GOP Sees Red, Not Carolina Blue, in N.C. Gains

Posted June 20, 2011 at 6:39pm

Political payback comes in many forms.

It could be particularly biting this cycle for Rep. Brad Miller, who drew himself a Congressional district as a state legislator a decade ago. 

Now, the North Carolina Democrat is on the receiving end of the redistricting process, with the GOP-controlled state Legislature due to deliver retribution in the form of dismantling his district and making him its No. 1 target for defeat.

“Congressman Miller, people tend to believe, will be targeted. And it’s purely personal. He chaired the redistricting committee in the [state] Senate 10 years ago, and this is payback, if you will,” state Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley said.

Paul Shumaker, a longtime GOP strategist in the state, said Miller was “absolutely” the most vulnerable among the House Democrats being targeted — namely Reps. Mike McIntyre, Larry Kissell and Heath Shuler.

Miller “doesn’t have any friends left in the Legislature,” Shumaker said.

State Republicans are now haggling behind closed doors over the first draft lines of the new Congressional map, to be released around July 1. The state’s Democratic governor does not have the legal authority to veto new lines.

Republicans see the Tar Heel State as a gold mine for gaining seats in the 2012 cycle.

“It’s a place where the lines 10 years ago were gerrymandered in such a way that unlocking the gerrymander that’s there will give us [the] opportunity to pick up more seats there than any other state in the country,” said a Republican with substantial knowledge of the state’s redistricting process. The GOP sees the opportunity to have eight Republican districts, four Democratic districts and one tossup district in the state.

But Democrats think that is a bridge too far.

“There are laws of unintended consequences that come out of these things all the time. And the greedier these guys get, the more difficult it is going to be to hold these districts. They can make them competitive, but they can’t make ’em solid,” longtime North Carolina Democratic consultant Thomas Mills said.

Democrats admit that the state will be an uphill battle for them, but they note the demographic trends — increases in Latino and black voting age population that outpaced increases in white voting age population — and the higher voter turnout generated by having the president on the ballot will be to their advantage. North Carolina will be a key battleground in the presidential election, a cause for optimism for Democrats.

The four safe Democratic districts are expected to be: the two majority-minority districts currently represented by Reps. Mel Watt and G.K. Butterfield; a third majority non-white district; and a white, affluent district anchored by the Raleigh-Durham area. But as the details of a new Congressional map get hammered out in legislative committees, Republicans say final decisions on the new lines have not yet been made.

“Everything is still being finalized and everything is still being checked. Until that happens, we won’t know exactly what the maps will look like,” said a North Carolina Republican with knowledge of the redistricting.

Republicans see a number of ways to get rid of Miller’s district, including dismantling the 13th district entirely and placing it in a different part of the state.

Republicans also say Miller might be drawn into fellow Democratic Rep. David Price’s Chapel Hill-Durham-based 4th district, which sets up the potential of a Member-versus-Member primary.

Miller’s office declined to comment, but it did say he was running for re-election.

One potential GOP challenger for Miller is Nathan Tabor, a tea-party-aligned businessman and chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party.

Republicans say Kissell might well be the easiest target in redistricting because of the 8th district’s geography. By cutting Fayetteville out of the district’s eastern side and parts of the Charlotte region on its western side, the seat becomes more Republican. One potential GOP opponent for Kissell, depending on how the final lines are drawn, is businessman Pat Molamphy.

Geography might end up helping McIntyre. Bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on another by South Carolina, the 7th district will be more difficult for the GOP in North Carolina to tinker with than those of his other vulnerable colleagues. Still, Republicans see a path to swinging his district, which has been represented by a Democrat since the 1800s, into their column. Regardless of the new lines, GOP insiders tell Roll Call that ex-Marine Ilario Pantano, who lost to McIntyre in 2010, is likely to take another run at the Congressman.

Republicans also see the prospect of McIntyre and Kissell being drawn into the same district.

Republicans say they need to shore up freshman Rep. Renee Ellmers’ (R) 2nd district but that other GOP incumbents are safe. Democrats hope they will still be able to target the 2nd, which was held by Democrat Bob Etheridge for 14 years. And they note that the more Republicans who are moved into the 2nd, the harder it will be to dilute Democrats in the districts of McIntyre, Kissell and Miller.

The GOP also hopes to weaken Shuler’s 11th district in the western part of the state by adding population from the neighboring 10th district, which is very Republican. If the new lines were to place Democratic Buncombe County, where Asheville is located, outside the 11th, Shuler could face an even steeper challenge than he did in 2010. But no matter the district lines, to beat him, Republicans will need a good candidate.

Republicans in the Tar Heel State and in Washington, D.C., were bullish on their recruitment prospects this cycle, citing the substantial opportunity to add seats in North Carolina.

“There is a perception in North Carolina that this is a time to run for Congress if you’re a Republican living in one of those four Democratic districts,” said the Republican with substantial knowledge of the state’s redistricting process.

But regardless of what happens, there will almost certainly be a lawsuit over Congressional redistricting.

Parmley, the executive director of the state Democratic Party, did not seem optimistic that the courts could be avoided. “You always hold out a hope that they draw fair maps, but there’s no indication we’ve been given that makes us think that they will be fair for us. So I think it’s reasonable to expect in the long run, that this will not be settled by the Legislature,” he said.

Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, either the Department of Justice or a federal court must also approve the final lines.