Things have changed in Western North Carolina politics.
On Dec. 2, a three-judge panel determined that the Congressional district maps submitted by the N.C. General Assembly will stand for the 2020 election.
According to an article in the News & Observer, the shift in the maps will likely lead to Democrats picking up two more seats in Congress. However, party leaders are still crying foul, claiming the maps are still heavily gerrymandered to give Republicans an advantage.
For Western North Carolina, the new 11th district includes Avery, Polk and Rutherford counties and and all of Buncombe County — the most populous and most liberal county in the region.
Under the previous map, Buncombe County was split, with about half the county in a district with Charlotte voters, a configuration that gave the incumbent Republican Mark Meadows an easy double-digit advantage.
Seat in play?
Chris Cooper, who heads up Western Carolina University’s political science program, said he believes that even with the incorporation of all of Buncombe County, Meadows is still the favorite to win his re-election bid.
“The degree to which he’s the favorite shifted overnight though,” Cooper said. “I think we went from solidly Republican, and that’s an understatement, to leans Republican.”
Meadows’ press secretary, Ben Williamson, said in an email Meadows wouldn’t comment directly on the new map.
“We’ve always said we’re focused on doing our jobs, and we’ll work hard for whatever constituency we’re given,” Williamson said in the email. “That remains unchanged.”
Although Meadows wouldn’t talk for the purposes of this story, he did discuss the possibility of Buncombe County being added to the 11th district in a February 2018 interview with The Mountaineer.
“I think you try to do the right thing for the people,” Meadows said. “I’ve tried to look at it as 750,000 without a letter behind their name, whether it’s D, R, or U.”
“I don’t expect that I would get the majority of [Democrats’] support if they vote just along party lines,” he added. “I enjoy an awful lot of Democrat support, and primarily it’s because I don’t play politics. I’ll vote against my side of the aisle. I have one team, and that team is here in Western North Carolina.”
New candidates emerge
While Meadows has recently been busy in Washington defending President Trump and bashing the impeachment inquiry, back home, since news of those maps broke, more candidates have come forward to run in the Democratic primary.
Steve Woodsmall, who ran for the seat in the 2018, and Michael O’Shea were already set to run against each other in the Democratic primary, but since the new maps were confirmed, more Democrats have come forward.
One such candidate is Moe Davis.
“That’s what’s interesting about all of this. It’s not just that the voters are shifting, but the calculus is shifting too,” Cooper said. “[Davis] was clearly positioning himself to run, but he didn’t say anything publicly until the minute the districts shifted.”
Davis said he’d been eyeballing a 2020 bid for a little while and admitted that the new map was the thing he’d been waiting for to kick his campaign into gear. He said it just simply seems more feasible for a Democrat to have a chance now.
“It went from being a slam dunk for Mark Meadows where basically he didn’t need to show up the way the lines were drawn, to now he needs to work for it,” he said.
Gina Collias had originally announced that she was going to run as a Democrat against Patrick McHenry in the 10th Congressional District but has since switched to running in the 11th since the new maps were confirmed. Collias could not be reached for comment.
Likewise, there were rumors floating around in recent weeks that last year’s Democratic primary winner Phillip Price and State Representative Brian Turner, who is very popular in Buncombe County, would get into the race. While Price couldn’t be reached for comment, Turner said he would instead seek reelection in the General Assembly.
Cooper said he believes the remapping of the 11th district and the new candidates that subsequently emerged have provided local Democrats with a spark.
“The challenge will be seeing if a Democratic candidate can hold that through November,” he said.
“The question is whether that’ll be a bounce or a bump,” he added, specifying that a bounce would be a rise and fall in the energy but a bump would signify a more lasting affect.
The future of the map
Cooper said that while the new map is better for Democrats than the most recent one, it’s still not as good as the one that preceded that, a sentiment echoed by many Democrats across the state.
“There’s something to make both sides happy and both side upset with the map,” he said.
But these maps won’t be around for long. New maps will be drawn in 2022 based on results from the 2020 census, meaning whichever party controls the General Assembly following the 2020 election will have a heavy hand in shaping elections for the next decade.
“I think it’s important for both parties,” Cooper said. “It’s a critical election because it’s a redistricting year.”
Cooper said both parties are well aware of this fact and recalled the national initiative called REDMAP, which is described in detail in this 2017 story that ran in The Atlantic. The first step of REDMAP, which was executed to spectacular success in North Carolina, was to “seize control of vulnerable state houses in purple states in the 2010 elections and grab ahold of the redistricting process,” using new technology to create maps with pinpoint accuracy to give Republicans the greatest advantage possible.
“The idea was to elect Republicans to draw red maps,” Cooper said.
Woodsmall commented on how important the state legislative races are this year and encouraged people to learn what’s at stake and then get out and vote.
“I think it’s really important for people to understand they’ve got to pay attention to the state legislative elections,” he said.
Should Democrats flip the General Assembly come November and an independent redistricting commission isn’t formed by that time, the question becomes, will members of that party resist the urge to create districts that favor their own party?
Cooper said that while time alone will allow for the answer to that question, a look at what’s happening now in another state may provide some valuable insight.
“I’m looking to Virginia to answer that question,” he said. “The Virginia Democrats have pushed for redistricting reform when they were in the minority party. Last month, they took over both chambers. The proof will be in the pudding, and that answer may guide North Carolina.”
Cooper said that if ever there were a time where such a substantial reform in how the maps are drawn, it would likely be now, noting that even some Republicans, such as Chuck McGrady, are in favor of such reforms.
“I think if there’s a time this is it,” he said. “If there’s a time it’s likely to happen, it’s when future outcomes are more in doubt.”