- NC’s newest legislative maps are an aggressive partisan gerrymander
- Republicans will find it difficult to hold their State House supermajority
- The State Senate is generally much less competitive
Last month, Republican leaders of North Carolina’s state legislature unveiled new legislative and Congressional election maps. Those maps are an aggressive partisan gerrymander. In a remarkable reversal from past redistricting cycles, Republican leaders have openly admitted the same. After the new Republican majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court gave its blessing to partisan gerrymandering earlier this year, their co-partisans in the legislature proceeded with drawing maps that gave their party the maximum possible unfair partisan advantage. None of this is seriously disputed by anyone.
While legal challenges to the maps grind on, the voters of North Carolina are left with the maps as they are today. Unfair as they may be, they are legally in force nonetheless, and so are their implications for partisan power in our legislature. Yet those implications are not set in stone. North Carolina is a dynamic, fast-changing state undergoing a steady political realignment that is demonstrably eroding Republican support. Analyzing the new State House and State Senate districts and their voting patterns over time, we can make a forecast – or perhaps an educated guess – of each party’s future in each chamber of the legislature.
What we did
We first calculated the results from previous elections in every new State House and State Senate district. This is a standard practice in evaluating new election districts, and gives us an approximate district lean. That analysis produces the following forecasts of the State House and State Senate:
This analysis largely aligns with the prevailing view of other North Carolina political observers: Republicans have drawn themselves overwhelming, built-in advantages in both chambers. In the House, they only need to win eight of 25 competitive seats to win a majority, while in the Senate, they must hold only 2 competitive seats to win a supermajority. In most of those competitive seats, Republicans are favored.
There is an excellent chance that North Carolina could elect a Democratic President, Governor and Attorney General next year, but Republicans would nevertheless hold a supermajority of the Senate and be only a few votes shy of one in the House. Such a situation would be bizarre, but such is the perverse reality of the effectiveness of partisan gerrymandering.
Next, using the approximate partisan lean of each competitive district, we analyzed which districts each party was likely to prioritize in pursuit of their respective goals. This gives a view in to each party’s “path” to victory: which districts Republicans must win, which districts Democrats must flip, and so forth.
Finally, we examined how each district is trending over time. To do this, we relied mostly on Presidential election results. Presidential elections are not a perfect benchmark, but they are useful for several reasons: first, while ticket-splitting does occur, it is becoming far more rare than it once was. Voters who pull for Trump or Biden are very likely to vote for the same-party candidate for their legislative district. Also, as 2024 is a Presidential election year, we can reasonably expect an approximately similar level of voter turnout.
This leads to an interesting note: there are 10 House districts, and 5 Senate districts, where the voter partisan shift from 2016 to 2020 was greater than its overall 2020 Presidential election margin. For example, in the new House District 82 in Cabarrus county, while Donald Trump won the district by 11% in 2020 (55.5% to 44.5%), the district as a whole actually shifted towards President Biden by a whopping 11.6% from 2016 to 2020. That kind of trend is very significant, because it demonstrates a rapid ongoing change in voters’ party preferences. While virtually every district had some partisan shift between each election, the others were all less than their overall 2020 election margin.
In 7 of these 10 House districts, the movement was towards Biden (highlighted in magenta), while in 3, it was towards Trump (highlighted in teal). On the Senate side, 4 of the 5 district movements were towards Biden, and 1 towards Trump. This gives a strong indication about where these districts may be headed in future election cycles.
The Republican roadmap
For both parties, we have listed the House “roadmap” on the left, and the Senate on the right. Each one lists the number of Safe/Likely seats each party begins with, and then lists the seat numbers in order of their competitiveness, with key seat thresholds highlighted.
Republicans’ goal in 2024 will be to hold on to their supermajority control of one, or preferably both, chambers of the legislature.
In the House, Republicans face long, but feasible, odds for holding on to their supermajority. Recall that even in the 2022 cycle, with not just slanted maps but the most favorable electoral environment possible, Republicans were still unable to win a supermajority in the State House. They had to rely instead on a premeditated plan hatched with Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg to defraud the voters. Getting to a 72-seat supermajority will require Republicans to essentially run the table, winning not only every district that leans Republican, but also every Tossup race as well. That is certainly a possibility, but is not a simple matter, particularly in a Presidential year. They also face several districts that are shifting hard towards Democrats (including Cotham’s, for many obvious reasons), making their odds of winning a supermajority even steeper.
In the Senate, Republicans face much better odds. Due to the current Senate map’s partisan bias, Republicans must only hold on to the 2 competitive districts, SD-7 (New Hanover) and SD-11 (Nash, Franklin and Vance), both of which lean Republican, to hold on to supermajority control. Though SD-11 is moving towards Republicans, it is doing so at a relatively slow pace, meaning there could easily be a reversion in 2024. SD-7, by contrast, is moving much more quickly towards Democrats, and is very likely to flip eventually.
The Democratic roadmap
Democrats’ goal in 2024 will be to break the Republican supermajority in one, or preferably both, chambers of the legislature.
Democrats face reasonably good odds of breaking the Republican supermajority in the State House. If Democrats win all the districts that lean their way, then they must convert only one Tossup district to break the supermajority. Democrats also have the wind at their backs: more than twice as many competitive districts are trending their way, compared to the Republicans.
The Senate map is sufficiently gerrymandered as to give Democrats little hope of winning an outright majority. But breaking the Republican supermajority will require them to flip only one of the two most competitive, Republican-leaning districts: the aforementioned SD-7 or SD-11. Flipping just one of those, as well as holding the seats they currently have, would give them 21 votes, breaking Republican supermajority control.
All in all, this is a very effective Republican gerrymander, in that it will delay Democrats’ governing power commensurate with their voting strength well into the decade. Of course, predicting the political landscape even a few years into the future is notoriously difficult, so we may all yet be surprised. But make no mistake: this is an essentially defensive gerrymander, drawn to shore up Republican governing power with a declining voter base. Change is coming to North Carolina, and it will arrive, one way or another.