The Party Line
4:47 pm
Tue October 16, 2012

NC Republican Legislators Likely To Get Their Congressional Wish

With all the attention on the presidential and gubernatorial contests in North Carolina, you’d think there’s only one or two shows in town for this year’s election —but there are many other elections that will appear on voters’ ballots this fall.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be covering different races that are trying to command the electorate’s attention.  First, we’ll start with North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts.

Right now, Democrats control the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives by a 7-6 margin. But the major players in this fall’s contests aren’t necessarily the candidates; the major players are Republicans in the NC General Assembly.

By changing the district lines, the GOP was able to “redraw” the rules of the game, especially when combining voter registration figures and past election results to build in advantages for one party over the other.

For example, it is a rule of thumb that when a North Carolina district hits the 33% level of Republican registered voters, we tend to see the GOP claim the district. 

Following the 2010 Tea Party Republican wave election, most of the 33% Republican districts had a GOP office-holder, with the exception of the western 11th District with moderate/conservative Democrat Heath Shuler. 

The only GOP district that had less than a 33% GOP-registration was the 2nd congressional district, which elected Republican Renee Ellmers following then-Democratic incumbent Bob Etheridge’s blow-up caught on video.

But then, in 2011, with the power of redrawing district lines, Republicans not only protected Ellmers, but raised the registered GOP numbers in several districts: the 11th and the 13th (which are now open seats), along with the 7th and 8th districts currently held by Democrats.

First, the open seats in the 11th and 13th districts give Republicans a very strong opportunity to convert those from formerly Democratic hands to GOP possession.

For Mike McIntrye and Larry Kissell — the two Democrats holding the 7th and 8th districts, respectively — their chances of getting re-elected are noticeably more challenging, in part due to the GOP registration at 33%.

This GOP benchmark, when combined with the level of McCain support in the new districts (see below), gives these two incumbents the distinction of being among the most endangered Democrats this fall. 

Beyond just looking at party registration, we can also see trends in the presidential election returns for the new districts.

Many political scientists have observed the shrinking “marginal districts” that tend to elect one party’s candidate at the presidential level, while splitting their vote to support the opposition party’s candidate for U.S. House. 

In fact, both parties view these “marginal” districts as opportunities to “pick-up” from the opposition, since we would expect voters to support the same party down the ballot. 

In looking at the NC congressional districts before redistricting, those districts that Republicans had an eye on targeting were districts that McCain won (the 7th and the 11th), or could be redrawn in such a way that, if the 2008 election were held in the new district, McCain would have won (specifically, the 8th and the 13th).

And, with the power of computer mapping, the GOP did just that.

North Carolina’s redistricting has garnered national attention by the GOP’s drawing of advantageous districts, typically described as “gerrymandering.” And while many states have gone through what one scholar describes as “the most political activity in America,” some scholars describe the effect as negligible, with the exception of a few states — North Carolina being one of them. 

Of course, we’ll have to wait until the votes are counted on November 6 to see the true effect, but if party registration and presidential voting patterns are any indication, North Carolina will swing from Democratic control to Republican control of the state’s congressional delegation.

We’ll just have to wait to see how big a swing it will be.