The prize for the winner of U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger’s primary Tuesday is a free ticket to Congress.
For the winner of State Sen. Bob Rucho’s Republican primary against Matt Arnold, it’s a guaranteed seat in the N.C. Senate.
Same for the newcomer who wins a Democratic Senate primary in northeast Charlotte.
That’s because all will be unopposed in November’s general election. They also reflect a broader phenomenon in North Carolina and across the country: the increasing lack of competition.
Consider this: Almost four out of five of the General Assembly’s 170 seats will be essentially locked up after Tuesday. In most of the rest, one candidate will be heavily favored to win in November.
“It truly is shocking,” says John Davis, a longtime Raleigh political analyst. “There’s never been an era when there were so few competitive districts at the state and federal level.”
Take Congress. Virtually the entire state congressional delegation will be decided after Tuesday. Like most congressional districts across the country, North Carolina’s are solidly in the grip of one party or the other.
“There’s no question that Congress is much less competitive than it was,” says analyst Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “That has to do mainly with the geographic polarization of the American electorate compounded by partisan gerrymandering,” or redistricting.
In 1998, he says, 164 of the 435 U.S. congressional districts were considered swing districts – that is, competitive. This year there are 90. Last week, the Cook Report rated just 18 of those true toss-ups.
And North Carolina has one of the most polarized political maps in the country, Wasserman says. Democrats who controlled the congressional delegation as recently as 2010 now have just four of 13 seats, despite winning a majority of congressional votes statewide in 2012.
Pittenger, a freshman Republican from Charlotte, faces tea-party-backed Mike Steinberg in Tuesday’s 9th District primary. For the first time in memory, no Democrat is running in the district that includes the state’s largest city.
For decades Americans have been on the move. That’s had political consequences.
Bill Bishop tracked the intersection of politics and geography in a 2008 book called “The Big Sort.” The premise: Americans have gradually sorted themselves into homogenous communities and regions with people much like themselves.
In 1976, he found, about a quarter of Americans lived in “landslide counties,” those where Democrat Jimmy Carter won or lost by 20 percentage points or more.
In 2012, 53 percent of Americans lived in counties that Barack Obama won or lost by that margin.
“Our guess is that’s a result of people clustering by ways of life, and ways of life go with political choice,” Bishop says.
In North Carolina, Democrats tend to cluster in cities; Republicans in suburbs and rural areas.
“Republicans have drawn the (district) lines to surgically separate those groups of voters,” Wasserman says.
Republicans redrew congressional and legislative districts after taking power in 2011. Like Democrats had done for decades, they drew the maps to their advantage, only with more sophisticated mapping software. In 2012, they won super-majorities in both the state House and Senate.
Lawsuits against the districts are still pending in the state Supreme Court.
Some blame districts
Pittenger represents heavily Republican parts of Mecklenburg, Iredell and Union counties. It isn’t the only district with no general election competition. In state Senate District 40, a heavily Democratic district in northeast Charlotte, five Democratic newcomers are competing to replace Democrat Malcolm Graham, who’s running for Congress. There is no Republican candidate.
Critics say by making districts safe for one party or another, redistricting fosters polarization by reducing the need for compromise.
“If you have a caucus full of members in districts so safe that they do not have to consider the concerns of anyone but their constituencies, that leads to gridlock,” Davis says.
Bill Cobey, a former state Republican chairman, says safe districts scare off candidates who don’t think they can win.
“A good person may not run,” he says, “because they realize it’s a really steep hill to climb.”
Or, as retired UNC Charlotte geographer Jerry Ingalls puts it, “If you have safe districts, who in their right mind is going to challenge somebody?”
Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, travels the state pushing nonpartisan redistricting and doesn’t like the current system regardless of which party draws the lines.
“It’s just bad government,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who does it.”
Back to decisive primaries
In some ways, North Carolina is an exception to the pattern of polarization and lack of competition, at least on the state level.
A few decades ago, many states were closely divided in presidential elections. But in 2012, North Carolina was one of only four states where the margin between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney was under * 5 percentage points, said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.
At the same time, other states have become blue or more red.
“What we’ve been having lately is close elections nationally but one-sided elections at the state and local level,” Abramowitz says. “States are actually going in opposite directions.”
The upshot in North Carolina and elsewhere is that for many offices, primaries are now the deciding elections. That’s the way it was when Democrats dominated Southern politics for decades, and whoever won a Democratic primary was all but elected.
“After 1876 through the 1950s Democrats ruled the South so the general election was not the election that mattered, it was the primary,” says Michael Bitzer, a political scientist from Catawba College. “We’re starting to see that trend again. Now its because the power of where people live, redistricting and the issue of political polarization.”