North Carolina Democrats largely survived the carnage of the midterms — eluding the fate that claimed many of their Southern colleagues.
But the redistricting nightmare they now face will be harder to escape.
With North Carolina Republicans slated to unveil a new congressional map this week, Democrats are bracing for a buzzsaw. Party officials sullenly concede that as many as three Democratic incumbents could be imperiled and that there is little they can do to stop it.
“I don’t think there will be anything subtle about it,” said Mike Davis, a longtime Democratic consultant in the state. “It will be more like a bulldozer.”
Democrats believe they are in store for two incumbent vs. incumbent races — with Democratic Reps. Brad Miller and David Price likely to compete for one seat and Democratic Reps. Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre vying for another. Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler could see his western North Carolina district take on an increasingly GOP orientation.
“It’s going to be brutal,” said Brad Crone, a Raleigh-based Democratic strategist.
With the GOP controlling the levers of redistricting, Democrats have long anticipated deep losses in the state,. Republicans hold majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time in more than a century and Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has no veto power over the new map.
It’s a blow for a delegation that mostly weathered the Republican midterm wave that obliterated the ranks of Southern Democrats. Just one Democratic incumbent — Rep. Bobby Etheridge — fell short, while Shuler, Kissell and McIntyre survived, providing Democrats with a narrow majority in the state’s congressional delegation.
Over the past several months, according to Democratic aides, party lawmakers began to realize that they were on a collision course with a forthcoming blueprint that would present the most serious threat yet to their political careers.
“This is out of our hands, unfortunately. I think everyone is very realistic about what the situation is,” said a well-placed Democratic aide, who said Kissell and McIntyre have yet to discuss the possibility of running against one another. “We’re just prepared mentally for what is to come.”
For Republicans, the new map will cap months of preparation that began as the dust from the midterms was settling. As they started plotting their 2012 blueprint, Republican strategists determined that North Carolina’s redistricting effort could could yield a handful of ripe targets — and that they had to make the most of the opportunity.
In February, the National Republican Congressional Committee unleashed the first of a half-dozen robocalls targeting four North Carolina Democrats and followed up with TV ads hammering Shuler and Miller on spending. The goal, according to those familiar with the approach, is to brand the North Carolina Democrats as early targets and signal to potential GOP challengers that Republicans will be investing heavily in the state after the new lines are drawn.
The North Carolina GOP delegation — led by Reps. Patrick McHenry and Virginia Foxx — meanwhile was spearheading the effort to guide state lawmakers to produce a Democrat-dooming map.
“It is a very important battleground state,” said state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes, a former congressman who lost the seat he had held for a decade to Kissell in 2008. “Taking back North Carolina is one of our main goals as a Republican Party.”
“If we don’t gain any seats, it will be a colossal failure,” said Paul Shumaker, a North Carolina-based GOP consultant who serves as a top political aide to Sen. Richard Burr.
North Carolina will be central to Republican efforts to offset redistricting losses in Illinois and California, where the party could lose as many as 10 seats.
Republicans familiar with the redraw said they are determining how best to produce a map that strongly favors the party for the next decade and unravels Democratic-crafted districts in urban areas that have allowed Shuler, McIntyre, Kissell and Miller to win in a Republican-leaning state. They are also looking to bolster the prospects of GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers, a potentially vulnerable freshman who unseated Etheridge, by adding Republican voters to her central North Carolina district.
That Miller finds himself in the redistricting cross hairs is something of a twist.
During the previous round of line-drawing, it was Miller — then the chairman of the state Senate redistricting committee — who personally drew a Raleigh-based district to include much of his political base, enabling him to launch a successful 2002 congressional campaign.
Now the pol whose masterful boundary-crafting became part of North Carolina political lore finds the knife pointed at him.
“There will be payback, for sure,” said Crone.
While Democrats won’t be able to stop the new map legislatively, they will be able to launch legal challenges — potentially over whether it discriminates against minority voters. Under the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina, like other Southern states, must have its map precleared by the Justice Department.
“Everyone should expect a lot of legal challenges. It’s going to be Barack Obama’s attorney general doing preclearance on these districts,” said Shumaker. “We should absolutely make gains. Bur are three seats a given? Absolutely not.”
Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant in the state, said it’s possible Republicans might overreach and endanger their own incumbents by drawing Democratic-oriented areas into their districts. One possibility: that in weakening Shuler, Republicans would place the Democratic stronghold of Asheville within McHenry’s new boundaries.
“The days of Democrats being in the majority are over, but the seats that Republicans hold may be competitive by the end of the decade,” said Mills. “Things change.”
But, he said, “They’re going to make this as ugly as they possibly can.”
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