RALEIGH — North Carolina is urbanizing — that much is certain. You can chart it in the economic data about population, income, and job creation. You can see it in the cranes that rise into the skylines of our largest cities. You can hear it as you travel the state and talk to people. Fewer have the distinctive accents of small-town and rural North Carolina.
But to say our state is “urbanizing” is not to say that it is “urban,” or anything remotely approaching it. Most of us still live in suburbs, small communities, and rural areas. If North Carolina candidates fail to understand that as they plan their campaigns, they will likely fail by Election Day.
Our two most-populous counties, Mecklenburg and Wake, accounted for about one-fifth of all the ballots cast in the 2012 election. If we are generous with the definition of “urban” to include counties with population densities of at least 750 per square mile, that would add four more to the list: New Hanover, Durham, Forsyth, and Guilford. All six counties collectively cast 36 percent of the votes in 2012.
You can raise that percentage up slightly above 50 percent by adding in counties with at least 250 people per square mile. But few people would consider counties such as Alamance, Davidson, Gaston, and Catawba to be “urban” in any meaningful sense. Their political debates and voting behavior certainly don’t comport with what most people think of when they see terms like “urban issues” or “urban values.”
North Carolina politicians running for statewide office would be wise to plan accordingly. If Roy Cooper wants to defeat incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory, he won’t be able to do it simply by turning out reliably Democratic voters in major cities. There aren’t enough of them. If U.S. Sen. Richard Burr wants to win his re-election bid against former state Rep. Deborah Ross, he’ll need to energize the Republican base in rural areas, small towns, and upscale urban enclaves while appealing to swing voters found disproportionately in the state’s burgeoning suburbs and exurbs.
You’ve probably heard a lot from McCrory, Cooper, Burr, and Ross so far this election cycle. But there are other races on the statewide ballot that deserve your attention.
For example, incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican, faces a rematch with his Democratic opponent from 2012, former legislator Linda Coleman. Furthermore, two key offices have no incumbents. For attorney general, Republican Buck Newton faces Democrat Josh Stein. They previously served together in the state Senate. For state treasurer, former state legislator and Division of Employment Security head Dale Folwell, a CPA, faces former Wake County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Blue III, an attorney.
To help voters learn more about these important electoral contests, the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership is partnering with local chambers of commerce, newspapers, and broadcasters to host candidate forums during the month of September. The “Hometown Debates” series will be held in three cities. On Sept. 13, the lieutenant governor candidates will debate in Wilson. On Sept. 20, the attorney general candidates will debate in Asheboro. And on Sept. 27, the state treasurer candidates will debate in Statesville.
All three debates will be broadcast on television by UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel and on the radio by the North Carolina News Network. They will also feature questions from local newspaper editors. Thanks to the series sponsors — the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys, the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the John William Pope Foundation, and North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives — these events will give state residents a great opportunity to cast informed votes for lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state treasurer this year.
As you can see, IOPL and its partners in the Hometown Debates recognize that North Carolina politics is not simply about what happens in a few large cities. Most of the electorate lives elsewhere. To win their votes, candidates need to understand where they are coming from — both literally and figuratively.
John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation, is the author of “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.”