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There’s no new map yet, but Democrats see opportunity in North Carolina

State court has urged Legislature to start drawing new congressional map for 2020

One of the Democrats hoping to challenge Republican Rep. George Holding, above, called Monday’s injunction against North Carolina’s 2016 congressional map a “game changer.” (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
One of the Democrats hoping to challenge Republican Rep. George Holding, above, called Monday’s injunction against North Carolina’s 2016 congressional map a “game changer.” (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The fundraising email Tuesday from North Carolina Democrat Scott Cooper put it simply. “This news changes everything,” the subject line read.

Cooper, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, was referring to a court order Monday from three state judges that blocked using the existing congressional map — long challenged as a partisan gerrymander — in 2020. 

Cooper is running for the Democratic nomination in North Carolina’s 2nd District, where he’s hoping to take on Republican incumbent George Holding. And he’s not the only one excited about what’s happening.

More than a month after losing an expensive special House election in the Tar Heel State, Democrats say a more balanced congressional map could lead to pickups of several seats in 2020 and beyond.

Despite only narrowly outpacing Democrats in statewide votes in 2018 House races, Republicans dominate the state’s congressional delegation.

Republicans won about to 1.85 million votes last year, while Democrats won 1.77 million, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. That works out to 50 percent for the GOP and 48 percent for the Democrats. But in the current Congress, Republicans hold 10 House seats, while Democrats hold three, because of the districts where those votes were cast.

“This is a game-changer,” Cooper’s email continued.

Many unknowns remain. It’s still unclear when, and if, there’ll be a new map, what it will look like and whether the state’s congressional primaries, currently scheduled for March 3, will be delayed. The court has left open the door to moving all of the state’s primaries.

The many moving parts raise the stakes for North Carolina being a pivotal state up and down the ballot in 2020. The battle for the White House and Senate will play out there, and with Democrats trying to insulate their House majority, the state’s suburbanizing districts will be targeted regardless of when or how the House map changes.

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Where things stand

Monday’s court order is just an injunction that blocked the use of the existing map. The three-judge panel did not issue a ruling in the matter, but said there was a “substantial likelihood” the Democratic groups that were suing would prevail “by showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the 2016 congressional districts are extreme partisan gerrymanders.”

“At this juncture, all of the facts and all of the law is assembled,” said Tom Wolf, counsel with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

The injunction, the court wrote, is necessary to protect the fundamental rights of the plaintiffs, which include Democratic and unaffiliated voters whose legal costs are being paid by a redistricting group connected to former President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr. They filed suit in state court in late September. Federal judges had previously found the congressional map to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, but that ruling was overturned by a Supreme Court ruling in June that said partisan gerrymandering cases don’t fall under federal jurisdiction.

The state court on Monday acknowledged the tight timeline and said it would “provide for an expedited schedule” so the case could be tried before the Dec. 20 candidate filing deadline for congressional races. Even if the trial would lead to a delay in the congressional primaries, the court suggested that any negative effects, such as additional costs for the state Board of Elections and lower voter turnout, “pale in comparison” to voters not having the opportunity to engage in fair elections.

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In the meantime, though, the court said it “respectfully urges” the state General Assembly — without actually having the legal authority to compel it to act — to quickly draw new maps that would remedy the partisan gerrymander. 

There’s precedent for the General Assembly doing that with the state lines. The state court on Monday approved the new state legislative maps that the GOP-controlled Legislature drew and approved last month. The state court had ordered the Legislature to draw new maps after it found the previous map to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, and Republican defendants did not challenge that decision.

In the congressional district case, the court on Monday pointed to the General Assembly’s success in drawing new legislative maps “in a transparent and bipartisan manner” to suggest it could do the same thing for the congressional districts. But the court can only order the General Assembly to draw new maps once it has ruled the law unconstitutional, Wolf said.

The races

Time is of the essence: The current candidate filing period opens Dec. 2 and closes Dec. 20. If the Legislature doesn’t quickly draw new maps, the primaries and filing dates may need to be pushed back.

“It’s a real problem for candidates,” said Carter Wrenn, a Republican consultant in North Carolina. Wrenn works with Holding, the four-term Republican who told The (Raleigh) News & Observer earlier this month that he hasn’t been raising much money locally because he expects the state will be forced to draw new lines. 

“Time is the one thing in a campaign you can’t get more of,” Wrenn added. That’s a problem for challengers, like Cooper, who are trying to raise their name recognition. But it can also be hard for incumbents, who may have to introduce themselves to new voters.

Holding knows what that’s like. When a federal three-judge panel invalidated the state’s 2011 map as a racial gerrymander, the court ordered the state to draw a new map and pushed back its 2016 House primaries. The GOP-controlled Legislature drew Holding and fellow Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers into the same district, which was nearly 40 percent new to him.

Under the current lines, Trump won Holding’s 2nd District by 6 points in 2016. Democrats targeted the seat last year, and Holding only won reelection by 5 points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his race Leans Republican.

Besides the 2nd District, Democrats are already eyeing at least two other seats as pickup opportunities in 2020, but recruitment is still underway in the 9th and 13th districts. 

The 9th District was home to this year’s special election, held because of election fraud allegations that invalidated the 2018 results. Republican Dan Bishop defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 2 points in the September redo. Trump won the district by 11 points in 2016, but McCready’s margins in suburban Mecklenburg County underscored the degree to which growing metropolitan areas are trending Democratic. Inside Elections rates the race a Toss-up.

Democrats also targeted the 13th District last year, where GOP Rep. Ted Budd won reelection by 6 points. Trump carried the district by 9 points. Inside Elections rates that race Likely Republican

While the promise of a more favorable map could encourage more Democrats to run, the uncertainty over the map — which will change again after the 2020 Census — could stall recruitment too. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is planning to assess the interests of more potential North Carolina candidates, depending on what the new lines end up looking like.

Morgan Jackson, a Democratic consultant in the state, expects that if new maps are enacted, there will be a stronger crop of Democratic candidates looking to run for Congress. He predicted that with “fair maps,” Democrats would likely pick up two or three seats “regardless of the winds of the election in 2020” and at least one additional seat after 2021 redistricting. 

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