It appears that both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly will retain their Republican majorities, with Democrats poised for a net gain of one NC Senate seat and Republicans set to have a net gain of four seats in the NC House. That would result in Republican majorities of 28-22 in the Senate and 69-51 in the House.
Several factors went into the relatively good night for Republicans. Of course, having Donald Trump at the head of the ticket helped drive turnout among conservatives. That rising tide helped Republicans come out on top in most statewide races. Republicans also had a strong focus on volunteers reaching out to voters that helped them overcome Democrat’s financial advantage in many races
But you will probably also hear that the Republican majority in the state legislature is due to Gerrymandering. In fact, we are already starting to hear it. Rep. Graig Meyer (D – Orange County) claimed that his party’s loss can be attributed to maldrawn districts (paywall): “This really shows how powerful gerrymandering is, especially in a time where conservatives are so loyal to the Republican Party.”
That statement does not fit reality.
As you may recall, progressives sued the General Assembly last year, claiming that the maps drawn in 2010, which Republicans freely admitted to advantage their candidates (just as Democratic maps drawn in 2000 were designed to advantage Democrats), were illegal under the NC Constitution. In a pair of cases, Common Cause v Lewis (for state legislative districts) and Harper v Lewis (for US congressional districts) forced the General Assembly to adopt an open map-drawing process in which partisan data was not used (other than what legislators could carry in their heads).
While there were some disagreements on particular districts, the process was widely praised. For example, Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) who is considered a redistricting reform hawk among Democrats said (News & Observer): “These are the fairest maps, and this was the fairest process, in North Carolina in my lifetime.”
But a “fair” process does not always create “fair” results, especially if the definition of fair is that your party wins more seats. As the Common Cause v Lewis case progressed, I noted how Democrats will likely not be satisfied with the nonpartisan process that case resulted in:
With partisanship not considered, Democratic gains in the state legislature under the next round of redistricting will be relatively modest. That is because it requires an active consideration of partisanship for them to overcome political geography. For example, a completely nonpartisan drawing of congressional districts in North Carolina would likely create a 8-5 split favoring Republicans, not the 7-6 split (or majority Democratic 7-6 split) Democrats would prefer.
Indeed, the nonpartisan congressional district map-drawing ordered under Harper v Lewis resulted in a map in which Republicans won eight of the thirteen districts.
The same thing happened in state legislative races this year with political headwinds overcoming a map that was supposed to be friendlier to Democratic candidates.
For one example of that, consider NC House District 43 in Cumberland County. The district is currently represented by Rep. Elmer Floyd. As noted in the Civitas Partisan Index, Floyd’s district changed from D+23 (safe Democratic) to D+1 (Toss-up) due to court-ordered redistricting last year. That seat is now competitive, but Democrats should win it most of the time. Floyd is a relatively moderate Democrat with a lifetime Civitas Action Freedom Score of 33.18, just the kind of candidate with enough crossover appeal to carry a close district.
However, Democratic primary voters selected Kimberly Hardy, an instructor at Fayetteville State University who ran on a “progressive agenda” over Floyd. That progressive agenda may have excited Democratic primary voters but it was political kryptonite for moderate and conservative voters in the district, causing Hardy to lose that D+1 district by 3.7 percentage points.
Given the political geography of North Carolina right now, with Democrats relatively closely packed in urban counties, map-drawers would have to actively seek to advantage Democrats to create a map in which they have an advantage in at least half of the state legislative districts.
Actively trying to advantage a political party when drawing legislative maps? There must be a name for that……