroe, North Carolina

The trick is that what looks like “messing things up” to people like Barry looks like positive evolution to people like Barnes. The 2020 election is one occasion when these priorities will collide, though surely not the last.

Republicans face two challenges this cycle. Not only could Union’s changing demographics undermine the long-standing GOP advantage, but there’s also the risk that Trump drives off existing Republicans. Bruce Spaziani was casting an early vote at the Mineral Springs Volunteer Fire and Rescue station. With an American-flag baseball cap and an arm tattoo, he looked the part of a GOP voter. And normally, he is. In 2016, Spaziani voted for Trump. This year, though, he voted straight Democrat.

“I think Trump ruined it for the real Republicans—the lying, the false truths—and I felt that the Democrats weren’t as bad,” he says. Many of his friends are still staunch Republicans, and Spaziani says he has tried, and failed, to comprehend their continued support for Trump. “I’m really trying to understand why they would vote for the president. I’m a moderate conservative. I’ve always voted for what would benefit my family, as opposed to the general public. This time it was more like trying to—I know it sounds pretty weird—to try to save the country, because I really think we’re in a bad place.”

That echoes the feelings of many moderate Republicans around the nation, which is evidence that even places such as Union County are becoming part of a nationalized politics. “If there’s a slip of 5 percentage points or more in those surrounding suburban counties, Trump only won this state by 3.7 percentage points,” Bitzer says. “That slippage, along with, do the urban suburbs become bluer than purple? That’s a kind of dynamic that does not bode well for Republicans in this state.”

North Carolina Republicans dismiss this as wishful thinking by progressives. They insist that voters who are turned off by Trump haven’t left the Republican fold and will be back in the future, and they say Union County is still strong GOP country. That’s true. It’s all but assured that Union will easily back Trump, Tillis, and the Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Forest. The question is just how big that Republican edge will be when all the votes are counted. Trump visited Gaston County, on the west side of Charlotte, last week in an effort to juice turnout in a reliably Republican area,

But even if Republicans sweep the county this year, they’ll have to adapt if they want to keep winning big, says Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican strategist in the state who was a close aide to Helms for years.

“Union County when Jesse was in the Senate was a very rural county,” Wrenn says. “Now it’s got a big chunk of suburban in it. If the long-term trends continue, the Republicans are going to have to find a way to compete in the suburbs. It can be done, but you just have to change your whole way of thinking.”

In other words, if the GOP wants to win in North Carolina, and around the country, it’s going to have to keep countrypolitan counties in its column by changing along with them.