New legislative maps crack door for Democrats ... or do they?

Posted August 21, 2017 5:16 p.m. EDT
Updated August 21, 2017 6:55 p.m. EDT

NC Legislative Building

— To those scoring the 2018 elections at home based on new legislative maps and data released over the last few days: Good luck.

Democrats have little to no chance of wresting the majority from Republicans under these new maps, outside analysts agreed. Whether they've got a shot of breaking the GOP's super majority in at least one chamber – a major accomplishment that would shift political power in the state by giving Gov. Roy Cooper and his party new bargaining power – was a matter of mixed opinion.

Meredith College political science professor David McLennan looked at the new maps Monday and gave Democrats a good chance of breaking that veto-proof majority with seats to spare. He leaned heavily on recent polling data that gives Democrats a big boost on generic ballots, as well as a long-standing feature of mid-term elections: The president's party usually fares poorly.

Bob Phillips, whose group, Common Cause, has pushed unsuccessfully for redistricting reforms in North Carolina, saw little hope for Democrats in Monday's data dump, which uses past election results and new district lines to show which way a district leans and, thus, whether it's more likely to elect a Democrat or a Republican next year.

"In our quick analysis, it would appear that the maps guarantee the majority party super-majorities in both chambers," Phillips wrote via email.

Francis De Luca, president of conservative think tank Civitas, said it looks to him like Republicans will lose a few seats in both chambers, but there's a good chance they'll hold those veto-proof majorities.

Catawba College politics professor Michael Bitzer saw enough competitive seats under the new maps to break the super-majority, but as with McLennan's analysis, a lot of that depends on Republican President Donald Trump.

"If presidential popularity continues to be mired in mid-30s, then yes, (there is a) possibility of breaking the super-majority if the new districts are in place," Bitzer emailed. "But that’s a big if this far out."

At the Legislative Building, state Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, said the new map for his chamber "leans toward Republican candidates and the protection of the super-majority."

"They have eliminated the racial gerrymandering and substituted it with partisan gerrymandering," Clark said.

Federal courts found that maps the Republican-controlled legislature illegally drew in 2011 packed too many black voters into 19 House and nine Senate districts, weakening their voting power elsewhere.

State Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, the GOP's map-making point man in the Senate, did not respond to an interview request Monday.

Republicans have generally dismissed Democrats complaints about their maps, saying it's not gerrymandering that produces such a partisan tilt in the General Assembly but the way Democratic voters have clustered themselves in North Carolina cities.

They also note that the GOP majority was first achieved in 2010 during elections using maps drawn by the Democratic majority. Few saw the massive Republican wins coming, and it was a key year. Maps are drawn every 10 years, after the U.S. census. The stakes are high to control that process following the 2020 elections, and both sides want to set the stage for those elections next year.

For Democrats and reformers, the numbers just don't add up under the current legislative maps. Cooper won a close election last year, and statewide contests in North Carolina are often tight affairs. How, they ask, can a state so evenly divided have a House where 74 of 120 members are Republicans and a Senate where Republicans hold 35 of 50 seats?

That puts Republicans above the three-fifths threshold needed in each chamber to overturn gubernatorial vetoes, denying Cooper the ability to block Republican legislation. The threshold amounts to 72 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate. All 170 N.C. General Assembly seats will be up for election next year.

Looking at 2016 election results, divvied up among the newly proposed districts, is instructive, but it guarantees little. Cooper won at least 50 percent of the vote in 47 of the new House districts and in 18 of the new Senate districts. Cooper won at least 48 percent in 51 House districts, for those who want to figure in a bump in Democratic turnout next year.

"Pretty conservative," McLennan said of the hedge.

If Democrats take 49 of 120 House districts, they break the GOP super-majority. They need do so in only one chamber, since it takes both chambers to override gubernatorial vetoes.

But look at last year's presidential election or the U.S. Senate race, and Democrats don't fare as well. Both Trump and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr ran better across the state, and in the proposed districts, than former Gov. Pat McCrory. Use those elections as baselines, and breaking the super-majority becomes much less likely.

Bitzer said he sees 33 House districts in the proposed map to be all but locks for Democrats. Another seven lean toward Democrats. Eighteen would be competitive between the two major parties, he said.

If Democrats held serve where favored and won half those competitive seats, they'd break the super-majority by a single seat.

That task looks much more difficult in the Senate.

"I think the Senate is off the table in terms of defeating the super-majority, but I think the House is a possibility," McLennan said.

Tuesday brings a slate of afternoon public hearings on the proposed new maps, held concurrently in seven cities at 4 p.m.:

  • Legislative Office Building, 300 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh, Room 643
  • Central Piedmont Community College, 1112 Charlottetowne Ave., Charlotte, Hall Building Rooms 215/216
  • Fayetteville Technical Community College, 2817 Fort Bragg Road, Fayetteville, General Classroom Building Room 108
  • Caldwell Community College, 2855 Hickory Blvd., Hudson, Building B Room 104
  • Guilford Technical Community College, 601 E. Main St., Jamestown, Medline Campus Center Room 360
  • Halifax Community College, 100 College Road, Weldon, Building 100 Room 108
  • Beaufort County Community College, 5337 U.S. Highway 264 East, Washington, Building 9 Room 935

Legislators are expected to approve new maps later this week as part of an ongoing special session. The three-judge panel overseeing this process gave Republicans until Sept. 1 to complete the work, and the court still must accept new maps before they can be used in the 2018 legislative elections.

De Luca predicted the judges will also reject the new maps and draw their own, something the court is empowered to do.

"I have a strong suspicion these are not the maps we are going to be running the election under," he said. "This court is not friendly to the Republican majority."