North Carolina Dems face tough time winning legislature in 2018

North Carolina Dems face tough time winning legislature in 2018
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Despite prevailing in court and winning high-profile statewide elections, North Carolina Democrats may not secure legislative districts that give them a realistic shot of making inroads in either 2018 or 2020. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of the North Carolina legislature. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has not been able to wield a very powerful veto pen when facing a veto-proof majority with no signs of cracking.

Understanding the difficulty of winning back a majority with Republican-drawn legislative maps, Democrats set the seemingly reasonable goal of cracking the Republican supermajorities, the simplest way being to flip three North Carolina House seats. Without a veto-proof majority in one chamber, Republicans would have a difficult time overriding the governor.

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In August 2016, a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina found that 28 legislative districts are “racial gerrymanders in violation of the Equal Protection Clause." On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court but vacated an order for special elections in 2017. On remand, the district court ordered the legislature to draw and approved new districts by Sept. 1.

The court victories convinced many on the Democratic side that with new lines, they can do even better than picking up the seats they need to break the supermajority. After all, North Carolina voters elected a Democratic governor and a Republican lieutenant governor in 2016, and it would follow that new legislative districts would reflect the close partisan split in the state.

Not so fast. The state legislature approved new legislative districts on Aug. 30. According to analysis in the News & Observer, Cooper would have won only 18 of the 50 Senate districts and 47 of the 120 House districts, despite defeating Republican Pat McCrory last year by a statewide margin of 49.0 percent to 48.9 percent.

Looking at a Republican who won statewide in North Carolina in 2016, President Trump would have won 33 of the 50 new Senate districts and 76 of the 120 new House districts. However, in the presidential contest, Trump only won 49.9 percent of the vote to the 46.1 percent that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE received.

With these new districts, Republicans may have a better chance of maintaining or even increasing their current majorities. How did this happen? Under the North Carolina Constitution, “no county shall be divided in the formation” of a legislative district. The “whole county provision” has been litigated in state and federal court for decades and is a challenge for mapmakers in North Carolina.

Following the 2000 redrawing of legislative districts, Republicans successfully litigated Democratic maps that split counties. Since then, the courts have allowed some crossing of county lines when it is necessary to achieve the “one person, one vote” standard. However, this only allows for a small percentage of North Carolina’s 100 counties to be split into more than one legislative district.

North Carolina consists of 100 counties, 80 of which have population densities of 250 people per square mile or less, classifying them as rural. Most had net migration out this decade, meaning more people moved away than in. These counties are home to close to 4 million people, or 41 percent of the state's population.

As you would expect, candidates running statewide in North Carolina concentrate on the urban counties with 59 percent of the population to win elections. Frankly, presidential, gubernatorial and other statewide campaigns focus on fewer than a dozen urban counties to garner the votes necessary to win. This is particularly true for Democrats whose voters tend to be in metropolitan areas. A red and blue color-coded map of North Carolina voting by county quickly reveals the divide in the state.

Republicans drew the new maps based on county groupings and to avoid splitting counties. Prior to approving the maps, Republicans announced that race would not be considered as a factor. Republicans have generally dismissed Democratic complaints about their maps, saying that it is difficult to crack a legislative supermajority — much less win a majority — when 70 to 80 counties are Republican strongholds and the legislative districts have to respect county lines.

The three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina must review and approve these maps before they can be used in the 2018 election. It remains to be seen whether the court approves the maps, sends them back again or draws new maps itself. One thing for sure is that the perpetual litigation of North Carolina’s legislative districts will continue and the state’s Democrats may not have an opportunity to make inroads until they can pick up more support in rural areas.

Bruce Thompson II served as assistant attorney general in the North Carolina Department of Justice and is recognized as one of the state’s political influencers. He is a partner in the Raleigh, N.C., office and Washington, D.C., location of Parker Poe.