Elections

Democrats need 6 seats in 2020 to have a say in decade of maps. Can they do it?

After a lawsuit succeeded in striking down many of the North Carolina General Assembly’s political districts — with new maps approved earlier this week — Democrats think they have a shot at gaining power at the legislature in the 2020 elections.

“The new maps certainly don’t guarantee a Democratic majority, but they make it easier for us to get a majority,” said Democratic Rep. Graig Meyer of Hillsborough in an interview Wednesday.

The legislature holds new elections every two years, but the 2020 elections are perhaps the most important since 2010.

That’s because in the first year of each new decade, after new Census data comes out, the state legislature starts a redistricting process to draw new political maps for the U.S. House, NC House and NC Senate. And since the state constitution forbids the governor from vetoing redistricting bills, Democrats will have to win at least one chamber in the legislature next year if they want a say in the next decade’s worth of redistricting.

Some political analysts said the recently redrawn state House and Senate maps still tilt Republican, The News & Observer reported in September. That advantage hasn’t changed now that a panel of judges has signed off on the districts. (The judges’ approval of eight House districts was appealed Friday to the state Supreme Court). One of the experts, Sam Wang of Princeton University, concluded that a 50-50 statewide vote in 2020 could lead to a 27-23 GOP majority in the Senate and a 68-52 GOP majority in the House.

But that assumes an even split among voters statewide. And with Republican President Donald Trump now facing potential impeachment, Democrats are feeling more optimistic about not just the presidency but other down-ballot races in 2020.

“If Democrats nationally run 5 to 6 points ahead of 2016, then we’ve got a great shot at winning the majority” in the N.C. House of Representatives, said Meyer, who is one of the politicians helping guide Democrats’ 2020 strategy in North Carolina. “But if it’s a close election like 2016 was, then our ability to flip the House will depend on our candidates running ahead of the rest of the Democratic ticket. Which is hard.”

The 50-seat state Senate, where Republicans hold a 29-21 advantage, will probably be more difficult for Democrats to flip than the House because significantly fewer total seats are in play. But if Democrats get close, it could make another race interesting to watch: the one for lieutenant governor. The person in that position doesn’t have many real powers or duties in North Carolina but does provide the tie-breaking vote when needed in the Senate.

That hasn’t happened much throughout history; the Senate was closest in 2003, when Democrats held a 27-23 advantage.

In the state House, where there are 120 seats, Meyer said he expects 20 to 25 will be competitive next year. Democrats are eyeing 14 Republican-held seats they might flip, he said, as well as some of their own seats they need to stop Republicans from flipping.

Republicans have a 65-55 advantage in the House. So for Democrats to take the majority in the 2020 elections, they need a net gain of at least six seats.

Democrats did flip a number of seats in 2018, taking away the Republicans’ veto-proof supermajority in both the House and Senate. But Republicans say Democrats probably can’t build on those gains much more, since liberal voters tend to concentrate in just a few metro areas while conservative voters can be found throughout North Carolina.

“It’s not as purple a state as people choose to believe,” said Stephen Wiley, the NC GOP’s caucus director for the House. “It’s a light red state, and I believe the electorate will continue to reflect that.”

Wiley is in charge of recruiting Republican House candidates and helping guide the party’s political strategy for that chamber. Even in the 2018 “Blue Wave” midterms, while facing well-funded liberal opponents in the midterms, he said, Republicans still held onto legislative seats in mid-size metros, like Wilmington, Fayetteville and Winston-Salem. And he said that bodes well for 2020, too.

“I’m confident we’re going to retain the majority because even in the Democrats’ best year, last year, they only barely beat us in the statewide vote,” Wiley said. “And they outspent us by dumping millions of dollars to win a few seats in Wake and Mecklenburg.”

For Democrats, some hope rides on a few things out of their direct control: Who the party’s presidential nominee is, and how much more damage Trump suffers in the polls between now and next November. But there are also things in their control, Meyer said, like fundraising and — particularly in tightly contested seats — finding candidates who can convince Trump supporters that Democrats have the best ideas for local politics.

“You have to have a candidate who matches that area well, and communicates what that area needs, and helps voters understand that we can do better for North Carolina by electing a Democratic legislature — no matter what you think needs to happen in Washington, D.C.,” Meyer said.

But professor Michael Bitzer, a state politics expert at Catawba College, said that especially in a year like 2020 when there are so many elections happening at once, not many voters are likely to split their support between candidates of different parties.

Recent election data, he said, shows that state legislators tend to win their district by roughly the same margin as their party’s presidential nominee, “which tells me people are voting a straight ticket, party line vote.”

Republicans hope that dynamic works in their favor. Wiley said if Democrats nominate someone on the far left to run against Trump, that could send undecided voters toward the GOP for down-ballot races, too.

But by the same token, Bitzer said, if Democrats nominate someone for president who connects with black voters in a way that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign did not, that will help Democrats in the legislature and other races, too.

“I think there are opportunities in rural areas, especially in the eastern part where some counties are much more racially diverse,” Bitzer said. “You’ve got the Black Belt counties of the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state. In 2016 there was some dropoff in African American voters showing up, and I think Democrats would be wise to focus on those folks.”

For more state government news, listen to Domecast, the politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.
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