Opinion: Daily Journal

Why Incumbents Are Smiling

BURLINGTON – I spoke Tuesday at a meeting of the North Carolina Metropolitan Alliance, which represents chambers of commerce in the state’s largest urban areas. My job was to bore the audience with numbers and prognostications on the state’s growing budget deficit. Using the normally reliable droopy-eyelids indicator, I succeeded.

Part of the problem was that I was preceded on the program by John Davis, head of NC FREE, which provides indispensable political information to business leaders, lobbyists, and other political players. Davis is an expert on legislative politics, and treated the (then-attentive) audience to his organization’s latest analysis of the new General Assembly districts and the increasing political clout of urban areas.

Want to know why so many incumbents are pretty happy with last year’s infuriating and sordid redistricting process? Because it made them a lot safer in the upcoming elections. According to Davis, there were 17 seats in the 50-seat N.C. Senate that were safely Democrat or leaned that way prior to redistricting. The Republicans could claim 19 such seats. That meant 14 seats were in “swing districts” where, with the right candidates and issues, either side could win.

Now, with the new Senate map, there are 28 seats safely or predominantly Democratic and 16 safely or predominantly Republican. Only six seats are truly swings.

Same deal on the N.C. House side. Under the old map, there were 32 swing seats out of 120. Now, Davis describes 14 as swings.

In other words, only 20 legislative seats out of 170 are down-the-line competitive. That’s pathetic.

Officially, Republicans are greatly upset about this. Certainly GOP leaders, donors, and activists are livid because they know that other trends, such as party registration and the suburbanization of the state, are clearly in their direction. If the redistricting process were more neutral, they believe that they would have a good chance of capturing the House and perhaps even the Senate. That’s one reason, principle being another, why several party leaders are participating in state and federal litigation on the issue.

The dirty not-so-secret fact about this, however, is that more than a few Republican legislators are quite content with the new maps. It makes most of their seats essentially unassailable by Democrats unless the GOP incumbents commit a crime or forget to file. They may not have much of a chance of sitting at the head of the legislative table, but at least their personal bread got buttered.