KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— With a new congressional map in place, Democrats seem poised to flip two seats in the Tar Heel State, one in the Raleigh area and another in the Greensboro area.
— Since his election in 2014, Rep. Mark Walker (R, NC-6) has quickly climbed the ranks of House Republicans, but he now finds his career path complicated by the new map.
— While the new map better reflects North Carolina’s divided though Republican-leaning politics — Republicans almost certainly will see their advantage in the state’s delegation reduced from 10-3 to 8-5 — few districts are poised to be genuinely competitive.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes
New NC map gives House Democrats a buffer
Few states have seen more redistricting-related litigation than North Carolina. Since the 1990s, the state has been known for its irregularly-shaped districts; it will see its third congressional map this decade implemented for the 2020 election — which will be in place just one cycle before the lines are again redrawn for 2022, following the decennial census.
Since the 2014 election, the Republicans have held a plush 10-3 advantage in the state’s 13-member congressional delegation. This dated back to a quirk in the state’s political dynamics: the office of the North Carolina governor is historically weak.
When the framers of the North Carolina constitution drafted the document, they were wary of the state’s harsh treatment under its British colonial rulers, so they designed a weak executive branch. Indeed, in 1996, the North Carolina governor became the last of the 50 state executives to receive the veto pen. Even then, the legislature retained all control on redistricting matters.
In the aftermath of the 2010 red wave, the GOP controlled both chambers for the first time since Reconstruction. So as the Republican legislative leaders tackled redistricting in 2011, Gov. Bev Perdue (D) was powerless to stop them. In response to a racial redistricting lawsuit, Republicans drew another gerrymander in advance of the 2016 election, which preserved the 10-3 GOP delegation.
Democrats held seven of the state’s 13 congressional seats after the 2010 elections — Democrats drew those lines — but largely as a result of Republican redistricting maps, they are currently down to just three. This imbalance was the basis of the lawsuits that have produced the current map, and state courts led by the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court intervened first against the state’s legislative districts and then its congressional districts in recent months.
Comparing the current map to the version that was approved this week, several differences emerge. On the current map (top), Democrats hold NC-1, NC-4, and NC-12; looking at the new map (bottom) they’re expected to gain NC-2 and NC-6 (Map 1):
Map 1: North Carolina’s congressional districts, 2018 vs 2020
In the outgoing version of the map, NC-2 contained about half of Wake County, and took in a handful of adjacent counties — but most of Raleigh was carved out into the neighboring, and safely Democratic, NC-4. Under the new map, NC-2 will be neatly confined to Wake County, as it gains much of NC-4’s holdings in the county.
While candidate filing is open until Dec. 20, the clear frontrunner for the re-drawn NC-2 is former state legislator and 2016 Senate nominee Deborah Ross (D). While Ross underperformed the top of the ticket somewhat in 2016, she would have still carried the new NC-2 by a comfortable 17% against Sen. Richard Burr (R) that cycle. Wake County was amenable to some Republicans until relatively recently, but those days are clearly over — hence our ratings change to Safe Democratic.
In the Piedmont region, a similar change takes place. Previously, NC-6 was based in the Greensboro region, but it was carefully drawn to avoid taking in much of Greensboro proper; instead, it included several red counties along the Virginia border and reached south to include Randolph County, a GOP bastion that gave Hillary Clinton just over 20% in 2016. As a result, its representative, Mark Walker (R, NC-6), won by double-digits in both his elections since its incarnation.
On the new map, NC-6 is a geographically smaller seat, taking in all of Guilford County (Greensboro) while grabbing the city of Winston-Salem from the neighboring Forsyth County. The result is a district that gave Hillary Clinton an easy 21% margin in 2016. On the first day of candidate filing, Kathy Manning, the Democrats’ 2018 nominee in NC-13, announced her candidacy. Manning lost by 6% to Rep. Ted Budd (R) in the old 13th district — at the time, it contained Greensboro proper and it was the most competitive GOP-held seat on the map. Manning, or any other Democrat, should have few problems winning in the much friendlier NC-6.
As their party has essentially ceded their seats, Walker, along with Rep. George Holding (R, NC-2), are now looking at their options.
Even before the new map was in place, Holding posted lackluster fundraising numbers — notably, his latest finance reports showed that only one of his roughly 750,000 constituents donated to his campaign. Holding has kept a relatively low profile in the House during his four-term tenure, and weak fundraising numbers, especially for an incumbent, often represent a tell-tale sign of retirement. This, compounded with the unfavorable hand he was dealt by the mappers, suggests that Holding’s retirement announcement may be imminent.
Walker, on the other hand, has been a visible member of the House GOP caucus. Initially elected in 2014, his congressional career took a rapid upward trajectory: in his second term, he served as chair of the influential Republican Study Committee, which includes a majority of the overall GOP caucus, and currently serves as vice chair of the House Republican Conference. Given the fundraising opportunities that such roles can bring, and the redder region of the state that he hails from, Walker seems to have more viable options than Holding does.
Earlier this cycle, Walker was floated as a potential primary challenger to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC); Tillis, a generally mainline Republican, has never posted especially strong approval ratings and has, at times, taken stances at odds with the White House, although he has more recently worked to make amends with the president’s base. While Walker ultimately ruled out running in the Senate primary, the redistricting developments may prompt him to reconsider.
Tillis drew a primary challenger in wealthy businessman Garland Tucker. Tucker, however, dropped his campaign this week. That’s great news for Tillis — so long as Tucker’s exit doesn’t clear the way for Walker, or someone else, to swoop into the race at the last minute.
