NC Democrat parity in the congressional delegation can be fleeting

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RALEIGH, NC — Democrats this month celebrated victory in what has been described as North Carolina’s only toss-up for the US House of Representatives when Senator Wiley Nickel narrowly defeated Republican Bo Hines in the 13th congressional district helped weaken any national GOP mid-term wave.

Nickel’s win creates a 7-7 split in the state delegation and marks the best performance for the state Democrats after a decade of falling behind the GOP in an otherwise tightly divided state. Trial judges drew the final district lines after litigation redistribution successfully blocked cards passed by the Republican-controlled legislature that could have reduced Democrats to four seats.

“We’re a 50-50 state — we should have a 7-for-7 delegation,” Nickel told The Associated Press during a pause in his congressional briefing in Washington this week. “If we have fair cards, we get fair results that reflect voters’ choices.”

But there’s a good chance that Nickel’s Raleigh-area counties and others will be changed dramatically for the 2024 election, returning the advantage to Republicans.

A confluence of events opens the door for General Assembly Republicans to adopt their preferred congressional card in 2023 and use it the following year. A new GOP majority on the state Supreme Court is likely to be more skeptical of legal challenges alleging excessive partisanship.

“Seven Seven does not reflect the will of North Carolina voters,” House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters the day after the election. “So it should be something else. I do not know what that is. But at the end of the day…we trust the voters of this state.”

Republicans will hold eight of the state’s 13 US house districts by the end of the year. Population growth gave North Carolina a 14th seat in the November election.

GOP lawmakers vehemently opposed a split opinion in the state Supreme Court last winter, which struck down a more favorable ticket for their party by saying that the state’s constitution prohibits partisan border crossings.

State law required that the judge-drawn map be used only for that year’s races. Republicans will continue to have majorities in the House and Senate comfortable enough to pass their card of choice over the next year. Redistribution plans are not subject to the veto stamp of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Most importantly, Republicans will have a 5-2 majority on the Supreme Court next January if Trey Allen and Richard Dietz win the seats currently held by registered Democrats.

The current 4-3 Democrat majority ruled that the congressional and legislative maps approved by the November 2021 General Assembly unlawfully gave Republicans an outsized advantage over Democrats. The three Republican judges who disagreed wrote that the Constitution does not specifically prohibit or limit partisan advantage in map making.

The arrival of two more GOP judges makes it more likely — but not certain — that the court would uphold a future congressional card from lawmakers while rejecting last year’s landmark ruling that defined illegal partisan gerrymandering.

Senate Chairman Phil Berger said he expected the state to now move away from what he called the “judicial gerrymander” to “what I think would be a different drawing of the congressional maps.”

It’s too early to tell what the next lines of Congress will be. Plans approved by the Legislature but never implemented would have enabled Republicans to win 10 of the state’s 14 congressional seats.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, said nickel would be a likely target for Republican lawmakers to place in a more GOP-friendly district.

Democratic state senator Jeff Jackson, who won the newly created 14th district seat covering parts of Mecklenburg and Gaston counties, and Democratic state senator Kathy Manning of Greensboro, who won her third term , are also at risk, Bitzer said.

It’s possible the state Supreme Court’s postponement is moot. Litigation related to the congressional card is before the U.S. Supreme Court and could result in state courts losing the ability to adjudicate laws affecting federal elections, including seat boundaries. Oral hearings are scheduled for next month in the case in which attorneys for Berger and Moore argue that the US Constitution delegates “the times, places, and manner” of congressional elections exclusively to state legislatures.

“Even if they don’t succeed in the US Supreme Court, they now have a Supreme Court that will most likely be respectful of whatever the legislature proposes and excuse any precedent,” Bitzer said.

Bitzer’s analysis of North Carolina state contests since 2008 shows that Republican candidates win nearly 51% of the cumulative vote, compared to 47% for Democrats. But the idea that a political party should be guaranteed seats over time commensurate with its percentage of support at the ballot box was eschewed by the authors of the prevailing and dissenting opinions of the state Supreme Court last February.

Nickel said he’s not worried about what a future map looks like.

“We have a huge opportunity to have some real bipartisan gains at the next convention, so the focus is really on that,” Nickel said. “Eventually they’ll draw new maps, but I’m optimistic we’ll have a place to run then.”

Schoenbaum is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics.

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