By Russ Lay on January 29, 2012
In those days, Dare Democrats were more than a political party. The county organization was more akin to a social club. Almost every businessperson, including many conservatives who would have been Republicans anywhere else, embraced the Democrats.
Credit much of this to the power of Marc Basnight and the desire of office-seekers to align with his political base.
When the Democrats hosted a social event, the attendees composed a Who’s Who of local business, political, and civic leaders.
By contrast, the GOP meetings were small and lacking in grassroots supporters. The party was heavily concentrated in Southern Shores, and attending their meetings, one could almost see a living example of what was fast becoming an anachronism — the “country-club” Republican.
The year 2010 signaled significant change at the state and local levels. Not only did the GOP take both houses of the state legislature for the first time in a century, Dare Republicans also did remarkably well.
The GOP won the sheriff’s race, ousting a Democratic incumbent not considered embattled. Jack Shea fought off a well-connected and moderate Democrat, Robin Mann, retaining his seat on the county Board.
And Bob Steinburg, the GOP candidate for the North Carolina House, carried Dare County against incumbent Tim Spear with 53 percent of the vote. Going back as far as 1996, we could not find an instance where the GOP House candidates could gather more than 45 percent of the vote.
After the 2010 elections, I visited the Dare County Board of Elections and obtained the results going back four election cycles (to 2004). I also scanned the results on the state Board of Election’s site which go back to 1996.
My intention was to see if the data indicated whether the Republicans were gaining ground on the Democrats locally and if the trends indicated whether the GOP might supplant the Democrats as the dominant Dare political force.
This is a difficult county to assess, primarily because of the massive influence of Sen. Marc Basnight in past elections. Basnight’s local margins were massive, and his influence had coattails down to the state house races, where Democratic victories were not only lopsided but sometimes lacked a Republican challenger.
Basnight himself ran unopposed once in the last four election cycles.
At the Federal level, Dare was also different in that it while it supported local Democrats, Republican candidates for President, U.S. Senate and the House typically carry the county. The data sat around my makeshift office for almost a year while I tried to make some sense of the numbers.
It wasn’t until I began teaching political science and returning to my habit of reading academic journals that I came across some studies on political party identification and newer ways to measure voter sentiment.
Political scientist Cal Jillson hit upon an interesting observation in his widely used textbook: “American Government: Political Development and Institutional Change.” Jillson notes that “historically, the less visible the office, the more likely voters were to be guided by their partisan identification.”
In the past, other methods of identifying partisan preferences among voters have not served us well as predictors. For example, in Dare County, there are 10,203 registered Democrats compared to 7,928 Republicans. Yet Republicans outpolled Democrats in the 2010 elections and the GOP has typically carried the county in presidential elections for more than two decades.
Surveying voters has also been difficult. While close to 40 percent of American voters inform pollsters they are independent, when pressed by other questions, we find on 11 percent of the voters are true independents. The remaining 29 percent who call themselves independent actually lean toward one of the two parties often enough that their behavior mimics partisan identifiers rather than independent voters.
To try to find what trend Dare might be following, we looked at the lesser-known state constitutional elections, which are partisan. These include offices of Secretary of State, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Treasurer, Commissioner of Labor, Commissioner of Insurance, State Auditor and the Commissioner of Agriculture. One might expect that voters, lacking any knowledge of the candidates, would rely on their partisan leanings in deciding which lever to pull.
The results for 2004 and 2008 demonstrate that Republicans are running neck and neck with Democrats in this category, eking out a small majority when the two years are combined. (Partisan votes for all constitutional offices were aggregated for each party in each election.)
For federal offices, Republicans have dominated Democrats in Dare, with voting percentages ranging from a low of 57 percent to a high of 67 percent. Democrats have dominated the races for state House and Senate, but these aggregate totals reflect mostly Basnight’s large vote totals (we left out the 2008 vote totals when Basnight ran unopposed).
Democrats also dominate the state’s top offices of governor, lieutentnat governor, and attorney general, a trend also reflected in statewide results.
Locally, only the Dare County Board of Commissioners is a partisan race, and many of those races have been single-candidate elections, making it difficult to identify trends.
What the data does tell us is that the local GOP turned a corner starting with the 2000 elections. Republicans now hold three of the seven county commissioner seats and the sheriff’s office. Elections where candidates are not well known are also trending Republican, as the results for constitutional offices reflect. And the GOP did carry Dare in 2010’s state house race.
Without Marc Basnight and now Tim Spear, 2012 may turn out to be an election where a clearer trend might emerge. For now, Democrats still dominate Dare County, but the local GOP is no longer a paper tiger running sacrificial lambs for office.
Dare is now a toss-up county and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.