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A key Senate race comes down to a few hundred thousand unaffiliated voters near Raleigh

If Democrats hope to win North Carolina’s Senate race and open House seat in the 13th Congressional District, they will need to run up their score in the highly educated urban centers of Wake County.

Home to North Carolina’s affluent Research Triangle and capital city Raleigh, fast-growing Wake is the most populous county in the state at over 1 million residents.

Unaffiliated voters — typically less engaged than registered party affiliates — dominate Wake County as well as the state, making up 41 percent of Wake’s roughly 800,000 registered voters. Democrats, by contrast, constitute 36 percent of the county’s registered voters while Republicans make up just 23 percent.

The trend is even more pronounced among young residents. In Wake, 51 percent of the Gen Z voting population is registered unaffiliated, compared with 47 percent statewide.

GOP strategist Charles Hellwig compared it to a doughnut, with “a red circle around a deep blue middle.” Republicans are banking on inflation woes to give them the boost they need in rural pockets of the state, such as Johnston County, which borders Wake.

In 2020, President Joe Biden trounced incumbent Donald Trump by more than 160,000 votes in Wake County, but it wasn’t enough to carry the state’s 15 electoral votes. Similarly, in a Senate race that year, Democrat Cal Cunningham led Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis 68 percent to 32 percent in the urban areas, but that margin dropped outside the central cities and Tillis retained his seat.

Yet Republicans stand to gain ground in southern Wake, where Trump-backed candidate Republican Bo Hines will face off against Democratic nominee Wiley Nickel in the highly contested 13th District.

Hellwig, the strategist and former county GOP chair, said that Republicans will need to focus their messaging on pocketbook issues, public safety and parental rights. If they veer off track, he said, they risk losing the suburban areas of Wake. They’re also counting on the bruising effects of the pandemic on schools.

Donna Williams, chair of the county Republican Party, said that throughout the pandemic, parents could “see what the heck was happening with the education of their children.”

Party leaders and organizers said Democrats will need to focus on issues such as abortion, school safety, funding for public schools and housing affordability.

For all of their apparent advantages in the county, Democrats fear enthusiasm among their base is waning.

“We do have some areas that are so blue that the people are completely unmotivated to do anything,” said Kevyn Creech, chair of the Wake County Democratic Party. “They do not feel the urgency and the existential threat the way the rest of us do.”

For Democrats, she said, Wake County is “the tip of the spear.”

Gaby Vinnick