NC Democrats’ parity in the congressional delegation may be volatile

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RALEIGH, NC (TBEN) — FOR SATURDAY, 19/11; PHOTOS ALREADY LINKED -afrizzell edited

Democrats celebrated winning what was billed as North Carolina’s only toss race for the U.S. House this month, as Senator Wiley Nickel’s narrow victory over Republican Bo Hines in the 13th congressional district helped to weaken any national GOP intermediate wave.

Nickel’s victory secures a 7-7 split in the state delegation, marking the best performance for state Democrats after a decade trailing the GOP in an otherwise deeply divided state. Trial judges drew the final district lines after case redistribution successfully blocked cards passed by the Republican-controlled legislature that could have reduced Democrats to four seats.

“We are a 50-50 state — we should have a 7-to-7 delegation,” Nickel told The The Bharat Express News during a break in his congressional orientation in Washington this week. “If we have fair cards, we get fair results that reflect voters’ choice.”

But there’s a good chance Nickel’s Raleigh-area district and other counties will see major changes before the 2024 election, returning the advantage to Republicans.

A confluence of events opens the door for General Assembly Republicans to pass on their preferred congressional card in 2023 and have it used 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 doesn’t reflect the will of North Carolina voters,” House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters the day after the election. “So it must be something else. I do not know what that is. But in the end… let’s trust the voters of this state.”

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Republicans control eight of the state’s 13 U.S. House districts through the end of the year. Population growth gave North Carolina a 14th seat in the November election.

GOP lawmakers vehemently opposed a divided opinion from the state Supreme Court last winter that struck down a more favorable card for their party by declaring that the state constitution banned partisan gerrymandering of borders.

Under state law, the card drawn by the judge may only be used for this year’s races. Republicans will continue to have majorities in the state House and Senate next year comfortable enough for their preferred card to pass. Redistribution plans are not vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

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

The current Democratic majority of 4 to 3 ruled that congressional and legislative maps passed by the General Assembly in November 2021 unlawfully gave Republicans excessive favoritism compared to Democrats. The three Republican justices who disagreed wrote that the Constitution does not expressly prohibit or limit partisan advantages in mapmaking.

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The arrival of two more GOP justices makes it more likely — but not certain — that the court would uphold a future congressional pass of the legislature, as it overturned last year’s landmark ruling that defined illegal partisan gerrymandering.

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

It’s too early to say what the next congressional lines will look like. Plans approved by the legislature but never implemented would have allowed 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 neighborhood.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson, who won the newly created 14th district seat that includes parts of Mecklenburg and Gaston counties, and Greensboro’s 6th district Democratic Representative Kathy Manning, who won her third term, are also vulnerable, Bitzer said.

It is possible that the shift of the state Supreme Court is moot. Litigation regarding the congressional map is before the U.S. Supreme Court and could result in state courts losing the ability to review laws related to federal elections, including seat limits. Oral arguments are scheduled for next month in the case, in which lawyers for Berger and Moore argue that the U.S. Constitution delegates “the times, places, and manners” of congressional elections solely to state legislatures.

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“Even if they are not successful in the U.S. Supreme Court, they now have a state Supreme Court that is most likely deferential to whatever the legislature comes up with, excusing any precedent,” Bitzer said.

An analysis by Bitzer of federal nationwide contests in North Carolina since 2008 shows that Republican candidates won nearly 51% of the cumulative vote, compared to 47% for Democrats. But the idea that a political party should be assured of seats that match their percentage of support over time at the ballot box was shunned last February by the authors of the state Supreme Court’s ruling and dissent.

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

“We have a huge opportunity to deliver real bipartisan performance in the next Congress, so that’s really the focus,” Nickel said. “At some point they’ll draw new maps, but I’m optimistic that when that happens, we’ll have a chair we can run into.”

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Schoenbaum serves on the Corps for the The Bharat Express News/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.

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