Politics & Government

Are Charlotte Republicans ‘going the route of the dinosaur and dodo bird?’

Charlotte City Council members want longer terms, and they may bypass voters.
Charlotte City Council members want longer terms, and they may bypass voters. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

After a blue wave all but washed away their elected officials in Mecklenburg County, some Republicans worry whether they can keep one of their last footholds — on the Charlotte City Council.

“We could very well be in the last days of Republicans being elected in Charlotte,” Republican council member Tariq Bokhari said Tuesday.

How bad was last week’s election for Mecklenburg Republicans?

It swept all three GOP incumbents off the board of county commissioners. It saw Republicans lose one of their two state Senate seats and four of five House seats. For the fifth seat, Democrat Rachel Hunt holds a narrow lead over GOP Rep. Bill Brawley, with provisional ballots to be counted this week.

That would leave Sen. Dan Bishop as the only Republican in the county’s 17-member legislative delegation.

On the 11-member City Council, Bokhari is one of just two Republicans. He and council member Ed Driggs represent two southeast Charlotte districts, both traditionally Republican.

But an analysis of last week’s vote found Republican candidates won just one of 35 precincts in Bokhari’s District 6, and just one of 20 in Driggs’ District 7. The Observer looked at the results of each precinct in the 9th District congressional race or, for precincts not in that district, in their respective state House race. Precincts that voted Republican for years suddenly went Democratic.

It was a pattern repeated not only in North Carolina’s other large cities but in urban areas around America.

“You can’t ignore the fact that we’ve got changing demographics happening across all major urban areas across the country,” said Chris Turner, who chairs the county Republican Party. “But for the Republican Party each race is different.

To be sure, next year’s City Council race won’t have the backdrop of an expensive congressional race. The 9th District race between Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark Harris brought in millions of dollars and hundreds of volunteers who helped McCready carry Mecklenburg while losing the election.

At the same time, Democrats spent big in their campaign to break the Republican supermajorities in Raleigh.

Those factors won’t be there for the city election. And Republican consultant Larry Shaheen said while President Donald Trump, control of Congress and issues such as healthcare and immigration drove debates this year, next year’s city elections will be about more local issues. The first revaluation in eight years, for example, could put pressure on property taxes.

Shaheen also said while voters in the southeast Charlotte that make up the traditionally Republican “wedge” may have voted for McCready, those same precincts also voted for constitutional amendments such as requiring an ID to vote and enshrining the right to hunt and fish. Those voting patterns look more traditional than the General Assembly and congressional races.

“The wedge is still there,” said Shaheen.

But as in urban areas around the country, demographics are shifting in southeast Charlotte. John Hood, chairman of the conservative John Locke Foundation, wrote this week in the Carolina Journal that Democrats have made inroads among men as well as women in close-in suburbs. “If Democrats can retain the allegiance of inner-suburb voters, the GOP will struggle in future elections,” Hood wrote.

Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte, said, “The ground is shifting beneath” urban Republicans.

Democrats are eager to see just how much. “We could definitely see a repeat of 2018 in 2019,” said Dan McCorkle, a Democratic consultant. “Strong Democratic women candidates have a solid chance of defeating conservative Republican men. Women and unaffiliated voters truly roared in 2018.”

Turner, the GOP chairman, said one answer for a Democratic-controlled City Council is to do away with the four at-large seats that Republicans have found virtually impossible to win. Beyond that, he said, “What Republicans have to do is make sure we’ve got strong candidates that represent the new and changing face of Mecklenburg County.”

With that Bokhari agrees.

He said Republicans should talk about issues such as affordable housing while maintaining their platform of lower taxes and smaller government.

“We need to figure out what these constituents care about and make sure we’re aligning our principles to something they actually care about,” he said. “It’s in urban America that we are continually going the route of the dinosaur and the dodo bird.”

Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill