After a lengthy period of litigation, North Carolina’s new legislative districts are in place, and with filing closed the field is set for 2022. I’ve already covered North Carolina’s new congressional districts – a highly uncompetitive, court-drawn map – but these legislative lines are different, providing Democrats a chance at a majority in the State House and Republicans an outside shot at reclaiming an outright legislative supermajority.
In other words: both maps are pretty fair, albeit with specific issues unique to each. But what do the chambers both look like, and what can we expect going forward?
One of the most important things to understand about legisative redistricting in North Carolina is the cluster system. The state Constitution prohibits counties from being split, which itself conflicts with the federal “one man, one vote” standard. To square this circle, North Carolina maps are split up into “clusters”. If a single county can contain one or more seats entirely within its borders, this has to be accommodated; after all of these counties are sorted, then multi-county clusters are created.
These clusters themselves can be mostly determined by mathematical formulas and while some are firmly set, there are scenarios where there can be multiple potential clusters. The State Senate map is one such example, where the initial, rejected map and the new approved map use a different set of clusters in the northeast.
House of Representatives
Starting with the House of Representatives, it’s clear that Democrats got a fairly good deal here – but not one that would ensure a viable path to a majority in 2022. Right now, under the 2020 maps redrawn on a bipartisan basis, Republicans control 69 seats to 51 for the Democrats. The new map contains 61 Trump seats and 59 Biden seats, something accomplished by the creative means of cracking cities in urban counties to produce less competitive seats. Like in the current map, the most egregious example of this is likely in Buncombe, where the liberal bastion of Asheville is split into three different districts.
That being said, the raw math here for Democrats is actually somewhat rough. The weakest Republican seat – HD74 in Forsyth County – went to Trump by around 1.8%. Only six other Trump-won seats were decided by less than 10%, compared to a whopping 14 for Biden-won seats. In other words, the maximum Democratic performance here would likely be 66-54, while the maximum Republican performance could be 75-45.
Most concerning for Democrats is the fact that 11 Biden-won seats in total were decided by less than 5% of the vote. If Republicans were to win all 11 of these seats, they would have a supermajority in the chamber, which is needed to override vetoes.
|12||Jones, Greene, Lenoir||46.00%||53.28%||7.28%|
|5||Bertie, Gates, Hertford, Pasquotank||49.49%||49.29%||-0.2%|
On the whole, then, Republicans could either lose seats or potentially expand their majority. Much of this will depend on the national environment, as well as the ability of Republicans to “snap back” their performance in Democratic-trending urban counties. While former President Trump lost these areas, others like Senator Thom Tillis and Treasurer Dale Folwell performed well in them.
In contrast to the House map, the Senate map is more favorable to Republicans, with 28 Trump seats and 22 Biden seats; this is only two short of the 30 seats necessary for a veto-proof supermajority. The 25th seat here is Trump+6, and to win a majority Democrats would need to flip an additional Trump+8 seat. In comparison, Republicans would only need to win SD07 (a Biden-won seat based in New Hanover with a Republican incumbent) and then either the sprawling, rural SD03 or the urban, Wake County-centered SD18, both of which were Biden+3.6. The Biden+5.1 SD17 in southern Wake County would also be a viable target for Republicans in a wave year, with the Biden+10 SD19 in Cumberland County presenting a stretch goal.
|24||Hoke, Robeson, Scotland||45.47%||53.51%||8.04%|
|4||Greene, Wayne, Wilson||46.47%||52.52%||6.05%|
|11||Franklin, Nash, Vance||49.05%||49.83%||0.78%|
|3||Bertie, Camden, Currituck, Gates, Halifax, Hertford, |
Martin, Northampton, Tyrrell, Warren
Much of this Republican skew can be boiled down to North Carolina’s political geography and cluster system being a brutal combination for Democrats. With many clusters locked into place by law, and most urban counties already being entirely Democratic, there are few ways to make more Democratic seats without making unusual decisions.
If anything, however, many decisions made here favor Democrats, including the lack of a competitive seat in south Mecklenburg and the usual decision to split Fayetteville in two. Short of cracking up Winston-Salem and Greensboro, likely by dividing the black communities in each, there’s not really a viable way to make many more Democratic maps.
If you asked me right now, I would say Republicans are favored to gain a supermajority in the State Senate; New Hanover held fairly firm for Republicans downballot in 2020 even as Biden won it narrowly, and SD03 saw an impressive swing of nearly six points to the right from 2016 to 2020. Demographically, it fits the profile of adjacent areas of Virginia that flipped in the state’s 2021 off-year elections.
The House is a more challenging picture. While Democrats would, on paper, seem favored to make some sort of gain, a large number of their seats are both extremely competitive and more Republican downballot than upballot. In a seemingly bad electoral year for Democrats, this combination could lead to their gains being muted at best and nonexistent at worst. I would place odds of a Republican supermajority at only 20%; it’s hard to envision a clean sweep of these competitive seats. However, stranger things have happened in the Tar Heel State, so the possibility can’t be dismissed outright.
A Final Wrinkle
It’s also worth noting that Republicans are planning an attempt to redraw the legislative lines in 2024, especially if the state Supreme Court flips Republican in 2022. While North Carolina’s Constitution nominally prevents mid-decade redraws of legislative-drawn districts, Republicans will likely attempt a redraw anyway, arguing the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the original set of maps means the new ones are really court-ordered.
House Speaker Tim Moore has confirmed they plan on doing this, so whatever gains – if any – are made by Democrats in the State House may be reversed in 2024. This would, of course, be dependent on Republicans flipping the 4-3 Democratic Supreme Court, which they have an excellent shot of doing – two Democratic seats are up in 2022, and Republicans swept all statewide judicial races in 2020. And finally, whether the Supreme Court would accept this novel constitutional theory is unclear.
Regardless, the upcoming election will provide a second cycle in a row of mostly competitive maps – a rarity in a state long dominated by gerrymandering. Whether this will last, however, remains to be seen.