Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — If opponents of the Republican redistricting plan get their way, congressional candidates in North Carolina would have just over two months to campaign for the general election in 2012. That could help vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
Foes of the redistricting plan enacted by the General Assembly have filed suit in superior court alleging that the new boundaries racially gerrymander and split precincts unnecessarily. A panel of judges heard arguments in the case Thursday, and another hearing is scheduled Jan. 20 when judges will weigh whether to postpone the state’s primary while litigation proceeds.
Under the present schedule, North Carolina’s primary is May 8, and a runoff election, if needed, is June 26. But a motion filed by Democrats and civil rights groups calls for the primary and runoff to be deferred two months. The first primary would be held July 10, and a runoff Aug. 28.
That would leave 10 weeks for runoff victors to vie in the general election. Typically, they would have 19 weeks.
“A delay in the 2012 election schedule is feasible and required to preserve the status quo pending the outcome of this litigation and to avoid irreparable harm to the plaintiffs,” argued opponents of the redrawn maps in their motion.
In that scenario, challengers vying in the 8th and 11th congressional districts could face especially tough circumstances. Even though candidate filing doesn’t open for another month, 11 candidates have announced in the 11th District and seven candidates in the 8th District.
In the 8th District, a seat now held by two-term Democrat Larry Kissell, only Republican opponents have announced. But in the 11th District, three-term Democrat Heath Shuler has drawn a primary opponent from his own party — Cecil Bothwell, a member of the Asheville City Council.
The sheer number of candidates vying in the GOP primary in each district virtually guarantees a second primary. Unless a candidate garners at least 40 percent of the vote in a primary, his opponent may call for a runoff.
If redistricting litigation does delay the primary, Kissell and Shuler could be in a better position to defend their seats because the eventual Republican nominee will have less time to mount a general election campaign, according to political experts.
The delay would allow Kissell and Shuler “to raise money and target a general election electorate, while their potential Republican opponents are focused on those voters who might turn out in the GOP primary,” said Jonathan Kappler, research director at the pro-business N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation.
“The eventual Republican nominee in these districts would then have less time to coalesce potentially fractured Republicans in the district, raise money, and reach out to Independent and Democratic voters for the general election,” he said.
Proposed revisions to the election schedule have raised the ire of Republican candidates, who claim it’s an attempt to weaken GOP insurgents.
“Basically the Democrat Party is trying to protect its incumbents, specifically its incumbent congressmen who are all very vulnerable with these new maps,” Ilario Pantano, a candidate in the 7th Congressional District GOP primary, told WWAY-TV in Wilmington.
Runoff elections aren’t unusual. In 2010, Republican competitors in the 8th, 12th, and 13th congressional districts faced off in a second primary June 22. Despite the tide of pro-Republican sentiment in the midterm elections, the eventual GOP nominees failed to defeat Democratic incumbents in each of those three districts.
Turnout is a key consideration in runoffs. Candidates must target their resources to a thin slice of the electorate. For example, turnout for the runoff in 2010 was just 4.5 percent, compared to 14 percent for the primary and 44 percent in the general election.
In the 8th District, Republicans Harold Johnson and Tim D’Annunzio engaged in a heated runoff in 2010, one that hurt Johnson, the eventual nominee, when he had to face Kissell in the general election, Kappler said.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.