Politics & Government

Mecklenburg would stay Democratic but see more competition under new legislative maps

Democrats would keep their strong legislative majority in Mecklenburg County under new maps approved this week, though a handful of districts could be competitive.

Statewide, however, Republicans would be favored to keep their legislative majorities, according to some analyses.

Lawmakers approved the new plans Tuesday. They’ll now be reviewed by a panel of judges.

The panel ruled earlier this month that the 2017 districts drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature are unconstitutional political gerrymanders. It said Republicans drew the maps “with surgical precision” to dilute Democratic voting strength. The judges ordered new maps by Wednesday.

“I think it’s good for democracy and I think it’s good for Democrats quite frankly,” said Democratic Rep. Kelly Alexander, who chairs the Mecklenburg delegation. His District 107 would remain solidly Democratic.

Of Mecklenburg’s five Senate districts, three would “likely” go Democratic and two would “lean” Democratic, according to an analysis by political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College.

One that would lean Democratic is District 37, now represented by Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson. The new district would run southeast from central Charlotte to Matthews. It would include portions of the district that had been represented by Republican Dan Bishop — and now Mecklenburg’s only reliable Republican district.

Bishop, elected to Congress in last week’s special 9th District election, was the only Republican lawmaker from Mecklenburg County who survived the 2018 election. Party officials will select a replacement.

While Jackson’s new district would still lean Democratic, it’s still less Democratic than his current district. “I’m going from a very safe seat to a very competitive seat,” Jackson said. “It will be better for the county to have a competitive election here.”

Of the 12 House seats in the county, all have some changes. Eight are heavily Democratic and four could be competitive, Bitzer found. Those four also were competitive in 2018.

Only one of those four would favor a Republican, according to Bitzer. That would be District 98 in north Mecklenburg. In 2018 Democrat Christy Clark unseated Republican Rep. Jon Bradford in the district.

“My district hardly changed at all, so I’m going to have the same race I had in 2018,” Clark said Wednesday.

Three southeast Charlotte districts — 103, 104 and 105 — would be competitive but lean Democratic, Bitzer found. In all three, Democrats unseated Republican incumbents last fall.

“In Mecklenburg, I think the collapse of the southern Republican area of the county and of Charlotte means that it is simply more of an uphill climb for a Republican to win,” Bitzer said Wednesday. “Even in the northern part of the county, that area is transition from a strong GOP area into competitiveness.”

Statewide, Democrats appear to have improved chances of picking up not only one more Senate seat in Mecklenburg but one that spans Wake and Franklin counties, according to an analysis by The Insider, a state government newsletter from The New & Observer.

In the House, it found that three districts now held by Democrats would lean slightly Republican while only one seat held by a Republican would have lean Democratic.

Democrats would need a net gain of five seats to take over the Senate and six to win control of the House.

Each state party had a different take on the maps.

Jonathan Sink, executive director of the state GOP, called them “a Democrat’s dream.”

“What more can Democrats ask for when they can’t win at the ballot box?” he said in a statement. “These maps, while they received widespread bipartisan support, are a Democrat’s dream. Fortunately, the fragmented left’s extreme agenda continues to drive voters to common-sense Republican candidates and causes.”

Democratic spokesman Robert Howard said his party is still reviewing the maps.

“But we maintain that the power to draw districts lines should not rest with politicians but instead should lie with an independent redistricting commission free of partisan bias,” he said.

Bitzer said his analysis is based on past voting behavior and isn’t necessarily predictive.

“Going into 2020, tell me what the dynamics of that election are like, especially on things like presidential approval and who the Democratic nominee is, and we could have a better sense of direction,” he said. “But right now, the only value that these district numbers tell us is, all things being equal, normal, and like 2016, we should expect these districts to politically ‘behave’ in these directions. But as we all know, nothing really is normal in our politics.”

If approved by the court, the maps would be used in 2020. Democrats, who broke the GOP super-majorities in 2018, will try to take over one or both of the chambers. For both parties, 2020 isn’t a normal year.

Whoever is elected will use new census numbers to redraw legislative and congressional districts for the next decade.

“People think we have elections every two years — we have elections every 10 years,” Jackson said. “This is the Super Bowl.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly said there are 10 House districts in Mecklenburg County. There are 12.
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Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College. To subscribe to The Observer, go to: www.charlotteobserver.com/jim.