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NC Democrat: ‘Sue the bastards’ over maps. Can that be a winning strategy?

Wiley Nickel
Nickel Campaign
Wiley Nickel.

This story first appeared in WFAE reporter Steve Harrison's weekly newsletter. Sign up here to get the news first in your inbox.

Democratic Rep. Wiley Nickel of Cary didn’t hold back about the new Republican-passed congressional map, which gives the GOP the clear advantage in 10 of 14 seats. Democrats are strong favorites in three districts, and the final one is a Democratic lean.

Nickel is likely to lose his seat. On social media, he said the map is an “extreme partisan gerrymander” that “totally screws North Carolina voters.”

Then he added: “It’s time to sue the bastards.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled four years ago (in a North Carolina case) that it would not rule on partisan gerrymandering, saying that should be left to states. In North Carolina, that’s a dead end for Democrats, since the GOP has a 5-2 advantage on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The only recourse is to argue under the Voting Rights Act that the map is disenfranchising Black voters. The Supreme Court, in a surprise decision earlier this year, ruled that an Alabama congressional map that gave the GOP 6 of 7 seats did just that.

But the Alabama map and the North Carolina map are different.

In Alabama, 27% of residents are Black. The old congressional map had only one of seven seats in which a Black candidate had a realistic chance of being elected. The court created a new map that gives Black voters the opportunity to win two of seven seats (29%) that’s in line with the state’s African American population.

In North Carolina, 22% of residents are Black. In the newly passed congressional map, two Black Democrats — Alma Adams and Valerie Foushee — will be heavily favored to keep their seats. The third Black Democrat, Don Davis, is in a district that leans blue.

First-term Democratic Congressman Don Davis could benefit from the Supreme Court's recent decision in a Alabama voting rights case.
Don Davis
First-term Democratic Congressman Don Davis.

If all three win, African Americans would make up just under 22% of the state’s congressional delegation, which is in line with the state’s African American population.

(White Democrats would arguably be disenfranchised, but the Supreme Court said in 2019 their claims would fall under non-justiciable partisan gerrymandering claims.)

But Republicans have tinkered with Davis’ district in the northeast part of the state, shifting it from “lean Democratic” to “toss-up/lean Democratic.”

Here are the changes to Davis’ district:

  • Old district: Biden defeated Trump 52.9% to 46%
  • New district: Biden defeated Trump 50.1% to 48.9%
  • Old district: 42.6% Black population (according to Dave’s Redistricting Atlas)
  • New district: 39.6% Black population (according to N.C. General Assembly)

Last year, Davis defeated Republican Sandy Smith 52.4% to 47.6%.
In a statement on X, Davis said the new maps are “no surprise” and that “while analysts and attorneys are still reviewing them,” he plans to run again.

In changing Davis’ district, Republicans gave themselves a better chance to flip the seat, in 2024 and beyond. (The district has been trending red.)

But Democrats are still favored to win.

Can they win a case based on the Republicans lowering the number of Black voters by a few percentage points?

Or can they argue that Black voters in Greensboro and Winston-Salem are disenfranchised by being dispersed into Republican seats?

In addition to Alabama, congressional maps this year have been challenged in Louisiana and South Carolina under the Voting Rights Act. This week a federal court found that Georgia’s mapsalso disenfranchised Black voters.

A fair map can still be rigged

As the new political maps were being finalized in the General Assembly, Wake County Democratic Sen. Jay Chaudhuri proposed keeping the 2022 Congressional map which resulted in a 7-7 split.

"Why even hold elections, when the maps are rigged from the beginning?" he asked, referencing the new map passed last week.

His statement is correct: The 2024 congressional map is rigged.

There is only one toss-up district, the 1st represented by Davis, a Democrat. The other seats all have double-digit built-in advantages for either the Democrats or the Republicans. There isn’t much point in campaigning on either side.

But the 2022 map was also nearly as rigged, though at least in a more fair way. It produced seven Republicans and seven Democrats.

But in terms of competitive congressional elections, it was a wash out. In almost all of the races, there wasn’t much point in campaigning then either.

The 2022 map had one true toss-up seat, the 13th District in the Triangle that Nickel won.

North Carolina Republican lawmakers released new maps for Congress and the General Assembly last week. The state legislative maps look to cement their supermajorities. The congressional map uses some brutal gerrymanders to wipe out at least three Democratic seats, giving the GOP a boost in its efforts to keep the U.S. House in 2024.

Based on Trump-Biden results, the Republican advantage in its seven seats from the 2022 map was: +29; +25; +21; +13; +34; +8; +40; +10.

The only “lean seat” from that 2022 map was the 9th District, which was in Fayetteville, Laurinburg and Asheboro. Trump won it by 8 percentage points. Roy Cooper almost won it for governor in 2020.

Based on the Trump-Biden results, the Democratic advantage in its seats from the 2022 map was: +7; +29; +35; +13; +30; +16.

The “lean seat” was the 1st District, in the northeast that Biden won by seven percentage points.

Davis won it by five points.

For 11 of the 14 seats, campaigning was basically pointless. You could say they were rigged.

A good map should not only give both parties a realistic chance at representation that matches their statewide voting share, it should also create as much competition as possible.

It’s impossible to create 14 toss-up districts. But one Republican proposed map in 2022 was a 6-4-4 — six safe Republican seats, four safe Democratic seats and four toss-up districts.

It was rejected in favor of the 7-6-1 map.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.