We asked Western Carolina University Professor of Political Science & Public Affairs Chris Cooper for his five biggest takeaways from the new district maps Republicans released last week.
1. The rumor mill was spot-on for the congressional maps. It was the worst kept secret in North Carolina politics that Democrats Jeff Jackson, Wiley Nickel, and Kathy Manning were likely to lose their seats when the new maps were released. Most observers also expected that House Speaker Tim Moore’s home in Cleveland County would sit squarely in the middle of a redrawn, and now safely Republican, 14th district. All of this happened exactly as predicted.
The lone point of dissent prior to the maps’ release revolved around Democrat Don Davis in the 1st. Would the Republicans push out Davis to secure a 11-3 margin, or would they keep Davis in a more competitive position—potentially taking the sting out of a Voting Rights Act challenge?
Well, one proposed map took the first path, and the other proposed map took the second, ensuring if nothing else that every political observer in the state could argue convincingly that they were right.
2. The General Assembly maps will be as successful in shoring up Republican power as they are in expanding it. While the proposed General Assembly maps will likely expand GOP power in a few places, they might be most successful in moving their candidates from competitive districts to easy victories.
3. Watch the numbers: You might need to locate your secret decoder ring when trying to understand the legislative maps. All three members of Buncombe County’s State House of Representatives delegation will now represent districts with different numbers, as will Republicans Jim Perry, Bobby Hanig, and Norman Sanderson on the Eastern end of the state and a number of legislators in between.
4. Déjà vu all over again: If you got a sense that you’ve seen these proposed maps before, you’re not alone. Remember critiques about splitting Guilford County three ways in one of the previous rounds of redistricting? It’s back.
The “Wilmington notch” that carved out a critical part of New Hanover County is back, too, as are many other examples from previous maps.
5. Stephenson is not gerrymandering kryptonite. Thanks to the Stephenson rule, geographically proximate counties are clustered together using a prescribed formula when North Carolina legislators draw the General Assembly maps. This means that some districts are set in stone by the so-called “base map” before legislators exert any discretion. Some have argued that this provision creates a sort of gerrymandering kryptonite, ensuring that there’s not much tinkering that can be done on the legislative maps.
While Stephenson does lock in some districts, the proposed maps would shift the partisan advantage of 80 of the state’s 170 legislative districts by more than one percentage point. One district’s partisan leanings would change more than 13 percentage points in the proposed map, reinforcing that Stephenson is more of a minor irritant than a guarantee against gerrymandering.
Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science & Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, a contributor to Old North State Politics, and a frequent source for national and state journalists alike.
He’s the coauthor of The Resilience of Southern Identity and co-editor of The New Politics of North Carolina, both available from UNC Press.