News: CJ Exclusives

Redistricting Weakens Republicans in Two N.C. Congressional Districts

GOP voters shifted from Republican districts in hopes of toppling Democrats

It seems self-defeating: A Republican-crafted redistricting plan hurting Republicans’ election chances. But in two North Carolina districts, it’s true.

A Catch-22 of redistricting is that partisan map-drawers must weaken their party’s power in certain districts to strengthen their power in others. In North Carolina, GOP lawmakers followed a redistricting strategy that diluted Democratic strength in key congressional districts at the expense of other GOP-held seats, particularly the 3rd and 6th congressional districts.

Republicans have dominated the two districts for over 15 years, but political experts say that could change in an election season favorable to Democrats.

“In a good year for Democrats, where they have the wind in their sails because of some national momentum advantage, a strong Democrat could very easily defeat a mediocre or weak Republican in those two districts,” said John Davis, a Republican political consultant in Raleigh.

Michael Bitzer, associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, said that a Southern conservative-leaning Democrat — in the mold of U.S. Reps. Heath Shuler or Mike McIntyre — could give Republicans a run for their money in either district.

“It would also take money from outside the district, most likely from the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], to pump enough money into that district to make it competitive and to make it an opportunity for the Democrats to pick up,” Bitzer said.

Candidate dynamics

A Democratic win in either district in 2012 would a major upset because of firmly ensconced Republican incumbents. In the 6th District — which now stretches across the central North Carolina-Virginia border and dips down into the triad, plus Orange and Durham counties — U.S. Rep. Howard Coble has served since 1985. Coble announced Friday that he would seek a 15th term in office.

In the 3rd District, which encompasses most of the state’s coastal region north of Wilmington, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones has held the seat since 1995. He is running for another term this year.

Coble won his last re-election outing with 75 percent of the vote, while Jones took 72 percent. Even in 2008, a strong year for Democrats, Coble took 67 percent and Jones 66 percent.

Last summer, Republican map-drawers in the General Assembly moved registered Republican voters out of the district and filled in the ranks with registered Democrats and independents — raising the possibility that both districts could be competitive in the future.

As a reflection of the shifted electoral demographics, GOP presidential candidate John McCain would have carried the 6th District with 56 percent of the vote under the new maps, compared to the actual tally of 63 percent under the old maps. In the 3rd District, McCain’s winning advantage would be reduced to 56 percent under the new scheme, compared to 61 percent under the old.

“Under normal election year circumstances, clearly the advantage in those two districts goes to the Republican, but Republicans can never take those two for granted,” Davis said. “They will always have to have strong candidates and wage very sophisticated, well-managed campaigns.”

Primary challenge

Coble and Jones have drawn primary challengers from within their party. In the 3rd District, former New Bern police chief Frank Palombo has announced. In the 6th, small business owner Billy Yow has thrown his hat into the ring.

Neither incumbent is a stranger to primary battles. Coble faced five of them in 2010 and still managed to snag 63 percent of the vote. Jones faced two opponents and won a decisive 77 percent of the vote.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.