North Carolina Republicans close in on new districts seeking to fortify GOP in Congress, legislature

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republicans closed in Tuesday on enacting new boundaries for the state’s congressional and legislative districts that aim to fortify GOP prospects both in the narrowly divided Congress and in the state General Assembly, where conservatives hope to solidify control there for the rest of the decade.

The full Senate voted along party lines for maps for the state's congressional delegation and for the Senate's own districts. The state House voted later Tuesday for districts in their own chamber. House and Senate leaders aimed for their chambers to give final approval to all three maps Wednesday.

They were all drawn by Republicans in time for the 2024 elections after recent state Supreme Court rulings reversed decisions of the court last year that had thrown out proposed district lines it had deemed were illegal partisan gerrymanders.

The state's highest court flipped from a Democratic to a Republican majority with the 2022 elections, and the GOP justices ruled in April that the state constitution placed no limits on shifting lines for partisan gain. The U.S. Supreme Court had already declared in 2019 that partisan gerrymandering claims weren't subject to federal court review, either.

Those rulings now diminish legal options for Democrats and their allies opposed to the new maps to challenge the lines in court. They also opened the door for the proposed U.S. House map that could help the GOP pick up at least three seats on Capitol Hill at the expense of first- and second-term Democrats. The 2022 elections, which were run under a temporary map created by trial judges, resulted in a 7-7 seat between the two parties.

The congressional map that passed the state Senate creates 10 districts that appear to favor a Republican, three that favor a Democrat and one that could be considered competitive, according to statewide election data and political experts. Republicans currently hold a 221-212 seat advantage over Democrats in the U.S. House.

Democrats whose seats are threatened by the plan are Reps. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte, Wiley Nickel of Cary and Kathy Manning of Greensboro. And first-term Rep. Don Davis, one of the three Black Democrats in the state's delegation, would run in a competitive district in northeastern North Carolina. Republicans have defended their maps, particularly with their political leanings, as lawful.

“Partisan consideration is a valid criterion in which we balance with other legitimate traditional redistricting criteria,” Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican and co-sponsor of the congressional map proposal, said during floor debate. Demonstrators in the Senate gallery chanted “fair maps now” as the debate began before authorities quickly ushered them out.

Republicans also redrew boundary lines for their respective chambers that also appear to keep the GOP in a good position to retain their current veto-proof majorities of 72 seats in the House and 30 in the Senate. Statewide election data and a Duke University professor's analysis indicate keeping such a supermajority may be more challenging in the House, where Republicans reached 72 in April when then-Democratic Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County switched parties.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his allies have criticized the new maps as a power play by the GOP that discriminates against minority voters and fails to align with the political balance of the nation’s ninth-largest state. North Carolina statewide elections are usually close affairs. Redistricting maps approved by the General Assembly, however, aren’t subject to Cooper’s vetoes.

While partisan gerrymandering claims have been short-circuited by the courts, critics have alleged racial gerrymandering in the maps that likely will result in federal Voting Rights Act litigation soon.

The congressional lines “unnecessarily pack and crack the state’s most urban and diverse communities, diminishing their voting power even though these are the very same areas where population has grown,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat. Republicans said they didn’t use voter population data based on race to form the boundaries.

“We have complied with the law in every way on these maps,” Rep. Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican, said during debate on the state House districts.

GOP lawmakers used parliamentary maneuvers to block or vote against Democratic amendments. That included one that would have altered districts in and north of Charlotte so that Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus would be moved out of a proposed strong Republican district where GOP Sen. Vickie Sawyer also lives. Marcus said Republicans are trying to push her out of the Senate because she's spoken strongly against GOP policies.

Redistricting, meanwhile, seems to have worked in favor of Cotham, whom Democrats have castigated as a traitor for switching parties. Last November, Cotham won a state House seat in a Democratic district and was facing an extremely tough path for reelection if her district had stayed untouched. The new maps appear to offer her two options if she wants to run for office in 2024.

The state House map proposal places Cotham's residence in a new district where Republicans would have a slight advantage, according to statewide election data. And the Senate’s congressional redistricting proposal also would place her in a district along the state’s southern border. The district's current representative, GOP Rep. Dan Bishop, is running for attorney general in 2024.