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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Daniel Walton

North Carolina’s gerrymandered districts set stage for 2024 Republican wins

Law enforcement stand guard outside of the state capitol building in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.
Law enforcement stand guard outside of the state capitol building in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Photograph: Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images

Millions of North Carolina residents are likely to be placed in congressional districts where the outcome of elections is all but predetermined, following the state supreme court’s April ruling to allow partisan gerrymandering.

The ruling will permit the state’s legislature, which is controlled by Republican supermajorities in both chambers, to draw new congressional district maps in advance of the 2024 election. North Carolina’s congressional delegation is likely to go from its current even split to 10-4 or 11-3 in favor of Republicans, despite the state having fewer registered Republicans than either Democrats or unaffiliated voters.

“It’s hard for me to think of a more consequential decision,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

In February 2022, the court had ruled that maps drawn for partisan advantage by GOP lawmakers in 2021 were “unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt”, and North Carolina’s 2022 elections were held using district lines drawn by a panel of court-appointed experts. Those districts resulted in a congressional delegation of seven Democrats and seven Republicans, mirroring the roughly even split of state voters between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

But elections for the supreme court itself, also conducted in 2022, switched its makeup from a 4-3 Democratic-Republican split to 5-2 in favor of the GOP. The new Republican majority agreed to take up the gerrymandering case again – an unusual move, as the court had previously agreed to rehearings just twice over 30 years – and overturned the previous decision, with both Democrats in dissent.

The Republican-controlled legislature now has no legal barrier to creating congressional lines that concentrate Democratic voting power in a handful of districts, thus tilting the scales for GOP candidates in more parts of the state.

At a national level, the congressional seats to be gained in North Carolina could nearly double the GOP’s majority in the US House. Republicans currently hold 222 of the chamber’s 435 votes, meaning Democrats would need to flip five districts to regain a majority.

“In a razor-thin America, every seat matters,” said Cooper. “If you’ve got the possibility to pick up three or maybe four seats, it’s a big deal.”

Perhaps most at risk under new district maps is Jeff Jackson. The Democratic freshman, who represents the south and west of Charlotte in the 14th congressional district, has attracted a national following for his forthright presence on social media sites like TikTok.

But Jackson’s district also borders Cleveland county, a conservative area home to the Republican house speaker, Tim Moore. Moore, who has previously hinted that he may run for Congress, will be positioned to draw new district boundaries that would almost guarantee him a win against Jackson. Neither Moore nor Jackson responded to requests for comment.

District six Democrat Kathy Manning is also likely to be targeted by Republicans. The 2021 maps previously ruled as an unconstitutional gerrymander would have forced the Greensboro representative to run against veteran Republican representative Virginia Foxx, who lives over 120 miles to the west, in a district heavily weighted toward the GOP. Nothing would prevent lawmakers from drawing similar lines in 2024.

Manning told the Guardian that she plans to seek re-election regardless of her district’s new shape. “I’m fighting to bring down the cost of healthcare, establish programs that train the next generation of workers and strengthen education for students at every age. Our work isn’t done,” she said.

The other two Democrats on the bubble are Wiley Nickel of suburban Raleigh’s district 13 and Don Davis from district one in the state’s rural north-east. Both won their seats in 2022 with margins of victory of less than five percentage points, and the Republican legislature is likely to adjust their districts’ boundaries to include more conservative voters.

“My current district was a fairly drawn, 50/50 seat where the best ideas won,” Nickel said. “Gerrymandering robs voters of the chance to truly make their voices heard on critical issues like they did in my first election and North Carolina deserves better than the partisan court decision on Harper v Hall.”

Neither Destin Hall, the named plaintiff in the court case and Republican chair of the state House’s redistricting committee, nor Warren Daniel, a Republican co-chair of the equivalent Senate body, responded to requests for comment about when lawmakers would start drawing the new maps. In previous remarks to Raleigh’s the News & Observer, Moore said work wouldn’t start until summer at the earliest.

No Republican has yet announced a challenge to any of the four previously mentioned Democrats, and it’s unclear how new districts might influence who decides to run for Congress. Some political analysts believe that gerrymandered districts encourage candidates with more extreme positions, calculated to appeal to their party’s core voters in primary elections. Cooper, the Western Carolina University professor, said national evidence on that point is mixed.

But in North Carolina, the early stages of the 2024 election cycle suggest the state’s Republican voters are becoming more attracted to the rightmost fringes of their party. A poll of over 700 likely Republican voters in the state conducted in late April by SurveyUSA found that 55% favored Trump as their presidential nominee; about 40% backed Trump in the 2016 Republican primary.

Moreover, 43% of surveyed voters supported the lieutenant governor, Mark Robinson, in the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary. As previously reported by the Guardian, Robinson has called the movement for transgender rights “full of the spirit of the antichrist” and called Muslim Americans “invaders”.

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