Another route for Walker may be to primary Rep. Ted Budd (R) in the new NC-13. According to an analysis by Elizabeth Sbrocco, 53% of Walker’s current NC-6 was drawn into that district. Budd has proven to be a resilient campaigner in general elections, but in his first primary, he won the nomination with just 20% of the vote.
While North Carolina typically holds runoffs if no primary candidate exceeds 30%, when the new congressional map was introduced mid-cycle for 2016, the state primary calendar was compressed, and the usual runoffs were precluded. Budd squeaked by in a crowded 17-way field that year, but a two-way primary against Walker could be a much more daunting proposition.
The Club for Growth, an anti-tax organization, has signaled their support for Budd — if similar groups follow suit, Walker may decide he’d have a stronger case against Tillis, or in one of the several down-ballot statewide races being contested next year. He also could sit out an election and then try for a Senate race in 2022, when Burr is expected to retire.
Though the new map is altogether more reflective of the state in terms of its expected delegation, North Carolina is a competitive battleground state; in that regard, none of the new districts mirror the state’s purple demeanor.
Aside from the new NC-2 and NC-6, there are a few other possible Democratic targets. NC-8, held by Rep. Richard Hudson (R) moves a few percentage points to the left, making it possibly the best pickup opportunity.
NC-8 takes in a horizontal swath of the southern Piedmont. While it runs through several conservative counties, it’s bookended by Cabarrus County in the west, a blue-trending suburban county in the Charlotte region, and Cumberland County in the east, a reliably blue county that includes Fayetteville.
To measure the partisanship of the new congressional districts, let’s consider the 2016 state Attorney General race — this was a near 50/50 result and offers a reasonable partisan baseline (Map 2).
Map 2: 2016 NC Attorney General result by 2019 congressional districts
The race featured two state senators: Josh Stein (D), who hailed from Raleigh and was known for his criticism of the chamber’s GOP leadership, and Buck Newton (R), a strident social conservative from Wilson. Despite being considerably better financed, Stein won the race by just half a percentage point.
Aside from sweeping the five safely Democratic districts, Stein came closest in NC-8, taking 48.1% — in fact, it was the only district that was decided by less than 5%. Still, going up the ballot, Trump carried the district by a more comfortable 53%-44% margin. Given its marginal position in the context of the map as a whole, we’ll move NC-8 from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.
NC-9 moved slightly bluer in the remap but remains GOP-leaning. It was the site of a very competitive do-over special election earlier this year, which Rep. Dan Bishop (R) won by about two points. Our rating there remains Likely Republican. Perhaps fittingly, Bladen County — where election fraud in 2018 necessitated that 2019 re-do election — was completely excised out of the new NC-9.
While we’re not changing our Safe ratings for either, two districts on the peripheries of the state are worth noting.
In NC-1, a heavily black seat in the northeastern part of the state, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D) will likely see his margins decrease — he’s lost the blue anchor of Durham and now has a more rural seat. Still, Butterfield represented a comparable district last decade; even during the Republican wave of 2010, he was reelected with nearly 60% in a district that didn’t include Durham.
A fixture in eastern North Carolina politics, Butterfield, like his colleagues Sanford Bishop (D, GA-2) in Georgia and Al Lawson (D, FL-5) in the Florida panhandle, occupies something of a unique political niche: a black Democrat who can win uncommon crossover with rural whites. An example of this is Martin County, a small county that sits in the eastern part of his district. 54% white and 43% black by registration, it voted for Obama twice before flipping to Trump in 2016; Butterfield held it with 55% in 2016 and 52.5% in 2018.
For now, we’ll keep NC-1 as Safe Democratic. Hillary Clinton would have carried the new NC-1 with a clear, but not overwhelming, 54% in 2016. Congressional Republicans currently do not hold any comparable seats. In fact, the Crystal Ball rates their most pro-Clinton district — the open TX-23, which gave her 50% of the vote — as Leans Democratic.
On the state’s other geographic extreme, Rep. Mark Meadows (R) finds himself somewhat more vulnerable, as liberal Asheville is moved into his western NC-11. Last decade, Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler (D) held a similar iteration of the district. Still, Shuler was something of a unique Democrat — known as a maverick, a centerpiece of his final campaign was his criticism of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Meadows, who won the seat in 2012 after Shuler’s retirement, is one of the president’s most reliable allies in Congress. He has a national profile and will be running in a district where Trump got 56% last time, so we’re keeping it Safe Republican.
For extra security, the Republican mappers made sure to include Avery and Mitchell counties in the new NC-11; historically, these are the two most steadfast GOP counties in the state -– in his heyday, Franklin Roosevelt struggled to crack 30% in them.
Neither county was in Shuler’s version of the district, and their placement into the new NC-11 is an example of how minor, but pervading, pro-Republican details are baked in throughout the map. So the new GOP-drawn map is still in some ways a Republican gerrymander, though not nearly as aggressive a one as the previous map.
All told, the changes in North Carolina should give Democrats a couple of extra seats in their pocket as they defend their House majority.
P.S. So long, Duncan Hunter
Outside of North Carolina, one race the Crystal Ball has watched closely is in California’s 50th District. Its incumbent, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R), pled guilty to misuse of campaign funds. Though Hunter suggested his resignation from Congress may be imminent, he didn’t offer a timeline. While a 2020 special election would seem likely, we’re keeping our rating for the regular election as Likely Republican.
As we mentioned in our profile of this race in October, Hunter’s likely exit leaves at least two prominent GOP contenders, ex-Rep. Darrell Issa (R, CA-49) and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, who are both running in a blanket primary against Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who came relatively close to beating Hunter last year in one of the few remaining Republican districts in California. An October poll had Hunter polling at just 11%, so he apparently didn’t have much of a path to victory anyway.