Rob Christensen

Supreme Court ruling on NC election maps could have big impact

Senator Richard Burr
Senator Richard Burr MCT

Republican Sen. Richard Burr was recently quoted as questioning North Carolina’s status as a purple state, suggesting that it has become so Republican in recent years it should be viewed as red.

Burr’s argument is not without merit. All three branches of state government are now controlled by the GOP, as are both U.S. Senate seats and 10 of the 13 congressional seats. This is a sea change since the beginning of the decade.

The state’s senior senator may also be drawing from his personal experience. Burr, an attractive conservative, has twice handily won Senate campaigns, and the Democrats are having a difficult time finding a candidate to challenge him next year.

But the Republican’s strong grip on the state’s body politic is based largely on one powerful factor – the gerrymandered legislative and congressional districts that the General Assembly passed in 2011.

The Republicans were counting on the gerrymandered districts to keep them in power for the foreseeable future. But that was called into question Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court dealt the GOP a blow by ordering the North Carolina Supreme Court to reconsider a challenge to the Republican maps.

If the legislature is forced to draw more competitive lines – and it is not certain that will be the case – it would almost certainly shake the rafters of Tar Heel politics.

The Republicans might very well retain control of the legislature under a system of competitively drawn districts, but it would not be a certain thing.

Polls show the legislature with a voter approval rating of 19 percent. And the GOP legislature appears to be facing a voter backlash from groups, particularly seniors, who have seen their taxes go up during recent rewrites of the tax laws.

At the very least, newly realigned districts would likely cause the GOP legislature to govern more cautiously, looking nervously over its shoulder at the opposition – a factor that often served as an ideological brake on the Democrats when they controlled the legislature.

There is still plenty of evidence that North Carolina is a purple swing state. Annual voter attitude surveys by the Gallup organization of Tar Heel voters show there has been no recent ideological shift and that they remain among the most moderate in the nation.

The best gauge of North Carolina’s continued competitiveness is in statewide races, where gerrymandering is not a factor.

Democrat Barack Obama won the state in 2008, winning by his closest margin (49.7 percent to 49.4 percent) in the country. Republican Mitt Romney carried the state in 2012, by his closest margin (50.6 percent to 48.4 percent) of any state in the country.

In November, Republican Thom Tillis defeated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in a very close race (49 percent to 47.3 percent) that was the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history.

Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor handily in 2012. But he lost the governor’s race four years earlier. Prior to McCrory’s winning, the state had 20 years of Democratic governors, the longest run of Democratic governors in the country except for the states of Washington and Oregon.

Regardless of the rules, Republicans will win a lot of races. But if the gerrymandered districts are struck down, North Carolina will begin looking less like a red state than a purple one.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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