North Carolina Becomes a Nail-Biter for Democrats

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Democrats’ quest to take control of the House may get a boost, possibly a big one, from an unlikely place: North Carolina, where Republicans have drawn pervasively partisan congressional district lines.

This week a federal appeals court reiterated a ruling that the lines are unconstitutional and must be redrawn for this election, which is only 10 weeks away. If they are, and it’s still a big if, it could mean a pickup of as many as three to four seats for the Democrats. Republicans currently hold a 10-to-3 advantage in the House delegation of a state that’s almost evenly divided.

A fascinating twist here is that North Carolina Republicans will appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier had sent the case back to the appeals court. But, in a politically charged case, with Anthony Kennedy’s July 31 retirement, it’s noteworthy there are an equal number of Democratic- and Republican-appointed justices.

It would take a majority of the high court to suspend or stay the appeals court ruling. A 4-to-4 outcome would let it stand. The timing is such that the outcome would likely be settled well before Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Kennedy, could be confirmed.

Of the numerous gerrymandering challenges, North Carolina is the most egregious, experts say, full of documentary evidence that the Republicans drew the lines solely for partisan gain. One private memo from a Republican strategist said they wanted to create a GOP advantage of 11 seats to 2, but that was too much of a reach even for them.

If the Supreme Court doesn’t step in, and the appeals court decides to order new lines for this year’s elections, the most likely scenario is it would call for a Nov. 6 primary and then order a general election maybe six weeks later. It actually wouldn’t be that difficult to quickly draw new largely bipartisan lines. A state court in Pennsylvania earlier this year threw out gerrymandered districts, and new ones were created quickly.

The court probably would assign a special master, like Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily, who has lots of experience, to do the task. Using computer-mapping software to seek congressional districts that are comparatively compact, reflect populations and adjust to assure no discrimination on race is reasonably simple.

In Pennsylvania, the new lines will probably result in Democratic gains of as many as three or four seats that had been held by Republicans.

Now it’s also possible that the appeals court, as disgusted as it clearly is with the Republican actions, would nevertheless decide that it’s too difficult for changes to take effect this year, after hearing complaints from the North Carolina secretary of state and county clerks. One expert puts the odds of a 2018 change at about 40-60.

Even without this, Democrats saw promising opportunities to cut into the Republican advantage in North Carolina. They may be slightly favored in a Republican-held Charlotte district with a strong Democratic challenger and no incumbent. They also think they’re within striking distance in another Republican district in the Piedmont region around Greensboro and High Point.

A more surprising opportunity could be a seat centered in Raleigh, currently represented by George Holding, who was an aide to the late right-wing senator Jesse Helms. Only a few weeks ago, it wasn’t on the Democrats’ list of the 75 most competitive races. But a recent reliable survey shows a much tighter race.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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