by Stewart Boss | June 4, 2012
Just two years after President Obama’s historic victory in North Carolina in 2008, voters decided to put the GOP in charge of the state House and Senate for the first time since the 1800s. For Republicans, the timing couldn’t have been better. Through their control of the redistricting process in North Carolina, Republicans may have effectively turned their party’s surge in the last election into long-term dominance at the state level.
The timing of the GOP’s success in 2010 was hardly just good luck. On a national level, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) launched its Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) in 2010 with the stated purpose of raising “record amounts dedicated to winning seats and legislative majorities that will critically impact redistricting in 2011.” As a tax-exempt 527, the RSLC was able to raise and spend some $30 million on state races in 2010, including $1.25 million in North Carolina funneled through Art Pope’s Real Jobs NC, an independent group targeting Democrats with attack ads. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, Pope and Pope-supported entities spent a total of $2.2 million on 22 state legislative races in North Carolina in 2010. Pope’s investment paid off – Republicans won 18 of those 22 legislative races, an 82 percent success rate. “The best recent example of success is in North Carolina,” the RSLC wrote in a July 2011 blog post. If North Carolina’s new maps are any indication, it’s clear that the REDMAP strategy worked.
The combination of Obama’s 2008 win and Republican redistricting has turned North Carolina into what The Nation writer Ari Berman described as “a political paradox: a presidential swing state with few swing districts.” With a court decision on the maps still pending, a lot is still up in the air. But if the current versions of the maps hold up, the long-term political consequences at the state level in North Carolina will be profound.
Democrats currently hold seven of the state’s 13 Congressional seats but could lose as many as four seats in the next election. If the state’s delegation flips from a 7-6 split in favor of Democrats to a 10-3 majority for Republicans, it will be the largest gain for Republicans in Congress in any state in 2012. If North Carolina Democrats do lose four seats in 2012, it will make it more difficult for Democrats to pick up a total of 25 seats to retake the U.S. House from Republicans.
Rep. Brad Miller decided to retire rather than run against Rep. David Price in the 4th District, and Republican George Holding will likely replace him in the 13th District. Rep. Heath Shuler – who challenged former Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the House minority leader position in 2010 – decided not to run after Republican redistricting made his 11th District more conservative and more difficult for even a moderate Blue Dog Democrat like Shuler to win. Rep. Mike McIntyre (7th District) and Rep. Larry Kissell (8th District) were listed in March by Roll Call as two of the top 10 most vulnerable incumbents across the country. Both Democrats managed to hang on to their seats despite the Tea Party wave of 2010, but their redrawn districts will be much harder to win in November.
Obama carried eight of the 13 Congressional districts in 2008, but new maps would now contain the Obama vote in three heavily Democratic districts that would have voted 68 percent or higher for the president. John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, found that “GOP candidates could win just over half of the statewide vote for Congress and end up with 62 percent to 77 percent of the seats.”
Republican dominance & legislative turnover in the General Assembly
At the state legislature, the new political maps shift political power to Republicans and decrease the competitiveness of many legislative races. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, only about 10 percent of the seats in the General Assembly are in swing districts that are considered to be a tossup. The state House and Senate maps have been transformed from giving Democrats a slight advantage to giving Republicans a landslide 3:2 advantage in both chambers.
Right now the Republicans have a veto-proof 31-19 majority in the state Senate and are only a few votes short in the state House (five conservative Democrats helped Republicans override Gov. Perdue’s budget veto last year). The new political maps will continue to give Republicans a substantial majority that will likely protect the party’s control of the General Assembly from the rise and fall of election cycles. “My view is that the GOP sought to push its advantages to the max,” said Ferrel Guillory, an expert on Southern politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research found that “redistricting…had the biggest impact on legislative turnover” and reported that, even before the May primary election, nearly a third of the state’s legislators would not be returning in 2013. In part that’s because the new maps double-bunked at least 10 incumbent Senators and 28 incumbent House members, usually in districts “with a Republican advantage.” According to John Rustin, executive director of the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, the legislative turnover will be even greater than it was in 2010 because of the number of retiring veteran lawmakers and the 20 open seats created by the new election maps.
The next South Carolina?
Jonathan Kappler, research director at the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, explained in a July 2011 op-ed for The (Raleigh) News & Observer that the long-term implications of redistricting could make North Carolina’s political landscape much like its neighbor to the South, especially in terms of race:
In South Carolina, Democrats occupy a persistent minority position in the legislature and African-American members make up a majority of that state’s Democratic caucus… African-Americans and members from urban areas will likely make up a larger percentage of the Democratic caucus in the legislature. This will change the dynamics of who moves up the political ranks, and will have a profound impact on future political leaders.
In his February article for The Nation, “How the GOP is Resegregating the South,” Ari Berman explains how race specifically and disproportionately factored into the new maps drawn up by North Carolina Republicans:
Republicans accomplished this remarkable feat by drawing half the state’s black population of 2.2 million people, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, into a fifth of all legislative and Congressional districts. As a result, black voters are twice as likely as white voters to see their communities divided…
According to data compiled by Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, precincts that are 90 percent white have a 3 percent chance of being split, and precincts that are 80 percent black have a 12 percent chance of being split, but precincts with a BVAP [Black Voting Age Population] between 15 and 45 percent have a 40 percent chance of being split. Republicans “systematically moved [street] blocks in or out of their precincts on the basis of their race,” found Ted Arrington, a redistricting expert at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “No other explanation is possible given the statistical data.”
Not surprisingly, the North Carolina redistricting maps have been challenged in court, and a three-judge panel of Superior Court judges will hear motions and have attorneys file briefs in August. North Carolina civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit contending that the Republican maps split voting precincts and fractured counties excessively, allowed partisanship to play too great a role in drawing new districts, and gerrymandered based predominantly on racial considerations. A decision is not expected before September, but the court has acknowledged that the plaintiffs “have raised serious issues and arguments about, among other things, the extent to which racial classifications were used in the enactment” of new maps.
The million-dollar question is: will the maps hold up in court? If the answer is yes, then redistricting has seriously dampened the prospects of North Carolina Democrats hoping to stage a comeback in 2012. Barring unforeseen political developments, these new maps make it hard to see Democrats retaking the General Assembly or holding on to a majority of North Carolina’s Congressional delegation anytime soon.