Opinion: CJ Opinion

New census data puts GOP in good position at General Assembly

Part one of a three-part series outlining an independent analysis of census data.

Two of North Carolina’s most accomplished political consultants have crunched the latest census data and predict Republicans will have a strong political advantage in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Note that this is not a Republican/conservative view of how districts can be drawn. Rather, it’s about how legislative districts must be drawn applying the new census numbers to the whole-county provision of the N.C. Constitution. These requirements apply to anyone drawing the districts — Republicans, Democrats, or the courts.

Jim Blaine and Ray Martin have been heavily involved in every critical State Senate campaign for over a decade.

Blaine served as state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger’s first chief of staff from 2011 to 2018. Martin managed the Senate Caucus political operation from 2012 to 2018, going undefeated in target races in three of the four election cycles.

The two have teamed up to create The Differentiators, a Raleigh-based political and public affairs consulting firm.

Using an independently verified algorithm with a team of Duke data scientists, they were able to determine most of the county grouping arrangements required under the whole-county provision.

“The bottom line in the state House is these groupings could not have come together much better for Republicans,” said Blaine. “The Republicans almost certainly will retain a majority in the House and have a very good chance at winning a supermajority. Democrats’ only realistic pathway to a majority is an extreme gerrymander of the large urban counties like Mecklenburg, Wake, and Guilford that shuts out Republicans entirely. While these counties favor Democrats, Republicans win around 35% of the countywide vote, and a fair map should make about one-third of the districts competitive for the GOP.”

Blaine and Martin contend the county groupings are move favorable to Senate Democrats, as compared to their partners in the House. But the grouping is still likely to produce a GOP Senate majority in the future.

“The optimal grouping maps for the state Senate redistricting plan worked out much better for Democrats than the House plan,” said Martin.  “Republicans are still favored to maintain a majority in the Senate and have a narrow pathway to a supermajority in a favorable election environment. But Democrats have opportunities for a majority too if they can implement a gerrymander that maximizes their advantage in urban counties and slightly improve their performance in suburban districts.”

The only way Democrats could impose their own gerrymander is if the courts were to do it for them. That’s enormously unlikely to happen for state legislative maps through the federal courts.

The possibility is greater if Democrats continue to maintain a majority on the state Supreme Court.

Carolina Journal has written extensively on the importance of two state Supreme Court elections to be held in 2022. Republicans need to capture one of the two to seize a majority on the state’s high court.

State Senate:

Blaine and Martin predict the required county grouping will produce a map with 25 strong GOP seats and 17 strong Democrat seats with eight toss-up seats. Seats are rated as toss-ups if they favor one party or the other by less than 5%.

Republicans will continue to have strong advantages in legislative and congressional redistricting because republicans are more efficiently distributed across North Carolina.

While N.C. is closely divided in statewide elections, Republican voters are more evenly spread out across rural and suburban N.C. Democrat voters tend to be highly concentrated in a handful of North Carolina’s large metro counties, where the party captures huge victories, but are competitive in fewer districts overall.

State House

Projections for the state House are that 50% of the seats (60-seats) will strongly favor the GOP, and that only 34% (41-seats) will strongly favor Democrats.

Nineteen of the 120 seats, (16%) are expected toss-ups.

Since the early 2000s, when courts required full enforcement of the whole county provision, North Carolina has had a built-in firewall against extreme gerrymandering. It is also a requirement that currently works against Democrats because they are so highly concentrated in such few areas of the state.

Of course, the actual drawing of the districts, the quality of the candidates and actual campaigns make a difference, but the first look at the required county groupings show a difficult path for Democrats.

In part 2 we will look at specific changes to county groupings and how those changes will impact specific areas and lawmakers including those who will be forced into districts with other lawmakers due to required county groupings.