LUMBERTON — For the Robeson County Republican Party, Tuesday’s General Election was a night of many firsts.
Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the county since Richard Nixon in 1972. Gov. Pat McCrory was the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win Robeson in at least 56 years. Danny Britt nabbed two milestones as the first Republican state senator elected to represent Robeson since the Civil War and the first Republican to win a countywide seat.
The Great State of Robeson has had a history of loyalty to the Democratic Party overall, although more so at the local level than when it comes to federal races.
Phillip Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party, says that relationship is changing — largely because America’s two major political parties have changed.
“The Democratic Party today is not the Democratic Party that our grandfather would recognize,” Stephens said. “Go listen to things that [John F. Kennedy] said. He sounds like a Republican today.”
Although Republicans garnered the most votes in just five of the 21 partisan, contested races held in Robeson on Tuesday, those five offices are all at the top or near the top of the ballot: president, governor, U.S. senator, state senator and state House. Further down the ballot, Lynn Locklear, up against a longtime incumbent, was unsuccessful in his bid to become just the second Republican county commissioner since records began around the Civil War.
“People we call Reagan Democrats came out,” Stephens said. “These are Democrats who vote Democrat locally but Republican federally. These are the same people who came out in the ’80s and voted overwhelmingly for him.”
Trump, who also won the majority of votes statewide, held 51.09 percent of Robeson votes, compared with 46.26 won by Hillary Clinton. McCrory, who is trailing Democratic challenger Roy Cooper statewide by a few thousand votes in a yet-to-be-called race, held a nearly 8 percent margin over Cooper here. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr had a slimmer lead of about 2.5 percent over challenger Deborah Ross in Robeson.
One driving factor behind Republicans’ victories on Tuesday is the growing number of voters registered with the party. Just ahead of the 2008 General Election, 76 percent of Robeson’s registered voters were Democrats. Today, its down to about 67 percent. Although Republicans still make up just 12.6 percent of the county’s registered voters with 9,593 people, the party picked up 1,023 of them since this time last year.
Stephens attributed the increase to new voters registering, others switching parties because their values aren’t in line with the Democrats’ platform and new residents moving here without “a preconceived notion of this being a Democrat county.”
Voters in this year’s General Election were also not given the option to automatically vote for all candidates from their party via straight ticket voting. Stephens said this may help explain why Republicans’ wins were confined to the top of the ticket.
“As you start getting lower down the ticket there’s less publicity about those candidates,” he said. ” … That’s when people started voting by whether there is a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ by their names.”
Lastly, Stephens said “the Clinton machine” just didn’t inspire Robeson residents the same way President Barack Obama did when he won 56.5 percent of their votes in 2008 and 58.2 percent in 2012. And apparently it wasn’t as effective as the Trump machine either.
“The base of the party held tight with him and he tapped into white voters who were unhappy with such things as NAFTA. He brought in a sense of populism,” said Bo Biggs, a Republican and former chair of the Robeson County Board of Elections. Biggs compared Trump to a third-party candidate and said he foresaw Trump winning the state, but not this county.
The brash businessman made several appearances in nearby Fayetteville, vowing to undo the North American Free Trade Agreement, and his daughter-in-law, a North Carolina native, stumped on his behalf once in Lumberton. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, made one stop in Robeson County in a statewide sweep to encourage early voting. Obama spoke on Clinton’s behalf in Fayetteville days before the election.
Similarly, McCrory has visited Robeson at least twice in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, with Cooper making one visit. Burr also visited in the wake of the hurricane and had stopped at Robeson Community College and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke earlier this year.
“Handling of the hurricane helped the governor — let’s be honest,” Stephens said. “His handling was superb. He came to Robeson and that certainly helped him.”
House Bill 2, the so-called “Bathroom Bill,” likely gave McCrory a boost as well, with many Robeson residents supporting the controversial measure that McCrory signed into law and Cooper declined to defend as attorney general.
Robeson voters also elected a Republican to represent them in the state House. Brenden Jones’ place in the District 46 seat means the county will have three Democratic representatives in Raleigh, down from holding all five spots before Tuesday’s election. District 46, which includes just the eastern portion of Robeson, had been represented by a Republican recently in G.L. Pridgen.
Britt won 28 of 39 Robeson precincts including some “that have never been favorable to Republicans,” Stephens said. Britt himself said he doesn’t necessarily see a “changing tide” toward the party in Robeson, rather that residents are voting more in line with their values.
“Danny Britt worked harder than any candidate I’ve seen,” Stephens said. “… Watch Danny Britt, he’s going places.”
John McNeill, immediate past chair of the Robeson County Democratic Party and the mayor of Red Springs, isn’t convinced that Britt or even Trump is the harbinger of a Republican revolution in Robeson.
“I would sincerely doubt it,” McNeill said. “People will take a step back and look at such things as which party creates jobs and supports our teachers and education. What happens in the future will rest on economic issues, not emotional issues.”
Instead, he attributes Republicans’ success on Tuesday to obstacles keeping Democrats from the polls. He estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 voters, mostly blacks, were unable to go to the polls because of Hurricane Matthew.
“We dropped about 3,000 votes from 2012,” McNeill said. “If we had those votes we would have won Robeson County.”
Lastly, he says, a rumor was circulating that Clinton would allow abortions as late as nine months, turning some Robeson voters against her.
Locklear, the defeated county board candidate, also doesn’t see Robeson becoming predominantly Republican.
“I don’t think this indicates a big shift,” he said.
Locklear said that he’s not sure if Robeson County is ready to accept the level of conservatism that Trump and other Republicans bring. As an example, he noted that a large number of individuals and families in Robeson County are dependent on social programs such as food stamps.
“What’s going to happen if these social programs are cut? People may decide they went too far when they voted for those who support such cuts. They may decide there is a need to pull back,” he said.
Biggs called the Republican “sweep” in Robeson County a “miracle.” But, whether election results indicate a movement toward the county becoming more Republican is unclear, he says.
“I would like to say it is. I hope it will last,” Biggs said.
According to Biggs, whether Republicans remain a strong player in Robeson County politics is a question that will be answered.
“It will depend if they can deliver what will benefit the county,” Biggs said.
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets. Bob Shiles contributed to this report.