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New and old North Carolina collide — again

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New North Carolina collided with Old North Carolina in the 2020 election. It was a split decision. The battle goes on.

New N.C. — younger voters, Blacks, urban residents, suburban women and college graduates — reelected Gov. Roy Cooper and (apparently) Attorney General Josh Stein.

New N.C. helped President-elect Joe Biden come within 1.3% of carrying the state. It was Democrats’ best performance in a presidential race here since Barack Obama in 2008 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Old N.C. — rural and small-town voters, white evangelicals, older people and high school graduates — carried the state for President Trump, despite predictions North Carolina would be his Waterloo.

Old N.C. (and gerrymandering) kept Republicans in control of the General Assembly. And in control of redistricting for the coming decade. The GOP won key judicial seats.

The race for chief justice is a virtual tie. In the Council of State, both parties kept the seats they held before.

Democrats had dreamed of flipping North Carolina decidedly blue this year. It didn’t happen.

Now the 2020s promise to be a decade of political trench warfare.

That’s why Democrats, despite unseating President Trump and reelecting Gov. Cooper, look so grim and glum.

Democrats thought demographic trends were with them. They saw metropolitan areas growing, and they saw their strength growing there. They thought Trump would drive their voters to the polls.

He did. But he also drove Old N.C. voters to the polls.

If you live in a city, it’s hard to grasp how many people live in the state’s small towns and rural areas. And it’s hard to grasp how hostile they have become to the Democratic Party’s brand.

Is it race? Resentment over COVID-19 restrictions? “Defund the police”? The Green New Deal? Medicare for All? Taxes? Do Democrats look like “socialists”?

Whatever, it’s a reminder that North Carolina has the third-biggest rural and small-town population of any state — 2.9 million, behind only Texas (4.3 million) and California (3 million).

We have a lot of white evangelicals. Nationally, they’re an estimated 15% of the population, but 25% of voters. Their numbers are higher here. They voted 80% for Trump and Republicans.

Along with the rural-urban divide, we have a clear racial divide between the parties.

There’s an age divide. National exit polls showed Democrats stronger among voters under 40 and Republicans stronger among older voters.

There’s a diploma divide. The exit polls said Biden won 57% of voters with college degrees; Trump won 77% of whites with no college degree.

Such divisions aren’t new in our politics. Since World War II, North Carolina’s rapid growth has created a constant tension between what the state once was and what it’s becoming.

That tension has defined our politics. And it goes back to our very beginnings.

Historian William S. Powell wrote in his 1989 book “North Carolina Through Four Centuries”:

“Many key events in the state’s history came about because of rivalries and jealousies, first between northern and southern parts of the colony, next between east and west and more recently between urban and rural.”

“Rivalries and jealousies…between urban and rural”? Sounds like 2020.

In colonial days, Powell wrote, counties in the Albemarle region gerrymandered the state assembly to dominate the Neuse and Cape Fear counties.

A century later, western North Carolinians resented the iron control that eastern landowners held on state government. The East-West split persisted through most elections in the 20th century.

This year, as throughout our first 400 years, New N.C. and Old N.C. battled again for control.

Don’t expect the conflict to end any time soon.

Gary Pearce was an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt. He blogs at www.NewDayforNC.com.  

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