One-term congressmen? Who Republicans could target in the upcoming redistricting process

Democratic state Sens. Wiley Nickel, Jeff Jackson and Don Davis were elected to the U.S. House. They could face uphill battles if they seek reelection in 2024.

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Davis, Jackson, Nickel to serve in Congress
Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — When North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature reconvenes next year, the top item on their priority list will likely be crafting a new congressional map.
The state lawmakers tasked with drawing and approving new voting lines for the state’s 14 U.S. House districts are expected to create a map more favorable to Republicans. If they do, and if the effort is contested in court as it has been in years past, GOP lawmakers could benefit from a state Supreme Court led by conservative justices that could be more deferential to the legislature.

A changed map could make vulnerable three Democratic congressional newcomers—state Sens. Don Davis, Jeff Jackson and Wiley Nickel. A Greensboro-area seat held by U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning could also be upended.

“All of them will have targets on their back,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist who wrote a book on the history of North Carolina’s redistricting battles. “The way that I would think about it: 10-4 [Republican majority] as a baseline. Could you potentially see 11-3? I think creative mapmaking could make that possible.”

A map lawmakers approved last year was likely to give the GOP an 11-3 or 10-4 edge in North Carolina’s congressional delegation. But the voting plan was challenged by voting rights groups over concerns it was drawn to dilute the voting power of racial minorities and Democratic voters.

The map was ultimately struck down by the state Supreme Court, which currently has a 4-3 Democratic majority. When Republicans went back to the drawing board, their revised map was again struck down, prompting a panel of lower court judges to appoint independent redistricting experts to enact a plan only to be used for this year’s elections. The enacted map was likely to produce an 8-6 GOP advantage or an even 7-7 split.
NC interim congressional map approved by the state Supreme Court Feb. 23, 2022.
In the end, Democrats achieved their most plausible best-case scenario with a pair of victories in congressional districts in and around the Triangle. In a state where Republicans dominated statewide and in key legislative races, the GOP tide didn’t lift all boats.

“When it comes to the congressional maps, 7-7 does not reflect the will of the voters of North Carolina,” state House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters the day after the Nov. 8 election. “So it should be something different.”

Democratic leaders acknowledge they are limited in what they can do to stifle Republicans in the leadup to the 2024 election.

Republicans’ long game

The drawing of congressional and legislative maps is done by whichever party controls the state House and state Senate. Although Democrats are free to put forward their own plans, Republicans next year will have more than enough votes within their party to pass whatever map they want. Unlike most bills, redistricting plans aren’t subject to approval from the state’s governor. That means Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper can’t thwart whatever Republicans propose.

The review of a new congressional map is likely to fall to the courts, where Democrats see little to no hope of a 6-3 conservative U.S. Supreme Court or a 5-2 conservative state Supreme Court striking down a GOP plan. For years, North Carolina’s congressional maps have been challenged, ultimately working their way to the highest levels of the state and the federal court system. A new map would likely be challenged again, political observers say, leading to a similar legal review.

Outside of building a public awareness campaign to pressure GOP lawmakers to enact what Democrats would consider fairer maps, there’s little the state Democratic Party can do.

Floyd McKissick, Jr., first vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, previously served as a state senator from 2007 to 2020. During his tenure, he said he saw Republicans pass what he described as some of the most unfair political maps he’d ever seen. Republicans, meanwhile, have long pointed to gerrymandered maps under Democratic control before the GOP took power in 2011. Indeed, the drawing of lines for pure partisan advantage is a game both parties have played. But the mapmaking process that’s supposed to occur once every 10 years has become something of recurring drama in recent election years.

After Democrats successfully challenged GOP maps over the past decade, McKissick said Republicans adjusted their strategy. He noted how Republicans made state Supreme Court elections partisan starting with the 2018 election and how national Republicans secured a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

Today, McKissick sees more hope for a federal legal challenge than a state-level one.

“Any redistricting challenge, you can’t expect it to go through the state Supreme Court or the state system,” McKissick said. “You’re probably going to have to look at the federal system and that’s about it, and hope the federal courts will offer a more favorable venue in terms of litigation. But there is no certainty that that will remain as viable of a venue as it has been in the past.”

Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, noted his party has had a perfect record in statewide judicial races since he took over in 2019, including three state Supreme Court wins in 2020 and two this year that have enabled the party to get a 5-2 majority. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Democrats won’t have an opportunity to retake the state high court until the 2028 election.

