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A new factor in North Carolina politics - the new Republicans

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, February 6, 2006

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Chapel Hill, NC - Change is the only constant in North Carolina politics, says NC Free Executive Director John Davis.

The state is becoming more and more Republican, he says, due in large part to the immigration of people from other regions. At the same time, he observes that North Carolina is becoming more liberal. These new North Carolinians, while Republican, are generally not as conservative as most native North Carolinians, including many Democrats.

The new Republicans are not the same kind of “sure bet” straight ticket voters as Republicans were in the past. In NC Free’s “Almanac of North Carolina Politics,” Davis quotes Republican political consultant Paul Shumaker: “Twenty years ago, Republican candidates running statewide…[were]…assured of winning 85 percent of their party’s base vote.”

Today, according to Shumaker, they can count on only 60 percent sure votes from their party’s base.

What difference does this development mean for North Carolina politicians? Democratic candidates, faced with growing Republican strength in registration, must court these new independent minded Republicans in order to win statewide elections. And Republicans have to work harder to hold on to the more liberal Republicans that immigration has brought them.

North Carolina’s changing political dynamics make for other interesting changes in the ways we choose the people who represent us in government.

A developing election contest in Mecklenburg County may help illustrate some of the new realities.

Republican state representative John Rhodes currently represents District 96. It covers the part of North Mecklenburg County where I grew up, including Davidson and Cornelius. When I was first old enough to vote, that part of the world was, except for Davidson College, mostly farms, small businesses, and a few textile mills and processing plants. It voted Democratic in state and local races.

Today the mills and farms are mostly gone, and the area is packed with prosperous homes filled with wonderful people, many of whom will tell you that they are new North Carolinians and Republicans.

In fact, Representative Rhodes’s district is so solidly Republican that no Democrat challenged him in the 2004 election. Rhodes is a native North Carolinian and an attractive businessman. He boasts solid conservative, “hold the line on taxes,” credentials—just the kind of approach that has been fundamental to North Carolina Republicans.

But Rhodes will face opposition in this spring’s primaries from another Republican, Thom Tillis, who, like Rhodes, is a former Cornelius town commissioner.

Unlike Rhodes, Tillis is a new North Carolinian, having relocated from Washington, D.C. He is an IBM executive and a former partner at the PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting and consulting firm.

The upcoming Rhodes-Tillis primary could be cast as a battle between the “old” and the “newcomer” Republicans using the concepts that John Davis has introduced.

Although, local political leaders would tell us that there are a lot more factors involved, the Davis “old/new” perspective gives us an extra reason to watch this race.

Rhodes has gained a reputation as a partisan antagonist of the Democratic leadership in the state house of representatives and Republicans who cooperate with them. Rhodes accepts the role of an “outsider.”

"I'm the freest member of this body," Rhodes told the Charlotte Observer last year. “I can say anything I need to say. That freedom is serving my constituents.”

House Speaker Jim Black has called Rhodes a “bombthrower.”

Rhodes’s opponent, Tillis, will look for support from some of the local political and business leaders who think Rhodes’s confrontational approach keeps him from getting state help for projects that are important to his district.

Tillis emphasizes his “conservative” credentials, even claiming that “he has a tradition for naming them after great conservatives, among them Reagan, Abe, and Ike.”

So he would undoubtedly reject any idea that he fits into the category of “more liberal” Republicans that John Davis says are having an important impact on North Carolina politics.

But to the extent that he appeals to voters who expect their representatives to help them take advantage of available government assistance, he will appeal to the pragmatism of the “new” Republicans.

With Rhodes’s strong appeal to voters who want a strong, uncompromising “conservative” voice more than they want any help from their governments, his election battle with Tillis will be watched by N.C. Free’s John Davis and by other political insiders all over North Carolina.

Note: A conversation with John Davis about the new North Carolina political demographics is available for listening and podcasting at


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (February12) guestBill Morris, author of “Saltwater Cowboys.” is

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs, all at 5pm, Sundays on UNC-TV:

Feb 12 Bill Morris Saltwater Cowboys

Feb 19 Amy Tiemann Mojo Mom

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NC Book Watch

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