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Texas and North Carolina: Democrats on the verge?

Texas and North Carolina: Democrats on the verge?
© The Hill illustration

Watch Texas and North Carolina election night. The presidential contest is close in both states, and Democrats are challenging two incumbent Republican U.S. Senators. The outcomes probably won't determine the presidency or control of the Senate — but the fierce down-ballot contests for the state legislatures could affect politics for years, as they set the table for redistricting in those two big states.

Republicans are desperately working to hold on to their majorities in the Texas House and North Carolina Senate.

The races take on an added importance this cycle with the post-census 2021 redistricting of congressional and state legislature seats. Republicans scored massive gains in the 2010 state races and then engaged in incredibly shrewd and rigged gerrymandering.

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Democrats have cut into those margins recently, but this is a make or break moment. After the current census, North Carolina stands to pick up another congressional seat in 2022, and Texas will gain three.

Overall, Democrats are dominating the money race this year. It has been amazingly easy to raise money — small and big donors — to defeat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE or senators like Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham reports 'record-breaking' 9M haul during 2020 campaign Lawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country MORE (R-S.C.).

With a big boost from Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSmearing presidential election will turn off young voters and undermine democracy 'Black Panther' star criticized for sharing video questioning COVID-19 vaccine Black voters: Low propensity, or low priority? MORE and others, they've done well in raising money for these down-ballot contests. But Republican donors, sensing the long-term stakes, are opening their pockets for state house races in the closing weeks. Without the shiny bauble of those high-profile contests, it's uncertain whether Democrats will keep pace.

If not, a banner election night might be dampened a bit.

For Democrats there are a number of priorities. Kansas has a Democratic governor, but unless they pick up at least one seat in the state house, Republicans will have a veto on redistricting. Conversely, if Republicans lose two state Senate seats in Minnesota, Democrats would control all the levers.

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Voters in Michigan, following a dozen or so states, approved an independent redistricting commission. But some Republicans are still contesting the legality; Democrats are focused on a couple contests for the state Supreme Court where the issue may have to be settled.

In Texas the Republicans have an 83-67 advantage in the state house, which they have controlled for almost two decades. But with the changing demographics and attitudes of suburban voters, they are struggling to keep that margin.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott just forked over a large seven-figure contribution for these races, and one of the party's biggest fat cats, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, chipped in another $4.5 million for Texas. (Democrats have more than held their own with big contributions from Michael Bloomberg's gun control group among others. Republican money is expected to escalate in the final week.)

Some of the Republicans’ problems are self-created, says University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray. The 2011 map they drew in Dallas County “sliced and diced,” he told me, so all the African Americans and Latinos were packed into six districts and the Republicans would control the other eight. But with the changing politics of moderates, especially women, he predicts after this election all 14 seats in the county will be held by Democrats.

Populous Collin county, a little north of Dallas, was a GOP stronghold, going three-to-one for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race. But two years ago, Republican Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Senate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge MORE only carried Collin by six points, and Professor Murray thinks Biden may carry it in November.

This is why Democrats have targeted an incumbent like Jeff Leach, some of whose views — like not only having opposed same sex marriage but also giving benefits to same sex couples… and like being a vaccine skeptic during a pandemic — may be out of sync with a changing district.

No state has gerrymandered more than North Carolina, where Republicans in 2011 drew districts so indefensible and racist that the courts modified the maps — and the Republicans still retain an advantage. Unlike most states, the governor plays no redistricting role in North Carolina; it's all vested in the legislature.

The battle this year is for the state Senate where Democrats need to flip five Republican seats. Like in Texas, changing political dynamics are working for the Democrats. One likely pickup is a suburban Raleigh district where Sarah Crawford, a non-profit official and mainstream Democrat, is running against Larry Norman, a lawyer and sympathizer to confederate causes who says the late Sen. Jesse Helms, a white nationalist, is his political idol. That doesn't cut it any more in suburban venues.

Republicans realize this and are mounting a huge effort, with the Republican State Leadership Committee now pouring millions into North Carolina legislative races to keep those three or four seats they need to maintain control.

It’s worth watching.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the context of the governor's role in redisticting in North Carolina.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.