Before the fall
Free & Clear: June 2014
Before the fall
Votes cast in November should count most, but partisan redistricting has made party primaries of primary importance in Tar Heel politics.
By John Hood
Contrary to the expectations of many (and the fervent hopes of a few), N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis got more than enough votes May 6 to clinch the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate without having to compete in a July runoff. The primary battle between Tillis, Cary obstetrician Greg Brannon, Charlotte minister Mark Harris and five other candidates captured the lion’s share of public and media attention during this year’s primary season.
Tillis’s victory obviously was important. I expect the highly competitive race with incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan to be the nation’s most expensive Senate race this fall. Adding together candidate, party and independent spending, the contest might rank as one of the most expensive Senate races in North Carolina history (although it probably won’t approach the price tag of the 1984 slugfest between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt, which cost about $61 million in today’s currency).
But in another sense, the Senate outcome was far from the most important of the primaries. Tillis does, after all, face a formidable opponent in November. Many other primary victors, Democrats and Republicans alike, have essentially won their offices months before the general election. That’s because they are running in congressional or legislative districts too tilted one way or the other to be truly competitive in the fall.
Voters in the 2nd Congressional District, for example, had choices in both primaries. Republican Renee Ellmers won renomination by a comfortable margin in her district, which stretches from southwestern Wake County to Asheboro and down to Fayetteville. On the Democratic side, entertainer Clay Aiken won a close primary against former N.C. Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco, who died six days later. In November, Ellmers will almost certainly prevail. The North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation rates the district as “strongly Republican.” The Cook Political Report website rates it as “likely Republican.” Aiken will, as he did on American Idol, have to settle for runner-up.
To the west lies the 12th District, which stretches from Charlotte to Greensboro. Drawn as a majority-minority district, it will almost certainly elect a Democrat in November: state Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro, who defeated two strong Charlotte metro candidates to win her party’s nomination. She will face Republican Vince Coakley in the “safe Democratic” district.
Among the state’s 13 congressional districts, only four — the 3rd, 7th, 8th and 13th — have the potential to be competitive through the rest of this decade. Even so, the safe bet would be on them remaining in Republican hands, given the design of the districts and population forecasts. In the General Assembly, with 120 House seats and 50 Senate seats spread across the state, partisan competition is a bit more evident. In the Senate, there are between four and seven swing seats, depending on the rating system, with perhaps five more potentially competitive if the right political wave came along. In the House, there are about nine swing seats, with perhaps a dozen more in play if the surf’s up.
Is this lack of competition the product of favorable districts designed by the new GOP-led General Assembly? Yes, in part. When legislative majorities draw the maps, they tend to pen them in ways that favor their party’s prospects. In the minds of many North Carolina Republicans, turnabout was fair play. For decades, they watched helplessly as Democrats sliced and diced the electorate in increasingly sophisticated ways to frustrate the GOP’s rise in legislative politics. Think the current electoral situation is unfair? Consider this: In the 2000, 2002 and 2004 election cycles, Republican candidates won a majority of the votes cast for the House, the Senate or both — and yet ended up with control of neither chamber because of a combination of Democratic gerrymandering and criminal activity (for which former House Speaker Jim Black went to prison).
But North Carolina can do better. During the decades Republicans were in the minority, they favored redistricting reform to create neutral rules, proposing nonpartisan commissions and other policies to constrain the effects of partisanship and incumbency protection on congressional and legislative districts. Back then, Democrats scoffed, snorted and scuttled the ideas. Now they wished they had taken out an insurance policy against the electoral hazard of losing power right before redistricting.
I should note that partisan political cartography isn’t the only reason many districts lack competition. The Voting Rights Act requires drawing some to maximize the ability of racial minorities to elect representatives of their choice. As long as that constraint stays in place and African-Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, the rule will inevitably produce some reliably Democratic and Republican districts, no matter what redistricting process is used. Similarly, voters who lean Democratic or Republican aren’t equally distributed across the state. No matter how the districts are drawn, you can expect Durham and Chapel Hill to elect Democrats to the legislature and Asheboro and Hickory to elect Republicans.
Nevertheless, a fairer redistricting process would produce many more competitive districts — districts where the elections will be consequential in November, not just May. Now that the donkeys are in the back row of North Carolina’s legislative chambers, they are stomping their hooves in favor of redistricting reform. As for those who now populate the front row, isn’t it said that elephants never forget?
John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.