North Carolina Republicans passed new maps for state House and Senate districts in September after a state court struck down their 2017 gerrymanders, and last week, plaintiffs abandoned any further appeals and ended their lawsuit. As a result, these lines will be used next year, when all seats in both chambers will be up for election. Daily Kos Elections has calculated the 2016 presidential results for both new maps, and while they give Democrats the chance to win more seats, it’s still going to be very tough for Team Blue to take a majority in either house next year.
If all of this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. Republicans enjoyed full control of the redistricting process after the 2010 census and used their power to draw up some of the most extreme gerrymanders in the country. These maps were both struck down after federal courts ruled in 2017 that the GOP discriminated against black voters by packing them into just a handful of seats, thereby making surrounding districts whiter—and more favorable to Republicans. As a result of that suit, the legislature drew up new maps that were used in 2018.
Democratic candidates won the most votes that year and made gains in both chambers, enough to break the GOP's three-fifths supermajorities. However, the new maps still kept the Republicans in power: Their majority in the House dropped from 74-46 to 65-55 and from 35-15 to 29-21 in the Senate.
Republicans intended those 2017 maps to be used for the rest of the decade, but they were struck down this year by a state court for a different reason: because they were partisan gerrymanders that ran afoul of the state constitution’s guarantee of free and fair elections. Yet despite the GOP’s abysmal track record on voting rights, the court allowed the Republican-run legislature to draw remedial maps—an effort that quickly went awry.
Astonishingly, most Democratic senators voted for the GOP's Senate map and even praised the process by which it was drawn, despite the fact that it gave little real opportunity for public input. When the plaintiffs once again challenged the new maps, the court specifically cited those comments from Democrats in explaining why it was upholding the new districts despite their flaws.
But as our new data shows, these maps retain much of the GOP’s old gerrymanders, which is why Democrats should never have signed off on them. Under the 2017 maps, Donald Trump carried 75 of the 120 House districts and 32 of the 50 Senate seats while he was defeating Hillary Clinton 51-47 statewide. Under the newest maps, Trump took 72 House seats and 28 Senate districts. In other words, even though Trump won just 51% of the vote, he’d still have won 59% of all seats in the legislature.
While those are better numbers for Democrats, the newest maps still will make it very difficult for the GOP to actually lose its grip on power. One way to dig a little deeper is to sort each seat in each chamber by Trump's margin of victory over Clinton and see how the seat in the middle—known as the median seat—voted. Because North Carolina has an even number of seats, we average the presidential margin for the middle two seats to come up with the median.
Under the old Senate map, the median seat backed Trump 55-43, which was 8 points to the right of his statewide win; under the new map, the median seat supported him 54-44, which is only a little better for Democrats and still 6 points to the right of Trump’s statewide performance. It’s a very similar story in the House, where the median seat went from 55-41 Trump to 55-43, or 8 points better than Trump’s 2016 share of the vote.
This means that if Democrats are to take the barest of majorities, they’d need to win at least some seats that backed Trump by double digits—a very tough task even in the best of years.
To see how the Tar Heel State stacks up nationally, we've also published a spreadsheet listing the median seat for every other state chamber where we have data. By this metric, North Carolina's new state Senate lines have the 12th-strongest GOP lean in the country, while the state House ranks eighth. By contrast, the 2017 versions of the Senate and House were ranked ninth and fourth, respectively.
One way these new maps do hurt Republicans, though, is that they make it more difficult for them to recapture the three-fifth supermajorities they’d need to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes if he’s reelected next year. Republicans would have to net one seat in the Senate and seven in the House to regain those veto-proof majorities.
Once again, we can compare the two maps by looking at Trump's 29th-best Senate seat and 71st-best House seat (the seats at the three-fifths point in each chamber) to give us an idea of the kind of district Democrats need to win to prevent a future GOP supermajority. Under the 2017 Senate map, the 29th-best seat supported Trump 51-46, while under the 2019 one, it supported Clinton 48.6-48.3. Under the 2017 House map, the 71st seat backed Trump 52-47, while under the new boundaries, it supported him by a narrower 50-48 margin.
The new map also strengthens some Democratic incumbents while weakening some Republicans. Last year, under the lines drawn up in 2017, Senate Democrats won three seats that had supported Trump, while Republicans carried no Clinton districts. Under the new Senate map, just one Democrat now holds a Trump seat, while there are two Republicans in Clinton turf.
In the state House, 10 Democrats won Trump seats last year while Republicans once again failed to take any Clinton districts. Under the 2019 map, there are now eight Democrats defending Trump seats and one Republican in a Clinton district.
Note that these newest maps will be used only in 2020 because the legislature will once again redraw the districts after the next census. That means that in 2022, the Tar Heel State will have new legislative maps for the fourth cycle in a row.
For the rest of our elections results by legislative district, you can find all our data from 2018, 2016, and past cycles here.
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