The power of division in North Carolina’s “swingiest” county

The power of division in North Carolina's “swingiest” county

NASH COUNTY, N.C. – This county’s top-ranking official said he credits a string of policy wins to its close political divisions.


What You Need To Know

Nash County is currently represented by one Democrat and one Republican in the N.C. House, a Republican in the N.C. Senate and a Democrat in the U.S. House

The county has not voted for the same party’s presidential nominee twice since 2008

The chair of the board of commissioners says this has made it easier to get state lawmakers’ attention for various projects

Political scientists say legislators are more likely to respond to the needs of a closely divided area


Just off I-95 in Nash County sits Red Oak Elementary School. Originally built as a high school in the 1930s, today it hosts students in grades K through 2. Principal Allison Williams said the building no longer fits the requirements a modern school must fulfill, whether it’s security, HVAC or technology.

“Our classrooms are very much smaller than a normal-sized classroom, so our kiddos are really packed in there,” she said. “It’s just an ever-changing battle of something breaking.”

In 2017, the Nash County Board of Commissioners successfully lobbied the General Assembly for a $10 million state lottery grant to help fund the construction of a new building. The state classifies Nash County as a tier II county, meaning it is experiencing economic distress but not as much as a tier I county. Nevertheless, board chair Robbie Davis said Nash County became the first tier II county to receive a state lottery grant. The new building is now under construction and should open in time for the 2022-23 school year.

“We felt very fortunate,” he said.

This building will replace three outdated school buildings in Nash County. Officials were able to secure a $10 million grant for the project, something they credit to the county’s representation from both major parties. (Rendering from Nash County Public Schools)

Davis credits the county’s political makeup with securing the grant. Republicans control the seven-seat county board of commissioners by one seat. In the N.C. House of Representatives, Nash County can call on Democrat James Gaillard and Republican Matthew Winslow. Republican Lisa Stone Barnes represents the county in the state Senate while Congressman G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat, counts Nash among the members of his district. 

The county’s divided politics even extend to the presidential level. After voting for John McCain in 2008, Nash County flipped to Barack Obama in 2012, then supported Donald Trump in 2016 before breaking for Joe Biden last year by about 120 votes. That performance has earned Nash County the title of North Carolina’s “swingiest” county from Western Carolina University Professor Chris Cooper.

“The hinges are gone from this thing,” Cooper said. “It just goes back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.”

Davis said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have proven very attentive to Nash County’s needs. Cooper said that’s common in areas where no one party can rest easy. He said voter turnout tends to be higher in swing districts, giving lawmakers an incentive to cater to their needs in an effort to garner more votes.

Although the board is partisan, Davis said the seven commissioners work well together. When they feel Nash County needs something, he said the Republicans on the board are able to lobby their NCGA counterparts while the Democrats have the ear of their party’s caucus. Besides the new school, Davis said Nash County’s delegation has been able to secure grants for infrastructure projects such as a new water district.

Nash County Board of Commissioners Chair Robbie Davis, left, shares a laugh with Red Oak Elementary School Principal Allison Williams. Davis and his colleagues worked with Nash County’s NCGA delegation to secure funding for a new elementary school building. Photo: Garrett Bergquist

“We can go before our General Assembly as a unified board and ask for help, and therefore you get help from both sides of the aisle,” he said.

Early this fall, Cooper and a team of researchers at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill produced a set of projected legislative district maps based on the guidelines set forth by the N.C. Supreme Court. The team expects Nash County will share one House district with Wilson County and a Senate district with Franklin and Vance counties. That differs from the county’s current districts. Whatever happens as a result of redistricting, Davis said he hopes state lawmakers get it right the first time and manage to avoid the 10 years of litigation that followed the 2011 redistricting.

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