In a state as purple as North Carolina, a congressional delegation featuring 10 Republicans and three Democrats offers proof of “extreme” partisan gerrymandering. Or at least that’s what many critics of the Republican-led General Assembly would like you to believe.
As with many political debates, the truth is not as simple as the rhetoric. In this case, N.C. Democrats transform a geographic disadvantage into a rhetorical tool. That tool helps them fight the GOP — both in court and in the court of public opinion.
Before explaining how, let’s be clear: Gerrymandering is bad. It’s just as bad when Republicans use it now as when Democrats used it in the past. Ever since North Carolina became a competitive two-party state, the party in power has used gerrymandering to preserve its power.
North Carolina would benefit from redistricting reform. The ideal reform would take election mapmaking out of the hands of the politicians who stand to benefit directly from those maps. The John Locke Foundation has been arguing in favor of that type of reform for decades.
That said, recent left-leaning recruits can hurt the redistricting reform cause when they misstate their case. As JLF Chairman John Hood suggested recently, “like new converts to all sorts of righteous causes, they run the risk of letting exuberant devotion impair their practical judgment and common sense.”
One area in which this phenomenon plays out involves faulty claims about the current congressional delegation.
Here are the facts: In 2012, the first N.C. election conducted with GOP-drawn maps, the delegation flipped from a 7-6 Democratic advantage to 9-4 in favor of Republicans. The GOP flipped another Democratic seat in 2014 and has maintained the 10-3 advantage under the current congressional map adopted in 2016.
Discussing that change recently with the Raleigh News & Observer, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, admitted that Democrats “invoked a partisan advantage” during their years of controlling the General Assembly.
“But we were able to maintain a 7-6 split among congressional districts, which was reflective of North Carolina’s political makeup,” Blue told the newspaper. “We didn’t push the constitutional limits by trying to draw congressional maps with a 10-3 partisan advantage simply because we could.”
Democrats had the power to draw lines in their favor, yet decided to draw them in such a way that the state’s congressional delegation mirrored its closely divided electorate? It’s a powerful argument.
It’s also wrong.
Democrats never drew congressional lines to give themselves a 10-3 advantage because they couldn’t do it. It would not be possible for Democrats to achieve that partisan goal with a map that any court would accept.
Why? Democrats cluster in high concentrations geographically in North Carolina. In contrast, Republicans are dispersed more widely. The latest presidential election illustrates this fact. Donald Trump won a plurality of the state’s votes and triumphed 52-48 over Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head matchup. Yet Trump won a far higher share — 76 — of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
Clinton won her 24 counties with wider margins than Trump won his 76. That’s the only way to account for the disparity between overall votes and the 3-1 margin in county “victories.” Congressional elections and legislative races follow a similar pattern.
As statistical research posted at Fivethirtyeight.com suggests, N.C. congressional election maps that maximize either compactness or partisan proportionality are likely to produce an 8-5 Republican delegation. Even maps designed to maximize Democrats’ gains are unlikely to produce more than a 7-6 Democratic advantage under normal conditions.
In other words, the congressional delegation is unlikely to get much more Democratic than a split that mirrors the state’s closely divided electorate — no matter how hard Democrats might try to extend their advantage.
Contrary to Blue’s comments, recent N.C. political history is full of examples of gerrymandering designed to maximize Democrats’ partisan advantage. Exhibit No. 1: the snakelike 12th Congressional District that pocked the N.C. congressional map for more than 20 years.
Democrats drew that district in the early 1990s, when Blue led the N.C. House as its speaker. Lawmakers designed the 12th not to test the lengths to which a congressman could drive and still remain within his district. (Remember that the original version of that snake stretched from Durham to Gastonia.) Instead lawmakers wanted to comply with a federal mandate to create a second “majority-minority” district while still giving Democrats an opportunity to win as many of North Carolina’s 12 congressional districts as possible.
And it worked. Democrats built upon an existing 7-4 advantage within the congressional delegation and extended their edge to 8-4 in 1992. The Republican landslide of 1994 flipped that delegation to 8-4 in the GOP’s favor. Democrats recovered some of their losses two years later, but the GOP maintained a slight edge for most of the rest of the decade.
When Democrats had another chance to redraw election lines in 2001, with another new U.S. House seat at stake, they preserved the snake in the 12th District while creating another new district. It should surprise no one that Democrats drew the new district to elect another Democrat. The ensuing 2002 election dropped Republicans’ partisan advantage from 7-5 to 7-6.
Lest one think that Democrats proceeded in 2001 with a goal of maintaining some degree of partisan balance, later comments from one of Blue’s top lieutenants paint a different picture.
Asheville’s Martin Nesbitt, the House’s top budget writer under Blue, had moved to the state Senate by 2010. He spoke with rare candor that year during a Democratic Party campaign rally in western North Carolina. Nesbitt’s comments focused on legislative redistricting, rather than congressional races, but the same partisan priorities applied to both cases.
“Whoever wins this election will draw the districts for the next 10 years,” Nesbitt warned his partisan audience. “And I can promise you, if you draw ’em, you won’t have any Democrats in these mountains. I’ve helped draw ’em. I’ve drawn them three times now. I’m telling you: There are a lot of Republicans around here, and it’s very difficult to keep Democrats in these seats.”
Despite the abundance of Republican voters, Democrats still controlled most western N.C. Senate seats at the time of Nesbitt’s remarks. “We’ll have all mountain Democrats except Tom Apodaca [of Henderson County], and we’ve pretty well got him on an island over there.”
Nesbitt then urged support for Apodaca’s Democratic challenger. “He’s got a real uphill battle because when we drew these districts, they put all of the Republicans over there,” Nesbitt said. “That’s why I’m in a pretty good district over here in Buncombe. It’s because that’s how it was divided.”
So much for drawing districts “reflective of North Carolina’s political makeup.” Nesbitt admitted to a friendly audience that he and his fellow Democrats drew election maps to elect Democrats — even if that meant concentrating as many western N.C. Republicans into a single state Senate district as possible.
Now Republicans draw election maps to elect as many Republicans as possible. Same as it ever was.
The system needs fixing. Redistricting reform makes sense. More Republicans are likely to support that proposition once Democrats drop the rhetoric and admit their own complicity in the current broken process.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.