A North Carolina court ruling on Monday ordering the state legislature to redraw congressional district boundaries has Republican members of Congress reconsidering their future in what is almost certain to be a boon for Democrats.
The ruling by a panel of three state judges is likely to give Democrats the chance to compete for several more U.S. House districts in North Carolina, where Republicans hold 10 of the 13 seats. Republicans acknowledged Tuesday they could lose at least one, and as many as three, of those seats.
The judges, two Democrats and one Republican, ruled that the current district maps, in use since 2016, represented an “extreme partisan gerrymander” that violated a provision in the state constitution guaranteeing “free elections.” The court order bars North Carolina from holding primary elections, scheduled for March 3, under the current boundary lines.
At the same time, the judges accepted newly drawn state-level district lines crafted by the legislature after the court ordered last month that they redrawn for similar reasons. The Republican-led legislature did not appeal that ruling, seeing little hope of success before the state Supreme Court, which has a Democratic majority.
The maps struck down on Monday, drawn after a similar challenge to the way North Carolina crafted its political boundaries following the 2010 Census, gave Republicans the majority of the state’s 13 seats in Congress, even though Republicans won the popular vote there by just 2 percentage points. Democrats argued the Republican-drawn lines unfairly diluted their political power and enhanced the GOP’s chances of winning seats in Congress.
“Even though both were fairly egregious gerrymanders, I think that there’s an argument to be made that the congressional maps were worse,” said state Rep. Robert Reives, one of the Democrats who led the party’s redistricting efforts. “We’re glad that we have fairer maps than we’ve had in recent memory.”
Legislative leaders have not yet said whether they plan to appeal the congressional district ruling. But after redrawing legislative boundaries in just two weeks in what even Democrats have acknowledged was a more transparent process, they are unlikely to challenge the new ruling before the state Supreme Court.
“I assume we’re going to be drawing maps in the next month,” said state Rep. Pricey Harrison (D), who helped redraw the legislative district boundaries last month. “Even if you just ran simulated maps, you’d end up with a nearly half-and-half split. I think we’re looking at fairer representation for the state of North Carolina.”
The legislature will have to move with some haste to avoid a delayed primary. North Carolina state law sets the filing deadline for candidates on Dec. 2 — just five weeks from now.
If the legislature opts to redraw district lines again, it is almost certain to sow chaos among the 10 Republicans who hold seats in Congress. Three of those members — Reps. George Holding, Ted Budd and Dan Bishop — won their seats with less than 52 percent of the vote. Political observers said the GOP’s best-case scenario was that a court would accept maps that could give them eight or nine seats in the next election.
“It could reshape how the 2020 elections are going to play out. Last year’s election, even with what felt like a Democratic surge, maybe not a wave but a surge, the lines held. Political behavior of these districts bought the Repubs the insurance policy they had hoped,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.
The best-case scenario for Democrats, Harrison said, would be as many as seven of the 13 seats — though she acknowledged that was an unlikely outcome.
Several Republicans could be forced into the uncomfortable prospect of challenging each other to keep their seats. After the new map in 2016, Holding was drawn into the same district as Rep. Renee Ellmers (R), whom he beat in that year’s primary.
“There could be some new configurations that could put somebody in with somebody else, and it’s a whole new ballgame,” Bitzer said.
Holding has expressed concerns to colleagues that he may be boxed out in any new map. His district, drawn around Raleigh, is bordered by seats held by Reps. David Rouzer (R), Richard Hudson (R), Mark Walker (R), David Price (D) and G.K. Butterfield (D).
“No one knows” who will be affected, said one member of the North Carolina delegation. “They are all speculating. And they are all nervous as heck.”
The ruling “creates a lot of confusion and uncertainty for the people in North Carolina, it’s really a disservice to them. But you know it’s up to the courts and the legislature to determine what’s fair and what the districts ought to look like, so I really don’t have a role in that,” Hudson told The Hill.
Bitzer pointed to western North Carolina, where the heavily Democratic city of Asheville is split between districts held by Reps. Mark Meadows (R) and Patrick McHenry (R), as a potential flashpoint. If the new maps put Asheville solely in one district, it could give Democrats a chance to pick up a seat that the GOP easily held in 2018 — a district that might look similar to one held by former Rep. Heath Shuler (D) a decade ago.
“I’ve learned two things: Worry about the things you have control over, and I don’t have control over this. And two, if you are too worried about keeping this job, you’re focused on the wrong things,” Meadows told The Hill.
Republicans have been stymied by a series of Democratic court victories in North Carolina, even as the U.S. Supreme Court refused to get involved in partisan gerrymandering cases earlier this year. Democratic groups have been challenging Republican-drawn lines and Republican-backed election legislation for most of this decade.
One powerful North Carolina Republican used the latest setback to remind his voters of the power of judicial politics. North Carolina is one of eight states in which Supreme Court justices run with partisan affiliations; today, six of the seven members of the state’s high court are Democrats.
“With judges deciding behind closed doors how many members of Congress from each party is acceptable, judicial elections have become the most consequential in America,” state Senate President Phil Berger (R) said in a statement.
— Scott Wong and Juliegrace Brufke contributed to this report.