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North Carolina Democrats have parity in Congress — but maybe not for long

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RALEIGH — Democrats celebrated winning what was billed as North Carolina’s lone toss-up race for the U.S. House this month, as state Sen. Wiley Nickel’s narrow victory over Republican Bo Hines in the 13th Congressional District helped weaken any national GOP midterm wave.

Nickel’s win creates a 7-7 split in the state’s delegation, marking the best showing for state Democrats after a decade of trailing the GOP in an otherwise closely divided state. Trial judges drew the latest district boundaries after redistricting litigation successfully blocked maps passed by the Republican-controlled legislature that could have whittled Democrats down to four seats.

“We’re a 50-50 state — we should have a 7-to-7 delegation,” Nickel said this week during a break in his congressional orientation in Washington. “When we have fair maps, we get fair results that reflect the choice of the voters.”

But there’s a good chance Nickel’s Raleigh-area district and others will be dramatically altered for the 2024 elections, returning the advantage to Republicans.

A confluence of events opens the door for General Assembly Republicans to pass their preferred congressional map in 2023 and have it used the following year. A new GOP majority on the state Supreme Court likely will be more skeptical of legal challenges that allege excessive partisanship.

“Seven-seven does not reflect the will of the voters in North Carolina,” House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters the day after the election. “So it should be something different. I don’t know what that is. But at the end of the day ... let’s trust the voters of this state.”

Republicans hold eight of the state’s 13 U.S. House districts through the year’s end. Population growth gave North Carolina a 14th seat with the November election.

GOP legislators vehemently opposed a split opinion by the N.C. Supreme Court last winter that struck down a more favorable map for their party by declaring the state constitution prohibited partisan gerrymandering of boundaries.

State law required the judge-drawn map be used only for this year’s races. Republicans will continue to have majorities in the state House and Senate next year comfortable enough to pass their favored map. Redistricting plans are not subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

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Most importantly, Republicans will have a 5-2 majority on the Supreme Court come January with victories by Trey Allen and Richard Dietz for seats currently held by registered Democrats.

The current 4-3 Democratic majority ruled that congressional and legislative maps approved by the General Assembly in November 2021 unlawfully gave Republicans outsized favoritism compared with Democrats. The three Republican justices who dissented wrote that the constitution doesn’t expressly bar or limit partisan advantage in mapmaking.

The arrival of two more GOP justices makes it more likely — but not assured — that the court would uphold a future congressional map by the legislature while rejecting last year’s landmark ruling that defined illegal partisan gerrymandering.

Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden said he expected the state would now move away from what he called the “judicial gerrymander” to “what would be, I think, a different drawing of the congressional maps.”

It’s too soon to say what the next congressional lines will look like. Plans approved by the legislature but never implemented would have positioned Republicans to win 10 of the state’s 14 congressional seats.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, said Nickel would be a likely target for Republican lawmakers to place in a more GOP-friendly district.

Democratic state Sen. Jeff Jackson, who won the newly created 14th District seat covering portions of Mecklenburg and Gaston counties, and 6th District Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning of Greensboro, who won her third term, also are vulnerable, Bitzer said.

It’s possible the state Supreme Court shift could be moot. Litigation involving the congressional map is before the U.S. Supreme Court and could result in state courts losing the ability to judge laws involving federal elections, including seat boundaries.

“Even if they’re unsuccessful in the U.S. Supreme Court, they now have a state Supreme Court that is most likely to be deferential to whatever the legislature comes up with, excusing any precedent” reached by the state justices, Bitzer said.

An analysis by Bitzer of federal statewide contests in North Carolina since 2008 show Republican candidates winning nearly 51% of the cumulative votes compared with 47% for Democrats. But Nickel said he’s not worrying himself about what a future map looks like.

“We’ve got a huge opportunity to make some real bipartisan accomplishments in the next Congress, so that’s really the focus,” Nickel said. “At some point, they will draw new maps. But I’m optimistic that when that happens, we’ll have a seat we can run in.”

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