Sunday, May 04, 2008

Watauga Watershed?

Watauga County, deep in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge might be a chink in Hillary’s fabled “Hillbilly Firewall,” and a win here by Obama will indicate the Tar Heel State’s shift from reliably Republican to highly competitive.

Boone, the county’s seat, is a college town home to Appalachian State University. Obama has won or performed well in college counties even in Appalachia, winning Virginia Tech’s Montgomery County and winning 20 to 30% more in Ohio State’s Athens County than surrounding counties.

Watauga is a historically Mountain Republican county, a rare spot in the Old Confederacy where Republicans were competitive. Democrats have only carried Watauga four times since 1924, including only two out of FDR’s four wins. Another election that Watauga forsook the GOP was 1964, when historically Democratic counties voted for Republican Barry Goldwater and his opposition to civil rights acts. Like other Southern Appalachian counties, Watauga has an almost non-existent Afro-Am population, and racial appeals have found little resonance among voters here. Watauga was one of the worst counties for George Wallace in 1968 and Strom Thurmond in 1948. And Watauga voted for Harvey Gantt, the black former Charlotte mayor in his 1990 and 1996 challenges to former Republican Senator Jesse Helms, notorious for his racially divisive rhetoric. That’s good news for Obama.

Boone is booming, and turnout hit a record high of 24,000 in 2004, up from just around 15,000 in 1998. And, like a lot of booming, economically growing North CarolinaAsheville, the Research Triangle – Watauga is trending Democratic. U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx lost the county her 2006 race, not regarded as competitive and in 2004, Kerry picked up four points over Gore in 2000, chalking up 47%.

If Obama can win these growing, Dem-trending areas, his campaign has solid evidence to counter Hillary Clinton’s contention that she would be stronger nominee, more likely carry the newly competitive swing states like Colorado and North Carolina.

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