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Posted at 9:50 AM ET, 03/ 3/2011

North Carolina: The GOP's Golden Goose of redistricting

By Aaron Blake

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This is the 13th in an occasional series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it "Mapping the Future". The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on North Carolina. (And make sure to check out the first 12 installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Nevada, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida and Utah)

North Carolina was one of just a few states where Republicans missed their chance at big gains in the 2010 midterms. Which makes it one of the only states in the country where Republicans could well make big gains in redistricting.

Over the course of this now-13-part series, The Fix has detailed a number of states -- Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania among the biggest -- where Republicans will have a hard time adding seats even though they have complete control of the redistricting process.

But not North Carolina.

The Tarheel State stands out as the one state where Republicans will be expecting to gain multiple seats in the election following redistricting, and they could gain three or four if things pan out close to perfectly.

Republicans in November secured control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time since the 1800s, and even though the state has a Democratic governor -- Bev Perdue -- she has no veto power over whatever map the Republicans draw.

The U.S. Census Bureau released detailed population data for the state Wednesday, but we've already got a good idea about what the GOP will try to do and what big gains are possible.

The reason for all that opportunity is two-fold.

One is that the current map was drawn by Democrats in 2001, which means many of the marginal districts were drawn to their liking. "Ten years ago, Democrats drew the most perfect map in the history of gerrymandering," remarked one Republican familiar with the state's lines.

Two is that Democrats stood tough in the state in 2010. While Democrats in swing and conservative-leaning districts across the country went down to defeat, North Carolina Democratic Reps. Heath Shuler, Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell all won -- though Republicans did unseat Rep. Bob Etheridge.

The result is a map on which Democrats maintain a majority -- seven to six -- of congressional seats in the state. Of the 17 states where Republicans control redistricting, North Carolina is the only state where that is the case.

Because of those two factors -- the Democratic-drawn map and the continued Democratic majority -- there is plenty of room for improvement for the GOP. And the most likely Democrats to bear the brunt are McIntyre, Kissell and Rep. Brad Miller.

(Be sure to follow along on the congressional map here.)

Miller is probably the most endangered. His north-central 13th district went 60 percent for President Obama in 2008, but a line tweak here or there, and all of a sudden it's a Republican-leaning district.

The district currently reaches awkwardly into Greensboro and Raleigh -- the two areas that allowed Miller to win reelection last year. Those areas could easily be handed off to nearby Democratic Reps. G.K. Butterfield in the 1st district, David Price in the 4th, and Mel Watt in the 12th, while Miller could pick up some GOP-leaning territory from Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx in the 5th district and GOP Rep. Howard Coble in the 6th -- both who are very safe. Miller could also add some of the GOP-leaning Raleigh suburbs from Rep. Renee Ellmers's (R) 2nd district, though Republicans will want to help Ellmers too.

Ellmers is the second easy call for the GOP. After beating Etheridge in November, her marginal 2nd district in the center of the state will need to be shored up. The most likely solution would be to, like with Miller's district, give some black and Democratic areas of Raleigh to Butterfield to the north, while picking up more of the Republican-leaning Fayetteville/Fort Bragg area to the south.

These two scenarios work because Butterfield's district will need to expand and pick up black voters. It is currently in danger of losing its majority-black status, and the Voting Rights Act requires that a majority-minority district be drawn where possible.

Butterfield's massive and awkward northeastern 1st district is one of two majority-black districts in the state, along with Watt's serpentine 12th district that runs from Greensboro to Charlotte. Those two districts and Price's Research Triangle-based seat are the only three safe Democratic districts in the state.

With those three safe and Miller likely in a heap of trouble, that leaves Shuler, McIntyre and Kissell as potential targets. And that's where things get a little uncertain.

Republicans have a number of options when it comes to targeting McIntyre and Kissell; with Shuler, it will be more difficult.

Shuler's 11th district is nestled in the western corner of the state, landlocked by Rep. Patrick McHenry's (R-N.C.) 10th district, and the only way to make it more Republican is to trade territory with McHenry. But Shuler's district is already pretty conservative -- going easily for the last two GOP presidential candidates -- so it's not clear that shifting even more GOP-aligned voters into it would make much of a difference.

If Republicans are going to beat Shuler, it will have to be in a district pretty close to what he has now. But moving some of Asheville into McHenry's district could only help, and McHenry, who has his eyes on moving up the leadership ladder, may be willing to play ball.

McIntyre and Kissell, meanwhile, border each other in the southern part of the state -- Kissell in the 8th district east of Charlotte and McIntyre in the Wilmington and Fayetteville-area 7th district along the southern tip of the state.

McIntyre's district went for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by five points in the 2008 presidential race, while Kissell's went for Obama by five.

Republicans could either try to make both incumbents more vulnerable or focus on completely dismantling one and allowing the other Democrat to survive.

Considering that, there are basically four scenarios here.

The first would be the creation of a third majority-black district. Provided that the Census data will support it, this district would take in the black and more Democratic parts of McIntyre's and Kissell's districts, making both incumbents pretty beatable. But it would also force big changes elsewhere on the map, because another district would have to be eliminated. (For example, do Republicans then try to dismantle Price's district in order to keep the state at three safe Democratic seats? It might not be easy.)

Under the second scenario, Republicans could weaken both McIntyre and Kissell without creating a new majority-black district. They could give McIntrye some territory from Rep. Walter Jones's safe Republican 3rd district to the east, while Kissell could pick up GOP-friendly territory from Coble's 6th to the north and Rep. Sue Myrick's (R-N.C.) 9th district to the west.

In that case, though, neither district would be a whole lot more winnable. And given that both men have proven solid campaigners -- McIntyre especially -- victory wouldn't be assured.

The better option may be to focus on one or the other.

A third option is for Republicans to pack McIntyre's district with Democrats from Kissell's district and Ellmers's 2nd district, allowing McIntyre to survive but giving the GOP a great shot at winning Kissell's seat and holding Ellmers's.

A more devious, fourth option would be to move McIntyre's home county of Robeson, along the western border of his district, into Kissell's district. That would effectively make Kissell's 8th district more Democratic, but it would also leave McIntyre with a tough decision -- run in a tough district where he doesn't live, or challenge Kissell in a primary. Republicans would have a good shot at winning McIntyre's current district either way.

Barring the unforeseen, Republicans should have a real good chance to take Miller's district and one of either Kissell's or McIntyre's. That would give them an eight-to-five advantage in the state's delegation.

A more ambitious map could land Republicans as many as three or even four seats and a nine-to-four or 10-to-three edge. But a lot of pieces will need to fall into place.

"Republicans would be disappointed in North Carolina if they didn't pick up two seats," said Dallas Woodhouse, the state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. "Three would probably be the maximum."

Either way, North Carolina would likely constitute the GOP's biggest gains in 2012. And much of the GOP's redistricting energy will be spent in this state.

By Aaron Blake  | March 3, 2011; 9:50 AM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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