The North Carolina General Assembly is going to stay in Republican hands after the 2022 midterms. For state Democrats, this is a bitter pill to swallow. That they’ve already managed to swallow it, however, is evident in their manifest failure to recruit enough candidates to put up a credible fight this year for control of the legislature.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Having convinced themselves that the Republicans’ 2010 victory was a fluke, and subsequent GOP majorities merely the consequence of gerrymandered districts, Democrats pinned their hopes for political recovery on challenging Republican-drawn districts in court. They prevailed multiple times. In the most recent case, a challenge to districts drawn by the GOP-led legislature last year, the Democratic-majority Supreme Court ordered new maps.
The legislative districts are, indeed, more conducive to a potential Democratic comeback. However, the plaintiffs and their financiers were deluding themselves all along. Their predicament was always about more than gerrymandering.
I’m a longtime advocate of redistricting reform. Under Democratic and Republican legislatures alike, I argued that North Carolina voters deserved a fairer and more competitive set of electoral districts. (That’s the right way to think about it, by the way: districts should be drawn to serve voters, not politicians.)
I argued that we needed to place binding constraints on gerrymandering in our state constitution, via a public referendum. The plaintiffs made a rather different, and to my mind rather unpersuasive, claim: that such binding constraints were already in the constitution, hidden in plain sight for hundreds of years behind such broadly worded phrases as “free elections” and “equal protection” and “freedom of speech.”
Well, the plaintiffs got their way. They convinced four Democratic justices to execute a retroactive rewrite of North Carolina’s constitution. They even convinced the justices to require the use of voting history and other political data in drawing legislative districts, despite the fact that our bipartisan redistricting-reform coalition had long fought to reduce the use of such information when drawing maps.
They got their way, yes, but not what they really wanted. As my John Locke Foundation colleague Andy Jackson points out, Democrats have failed even to recruit candidates for 41 of the state’s 170 legislative districts. While some of these unchallenged seats are safely Republican, Democrats left 11 potentially competitive seats on the table, seven in the House and four in the Senate.
These aren’t 50-50 seats, I grant you. They lean Republican, either slightly or moderately. But these are precisely the sort of districts that Democrats would have to win to regain their legislative majorities given the way Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning voters are distributed across urban, suburban, and rural areas. Indeed, these are precisely the sort of districts that Republicans had to win in 2010 to take control of the General Assembly in the first place.
For Democrats, the last decade of conservative governance in Raleigh has been brutal. Policy ideas they’d long deemed unthinkable or even dangerous — such as school vouchers, sweeping tax cuts, deregulation, and an end to forced annexation — became law. Democrats predicted disaster. It didn’t come. By most measures, North Carolina is doing well.
Yes, Republicans held the governor’s office for just four of those years. But Roy Cooper’s narrow victory over Pat McCrory in 2016 served merely to narrow the GOP’s scope of power somewhat. In our state, the General Assembly is the predominant branch of government. Although Cooper can use his veto to block new Republican initiatives, he can’t reverse conservative policies or pursue progressive ones without passing bills.
Democrats struggled to recruit credible candidates in many races this year, and any candidates at all in dozens of other races, for two interrelated reasons. First, the party’s national brand is in tatters — shredded by inflation, by Biden’s ignominious flight from Afghanistan, and by unpopular stands on policing and schooling. Second, Democrats have devised no compelling rationale for booting Republicans out of power in the state legislature.
So they’re not going to, not anytime soon.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.