For North Carolina Democrats, the road to breaking the GOP grip on the General Assembly could run through an unlikely place – southeast Charlotte.
That’s why GOP Reps. Andy Dulin and Scott Stone, who represent usually reliable Republican districts, suddenly find themselves in Democratic crosshairs.
Dulin and Stone are two of just three House Republicans who represent districts carried in 2016 by Democrat Hillary Clinton. The other is GOP Rep. Nelson Dollar in Wake County.
One big caveat: With candidate filing less than three weeks away, legislative districts are still in doubt.
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Last week a panel of federal judges that declared existing districts unconstitutional racial gerrymanders ordered the state to use maps in which some districts were drawn by a court-appointed “special master.”
Legislative Republicans, who drew their own new maps last year, have criticized the proposed districts. They’ve asked the court to stay its decision and have vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
“There’s no doubt the districts were drawn by the three-judge panel to help Democrats – that was the whole point,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP. “What the court has done is outside the bounds of our constitutional system.”
Two of the three judges were appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama. The third was an appointee of Republican George W. Bush.
But if the court-drawn districts stand, they could help Democrats make the net gain of four seats they need to break the GOP “super-majority” in the House. They need six seats in the Senate.
If Democrats break the super-majority in at least one chamber, Republicans would no longer be able to easily override vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. He has been overridden 10 times since taking office last January.
Two of the vetoed bills involved changes to the court system: One reduced the size of the Court of Appeals, the other made judicial elections partisan.
“On the special master redraw alone, Democrats should be able to break the super-majority in the House,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist from Raleigh. “Democrats have great reason to be optimistic.”
In 2016, Dulin, a former Charlotte City Council member, was elected to the House in District 104, which ran roughly from Wendover Road to N.C. 51 and included SouthPark mall and the Arboretum. He won 55 percent of the vote.
The special master tinkered with the district and three immediately adjacent to it. Though details are still not publicly available, Democrats say Clinton edged Republican Donald Trump in the reconfigured district and Cooper beat then-Gov. Pat McCrory.
Though at least one Democrat already has announced plans to run, Dulin said he’s ready.
“It makes perfect sense for them to say this is a district they can win,” Dulin said. “All that does is fire me up.”
Despite the numbers, Dulin said he’s confident in a district that overlaps with the council district he represented for years. “Those are people that know me,” he said of the voters. “I’ve been in their backyards. I’ve been in their homes. I’ve been in their church. Those are people I enjoy serving.”
Further south, Stone’s District 105 borders I-485 and runs to the South Carolina and Union County lines. Unaffiliated voters make up about a third of the district’s registration.
“I’ll run and compete hard no matter what,” Stone said. “I’ll be ready for whatever challenge I get.”
Even in more competitive districts, it would take well-funded candidates to beat both incumbents. Democrats say they may also have the advantage of two other factors: the national dynamics that traditionally help the out-of-power party in a president’s first mid-term election, and the partisan enthusiasm on view at last weekend’s women’s marches across the country.
A poll released Tuesday by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling of Raleigh showed Democrats lead this year’s generic legislative ballot 46 percent to 41 percent. (In 2016 Democrats and Republicans were tied at 42 percent. In 2014, Republicans had slight edge.)
“It could spell real trouble for Republicans,” said Jackson, the Democratic strategist.
The PPP survey found Trump’s approval at 42 percent in North Carolina. That’s consistent with other national polls.
“It is very common in midterm elections that the president’s party loses seats,” said Stone. “Historically midterm elections for new presidents don’t go well for his party’s congressional and legislative candidates.”