Democratic candidates who took over sheriffs’ offices in Guilford and Forsyth County, and the school board in Forsyth, benefited from a surge of support from the suburbs.
While the vaunted blue wave failed to dislodge Republican incumbents in the Triad’s three congressional districts, the tide lifted Democrats in local races, with far-reaching implications for public education and law enforcement.
Similar to other urbanized North Carolina counties, voters in Forsyth and Guilford counties elected black sheriffs, who happen to be Democrats, for the first time in history, while turning out Republican incumbents. And in Forsyth County, Democrats also swept the three at-large races for school board, tipping control of the governing body.
As a gauge of the shift in voter sentiment, Democrat Danny Rogers made up 8.7 points in his rematch with Republican BJ Barnes in the Guilford County sheriff’s race, compared to his previous bid in 2014. And in the at-large race for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, where voters can select up to three candidates, the Democratic contenders went from an aggregate of 49.5 percent of the vote in 2014 to 55.6 percent this year.
Victorious Democrats in both counties saw some of their most dramatic gains in predominantly white, Republican-leaning precincts in the suburbs. Rogers more than doubled his votes — from 489 to 1,108 in SDRI, a sprawling precinct at the western end of Guilford County that includes the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market. And in a handful of precincts around Lewisville and Clemmons at the west end of Forsyth County, Democrat candidates increased their aggregate vote counts by upwards of 50 percent.
Jerry Blackwelder, a political consultant has worked with Republican candidates, including the late Howard Coble, said it’s possible that Democrat candidates’ gains in suburban areas reflect demographic change.
“I’ve seen stories from across the state since the election that suggest the suburbs aren’t as Republican as they used to be,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s confined to Guilford County. Around metro Charlotte and Raleigh, there are new voters moving in that are not as Republican as the folks who had been living there. This could be another sign of that.”
Brandon Lenoir, a political science professor at High Point University, cautioned that it will take two or three election cycles to determine whether the 2018 midterms reflected a Democratic trend in suburban areas of the Triad, or only the unique circumstances of one election. And notably, the 2014-2018 comparison reflects an inverse, with Republican voters preoccupied with Barack Obama in 2014 and their Democrat counterparts obsessed with Donald Trump in 2018.
“In a midterm election, though the name of the president is not on the ballot, many of the people who are motivated to vote are motivated because of their displeasure with the incumbent party,” Lenoir said. “The shifts that we’re observing can be attributed to the backlash to the Republican administration. How that plays out in two to four years will determine whether this is a change in political structure.”
The Guilford County precincts where Rogers doubled his vote count include H14, an upscale Republican precinct in High Point; NDRI, a rural and heavily Republican area around Colfax; JAM4, southeast of Jamestown; H27B on the north end of High Point; and SF1, in Summerfield. Rogers tripled his vote count at G45 — the only Democratic-leaning precinct where he saw a major gain — reflective of a surge in turnout at UNCG in Greensboro.
In Forsyth County, Democrat school board candidates made significant gains in gentrifying urban areas of Winston-Salem like Ardmore, the West End and West Salem, the southern rim of the county, the industrializing Union Cross Road corridor in the southeast corner of the county and a band of suburban precincts from Little Creek Recreation Center in southwest Winston-Salem up to Pfafftown.
There’s little consensus on what moved the needle for Democratic candidates in local races, although to one degree or another most agree that backlash against Trump and a blitz of advertising and campaign activity to win back the US House drove up interest. DD Adams, a member of Winston-Salem City Council, topped the ballot in Forsyth County as the Democratic nominee in the 5th Congressional District race. And while Adams fell short in her bid to unseat Republican Virginia Foxx by 14.4 points, in Forsyth County she improved on the previous Democratic nominee by 4.6 points.
In the 13th Congressional District, Democrat Kathy Manning carried 60.2 percent of the vote total in Guilford County, while losing the race overall to Republican Ted Budd. Manning’s showing in Guilford County improved 5.4 points over the performance of Bruce Davis, the Democratic nominee in 2016.
“While the [Guilford County] sheriff’s race on its surface was a surprise, I argue that the key difference in this cycle was the top of the ticket and the amount of groundwork and effort that the Kathy Manning campaign put in,” Lenoir said. “The gap in the vote share that she got compared to Ted Budd explains the effect on the down-ballot races. She pushed a lot of people to the polls that voted for her, and many of them continued voting down the ballot for Democrats.”
Byron Gladden, a Democrat member of the Guilford County School Board who was not on the ballot this year, said he believes Rogers benefited from his opponent being linked to Trump and other Republican politicians. Barnes campaigned with Trump in Greensboro in 2016, and this year he endorsed state Sen. Trudy Wade, a fellow Republican. Some voters groused about how Barnes, who has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support from voters, took shots at Wade’s Democratic opponent in campaign ads. Wade narrowly lost her race to Democrat Michael Garrett.
Gladden said voters liked Rogers’ authenticity, including how he responded to Barnes’ attacks on his past. (Barnes carried documentation of Rogers’ past brushes with the law, which Rogers acknowledged in media interviews, but did not address specifically.)
“Rogers had to own whatever BJ hinted about his past,” Gladden said. “His faith kept him grounded. He didn’t try to be a politician about it. He was just real. He owned what was true and acknowledged it. He moved on and upward.”
Nicole Ward Quick, the chair of the Guilford County Democratic Party, echoed Gladden’s sentiment that Rogers himself was the biggest reason for his victory.
“Danny was everywhere,” she said. “In any election, the campaign manager or the campaign will tell you that the biggest difference is the face-to-face interaction with voters.”
Quick and Gladden also said Rogers benefited from a national dialogue about institutional racism that is reaching critical mass.
“Danny’s message resonates,” Quick said. “You combine what he was saying about equality in hiring with kind of the sweeping tendency against police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement and all of that, I think that all helped.”
The truism that one election doesn’t make a trend was vividly demonstrated 10 years ago when Barack Obama became the first Democrat presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter to carry the state; two years later, Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in a century. Blackwelder, the GOP consultant, said Barnes’ loss doesn’t necessarily mean Republican candidates will never carry a countywide race like sheriff again.
“I think it can be competitive,” he said. “BJ was fortunate to be able to carry the county six times, and I think it’ll take some work by the Republican Party to build it back to that point. I think a Republican could carry Guilford County again.”
Quick said that Democrats benefited this year from an array of voter mobilization efforts that targeted young people and people of color.
“The March for Our Lives had a march to the polls,” Quick said. “We had Souls to the Polls that Beloved Community Center and the Rev. William Barber spearheaded. A lot of organizations were trying to get folks to the polls. We had runners so that we could find out who voted and who hadn’t, and then give them transportation to the polls.”
Quick said at least 100 UNCG students were in line trying to cast their votes when the polls closed on election night. A large number of the provisional ballots cast came from UNCG, she said, adding that when they’re counted on Thursday she thinks it’s possible that they’ll put the Guilford County Commission District 3 seat back in play, or at least close enough for a recount. Republican incumbent Justin Conrad currently holds a 290-vote lead over Democrat Tracy Lamothe. A reversal in the race would hand control of county government over to the Democrats after six years with Republicans in the majority.