To Win A State Legislative Majority, NC Dems Must Win In Trump Country

Jul 31, 2020
Originally published on July 29, 2020 5:03 pm

The last time redistricting was at stake, in 2010, Republicans flipped 20 state legislative chambers from blue to red nationwide, including both houses in North Carolina. They seized control of mapmaking after the census.

This time, Democrats are mobilizing.

"The Democrats have finally awoken that there is thing called state legislatures out there in the country," said Austin Chambers, the president of the Republican State Legislative Committee. That group’s REDMAP project is credited with helping to spur the GOP’s dominance in 2010. 

"But they’ve also realized that’s the only way you can really have good power in Washington," Chambers added. "No one in Washington draws their own congressional map. No one in Washington draws their own district." 

Two years ago, Democrats broke the Republican supermajorities in the North Carolina House, in part by  flipping four House seats and one Senate seat in Mecklenburg. Those areas have been trending more Democratic over the last decade.

But that low-hanging fruit is gone. 

To win a majority – and control mapmaking -- Democrats must win seats in suburban and rural areas that President Trump won handily four years ago.

Like in Cabarrus County, where Democrat Gail Young is trying to defeat Republican House incumbent Larry Pittman.

"The seats that are left for us to win are in areas that are competitive," Young said. "But I also say that we have fought wisely and strongly in the court system ever since the districts were drawn to try to get some of the districts drawn in a more fair manner."

Young is referring to last year’s court-ordered redistricting of state Senate and House maps.

The redistricting made some seats -- like Pittman’s – a toss-up. And in that race, Pittman has only raised $36,000 compared with $173,000 for Young.

State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, the leader of the state’s Democratic Senate Caucus, said the new maps have given them openings -- even in red areas.

"Donald Trump has created more energy and enthusiasm among the Democratic base than I have ever seen before," he said. "We are also seeing our Democratic challengers outraise our Republicans incumbents in some instances by ratios of 2-to-1 or 5-to-1."

One of those places is a mostly rural House district east of Greensboro.

Nicole Quick, the Democratic challenger, was eating at Pete’s Grill in downtown Gibsonville, on the edge of that district, recently. This district is the type of place that Democrats have lost badly in the past. It’s a town of 7,000 people. And it’s three-quarters white. 

But last year’s new maps shifted two African American precincts in southeast Greensboro into the district, giving her an opportunity against Republican Jon Hardister.

"I will say this about this district: You have Gibsonville. You have Whitsett. You have Pleasant Garden. Julian," Quick said. "You know, all these little small towns out here. But again, you have that I-40 corridor. It’s becoming more developed through here."

She’s raised roughly $70,000 more than the incumbent. 

Some of her money has come from Democratic groups Future Now and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. The latter was founded by former Obama attorney general Eric Holder. Each group gave Quick the maximum donation of $5,400. 

Their goals are to produce nonpartisan legislative maps.

Quick said she supports turning mapmaking over to an independent commission, similar to what’s used in California.

"I believe that Democrats were guilty of (gerrymandering) in the past," she said. "There’s that temptation that when you are in power to try and hold on to power, and that’s why I support independent redistricting. To take that temptation away."

She met by Zoom with Holder’s group earlier this year, and convinced them she had a chance – even in a district that Trump won by double-digits.

The NDRC has spent more than $420,000 so far in North Carolina, said the group’s director of campaigns, Garrett Arwa.

"During the last round of redistricting, I think it’s fair to say that there wasn’t the attention paid to redistricting and gerrymandering that is paid to it now," he said.  

An independent mapmaking commission won’t happen if Republicans maintain their majorities, said Republican State Senator Ralph Hise.

"I have no faith in any commission appointed by members of a partisan board that would suddenly become nonpartisan once it’s handed power," he said. "That’s not true of any commission we have. It’s clear that it’s a way to hide the changes you are making to the redistricting process to claim it’s somehow independent." 

The Democrats only need to win one chamber to influence map-making. If recent history is any indication, the courts could intervene – again – if both chambers are deadlocked over redistricting. 

Go behind the headlines with WFAE political reporter Steve Harrison in his weekly newsletter, Inside Politics. Steve will provide insight about and analysis of local and statewide politics. Readers will gain an understanding of political news on the horizon and why it matters.

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