“We have really, truly, since I took over a state party chair in 2019, had a tremendous focus on supporting our statewide judicial candidates,” Whatley said. “For us, over the course of two election cycles now, to win 14 out of 14 at the statewide level is a real significant impact.”

At-risk seats for Democrats

With North Carolina lawmakers, party leaders and outside observers beginning to transition their attention to the 2024 election, Democrats could be at risk of losing several seats.

13th Congressional District. North Carolina’s most competitive congressional district this year came in the area that includes parts of Wake, Wayne and Harnett counties and all of Johnston County.
Wiley Nickel
Nickel, one of three North Carolina Democratic state senators in competitive congressional districts who will head to the U.S. House in January, defeated Republican political newcomer Bo Hines in the state’s lone toss-up district that leaned ever so slightly to the right based on past voting trends. Nickel defeated Hines by 3.2 percentage points.

While Hines held his own in the largely rural Johnston County, Nickel limited his losses in the county while also having strong turnout in southern Wake County to get him over the finish line.

The 13th Congressional District could be greatly restructured by Republicans to dilute the voting power of Democrats, particularly in Raleigh and nearby suburban towns that have become more diverse politically amid growth in the Triangle.

If Wake County voters get lumped into a single district, Nickel could find himself without a viable district to run in. Meanwhile, Hines has hinted at another run for U.S. House.

“This is just the beginning,” Hines told his supporters on Nov. 8 after conceding to Nickel.

Even so, Nickel told WRAL News in an interview this month that he plans to seek reelection in 2024 regardless of the district’s political makeup.

“We've got every indication that we're going to have a seat we can run for,” he said. “We're going to let that process play out. We will have a seat we can run for and [are] excited about doing it."

1st Congressional District. After North Carolina lawmakers in 2021 redrew the district currently held by longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, the congressman announced his retirement. The initial map would have made the district nearly evenly split politically between Democrats and Republicans.
Democratic state Sen. Don Davis greets supporters at a Pitt County event. He is running to replace U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield in North Carolina's 1st Congressional District.

A court-enacted map made the district slightly less Democratic, but still likely to elect a Democratic candidate.

Butterfield’s exit paved the way for Davis, a Pitt County Democrat. Butterfield endorsed Davis in a relatively uneventful primary. Republicans, meanwhile, narrowly nominated Republican businesswoman Sandy Smith in a highly contentious eight-person primary.

In 2020, Butterfield defeated Smith by more than 8 percentage points. This year, Davis beat Smith by 4.7 percentage points. A redrawn map could bring in more conservative voters and move the district into a toss-up status.

The day after her loss, Smith wrote on Twitter: “Congrats to Don Davis. My advice to him is not to get too comfortable.”

Smith didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Davis said he hasn’t given serious thought about what maps may look like in 2024, and he declined to say whether he’d run for reelection.

“My entire focus is on the issues that are impacting the families of eastern North Carolina and not a reelection,” Davis said. “I just believe I was sent here, even if it’s for this term, to fight for issues that are discussed around the dinner table. We haven’t even gotten sworn in, [let alone] begin to focus on the reelection.”

14th Congressional District. There’s perhaps no candidate more vulnerable to redistricting than Jackson, a Democrat representing the Charlotte area.

In the legislature’s initial map passed last year and the subsequent redraw this year, the area included more rural western North Carolina communities that closely align with the GOP’s most loyal base of supporters. The district’s configuration was widely seen as an opportunity for Moore, North Carolina’s top House Republican, to advance his political career and move to the U.S. House.

Jackson didn’t respond to questions about redistricting and his political future.

In the meantime, Republicans are keeping quiet as to what future maps may look like, though Moore has signaled more seats favorable to Republicans could be on the horizon.

Whatley, the state party chairman, wouldn’t comment on his expectations of future voting lines but said he’s confident Republicans would do well in them.

“We're going to be in a position to have a really good election cycle in 2024,” Whatley said.

6th Congressional District. Manning has represented the Greensboro area since 2021. She won her reelection bid this year by nearly 9 percentage points.
Congresswoman Kathy Manning, representing North Carolina's sixth district

While Republican lawmakers last year sought to split up voters in Guilford County, the map ultimately enacted by a North Carolina court left the county intact.

A redraw that splits the county into two or three parts could make Manning vulnerable to a strong general election challenge. She could also be seen as an underdog depending on how the lines are drawn. Political onlookers see Manning’s seat possibly at risk, but not necessarily to the extent of Jackson, Nickel or Davis.