Anti-establishment success: takeaways from the 2024 primaries in southeastern NC

By Ben Rappaport  

While Super Tuesday didn’t yield many surprises in the high-profile races for North Carolina, voters in the rural southeastern region of the state distinguished themselves in important ways. Most notably, they opted for “anti-establishment” candidates in both parties, many of whom campaigned in the region showing a need for increased engagement of rural voters in the lead-up to the election in November.

The Border Belt region — Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties — continued a declining voter turnout in primary elections, with no county having higher than a 25% turnout rate. The statewide turnout for the primary was 24%.

Tuesday was the first election in the state with new voter ID laws, new rules for poll observers, and less time to submit absentee ballots. The primaries were also the first federal and state races under new electoral maps, approved by the General Assembly in Oct. 2023. 

It’s unclear precisely how each of these factors affected outcomes at the polls, but voters in the region consistently cited trouble finding the proper voting precincts and some said they had difficulty with the voter ID requirements.

Here are some of the other biggest takeaways and surprises from Tuesday’s results in southeastern North Carolina.

Showing up matters

In a rural area where residents frequently say they feel forgotten, showing up on the campaign trail made a difference. During a listening tour hosted by the North Carolina Democratic Party, several statewide candidates visited the rural southeast. Nearly every candidate who campaigned here won their respective races in at least one county, even if they did not win statewide.

Those Democratic candidates included Mike Morgan for governor, Santana DeBerry for state attorney general, Lora Cubbage for state supreme court, Mark H. Robinson for lieutenant governor and Wesley Harris for state treasurer. Only Harris won the nomination, however.

Democratic voters in the southeast showed a stronger preference for progressive Black candidates like Morgan, DeBerry, Cubbage and Mark H. Robinson. At the polls, voters of color consistently told the Border Belt Independent they preferred voting for someone who looked like them and felt they would better represent their concerns. 

A voter exits Abundant Life Church in south Whiteville after casting her ballot on election day Tuesday. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Josh Stein, who was endorsed by current Gov. Roy Cooper and much of the Democratic establishment, won the Democratic nominee for governor in the state with 70% of the vote. Mike Morgan came in second with 14%. In Bladen County, however, Morgan won with nearly 60% of the vote, Stein received just 25%. While Stein won other Border Belt counties, his support was significantly lower than his statewide figure, with Morgan earning an average of 31% of the vote across the four counties. 

Black voters in North Carolina are about 80% Democrat and represent one of the most loyal voting blocs across the state. In the southeast, Black voters make up 30% of the total electorate. Stein has struggled to garner Black supporters in his previous political races.

On the other side of the aisle, Republican nominee for governor Mark Robinson also made an impression on voters by showing up in the southeastern region. He hosted fundraisers and speeches in the Border Belt, and won handily, earning 77% of the vote across the four counties. Statewide, he received 64% of the vote.

Robinson would be the state’s first Black governor, but few believe that alone will be enough to win over Black supporters. A February survey by the progressive organization Carolina Forward found Robinson would receive just 11% of likely Black voters in a matchup with Stein. 

Trump is still king

It’s not surprising that Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president in North Carolina. The former president won the state with 73% of the total vote. But in the southeastern region, his firebrand, anti-establishment politics carried extra weight for him and his allies down the ballot.

Trump won the four southeastern counties with 90% of the vote. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who suspended her campaign for President on Wednesday, earned about 9% of the vote in the region. She earned 23% of the vote statewide.

Many Republican voters at the polls said supporting Trump was the reason they came out to vote. They believe his policies are best suited to get the country on track and tackle their top issues like inflation and illegal immigration.

Robinson’s gubernatorial campaign was endorsed by Trump last week, and voters who supported the two candidates are closely politically aligned. Down the ballot, Mark Harris also aligned himself with Trump and won his bid for the Republican nomination in North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District.

Harris’ return to the political landscape follows a ballot-harvesting investigation after Harris claimed victory in the 2018 election for the state’s 9th congressional district. The election was overturned, and McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County political operative, faced voter fraud charges. Dowless died in 2022 before his case went to trial. Harris, a Mecklenburg County preacher, was not charged. 

The newly drawn 8th District includes parts of Robeson, Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties, and all of Union, Stanly, Anson, Montgomery, Richmond and Scotland counties. Overall, the race was close with Harris earning slightly more than the 30% threshold, which would have triggered a recount. But in Robeson and Scotland counties, Harris won more than 50% of the vote. Longtime N.C. Rep. John Bradford III, an establishment moderate Republican, came in third. 

In one of the most surprising upsets of the night, incumbent Catherine Truitt lost to far-right challenger Michele Morrow in the GOP primary for state superintendent of public instruction. Morrow currently home schools her children, attended the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and has said she supports arming teachers. She has also referred to public schools, which she would lead, as “indoctrination centers,” according to WRAL. Truitt was the only Republican incumbent to lose to a primary challenger. 

Other establishment Republicans also came up short like six-term representative Jon Hardister, who lost his bid for labor commissioner to Luke Farley. Farley has described himself as “America First” and supported Trump in the primary.  

Precinct problems

Voters across the southeastern region had problems at the precincts on Election Day. Redistricting in the region — particularly in Robeson and Scotland counties — gave many voters new assigned precincts that differed from previous elections.

Those who vote on Election Day in North Carolina must vote at their assigned precinct, which can be found on the North Carolina State Board of Elections website. During early voting, ballots can be cast from any early voting location within a voter’s registered county. 

Precincts are assigned based on where a given voter has resided as of 30 days prior to election day. According to the North Carolina Election Official Manual, if a voter does not want to go to the proper precinct, they can also be offered a provisional ballot.   

At the polls, some voters said they had been voting at the same location for a decade or more but were told to go elsewhere on Tuesday. At one precinct in Lumberton, an observer told the BBI that they turned away more than half of the voters who came in on Tuesday because they were at the wrong precinct. A voter there said they had visited two different precincts in Robeson County before being directed to the proper place. The BBI observed other voters at precincts in Elizabethtown in Bladen County and Laurinburg in Scotland County who also showed up at incorrect precincts and were told to vote elsewhere.

Carolina Public Press reported similar issues at two polling sites in Durham County where several voters came to the wrong precinct and in Lillington in Harnett County, where two voters who came together to vote ended up at the wrong precinct. Overall, however, very few voters reported any issues during voting on Tuesday, according to CPP. Many voters said the entire process took them between four to seven minutes even with the new voter ID requirements. 

According to North Carolina General Statutes, changing a voting location is at the discretion of local boards of election. The county board of elections has the power to “establish, define, provide, rearrange, discontinue, and combine election precincts as it may deem expedient … for holding primaries and elections.”

Loretta Rena McNeill, right, and Tannelaine Wilson voted in Laurinburg Tuesday. Photo by Kerria Weaver

Rachel Baldauf and Kerria Weaver contributed reporting.

Clarification: This story has been updated from its original version to better reflect observations made at voting precincts.