North Carolina Republicans are gearing up for a showdown between 13th District Rep. George Holding and 2nd District Rep. Renee Ellmers as a result of a proposed new congressional map the General Assembly approved Friday.
"Nobody's too thrilled about a primary, but that's the democratic way," Carter Wrenn, a consultant working for the Holding campaign, told The Raleigh News and Observer .
The new map maintains the Republican delegation's current partisan advantage, but makes significant changes to incumbents' districts. "Every member of Congress is kind of shellshocked right now," a GOP operative in the state said Thursday.
Members are preparing to adapt to those changes, unless the Supreme Court issues a stay of a lower court's order to redraw the map. "If they don't stay the order today, we just assume we're going to be running in the 2nd District, roll up our sleeves, and go to work," Wrenn said Friday.
Given the drastic changes to the map, and the fact that early voting had already begun under the existing map, the Assembly also passed legislation moving the March 15 primary for congressional races back to June 7. That means primaries for House races will fall on a different day than all of the state's other primaries, including the state's presidential nominating contest. The new primary date will open up a new filing period.
North Carolina's legislature had been under court order from a federal three-judge panel to redraw the congressional map by Friday after the court found the 1st and 12th districts to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders two weeks ago.
Holding's 13th District moved across the state, with much of its current real estate sliding into Democratic Rep. David Price's 4th District. Meanwhile, the new 13th District, one GOP operative in the state said, may look appealing to state Sen. Andrew Brock, whose legislative district overlaps with the proposed new lines.
Ellmers' district also changes under the proposed map to include some areas she represented when she first arrived in Congress in 2011. "Renee is going to run in the 2nd District regardless," Ellmers adviser Patrick Sebastian told Roll Call. Under the proposed new map, Ellmers would represent all of her home county, Harnett County, and she'd only have to deal with the Raleigh media market.
Most of Ellmers' primary challengers, including the Club for Growth-backed Jim Duncan , have been drawn out of the 2nd District. Under the proposed map, Duncan would reside in the 6th District, currently held by GOP Rep. Mark Walker, but he could still run in the 2nd. "Until there’s a decision to be made, we still have an opponent in Renee Ellmers," Duncan spokesman Sean Moser said.
A Holding challenge, though, poses a new threat to Ellmers. Holding is the 99th wealthiest member of Congress, according to Roll Call's Wealth of Congress Index , but Ellmers, having been preparing for a primary, has more cash on hand in her campaign account.
"It's unfortunate what happened to him," Sebastian told WRAL Friday. "But going into another district to run against an incumbent is aggressive."
Holding isn't the only incumbent who was drawn out of his district. Democratic Rep. Alma Adams, one of the state's two African-American members of Congress, currently represents the infamously serpentine 12th District. But under the proposed map, Adams would be 90 miles away from her new district, which would contain just Mecklenburg County. Adams could still run for the seat even though she won't live in the district.
“I’m confident that voters will remember my more than 30 years of dedicated public service when the time comes to cast their ballots,” Adams said .
The nearby 9th District, currently held by Republican Robert Pittenger, would pivot eastward toward Fayetteville. “If the district boundaries change, we will be honored to extend that same excellent constituent service to additional communities,” Pittenger said . Some of Pittenger's new turf would come from the 8th District, currently held by Republican Rep. Richard Hudson.
Even if one GOP member knocks out another in the 2nd District, Republicans would still hold 10 seats while Democrats would only have three.
"I think there is a message being sent that we can find multiple ways to do this and dragging this into court all the time is not going to pay off, and you may even end up worse off," a GOP operative in the state said of Democrats' efforts to litigate the congressional map.
But the three-judge panel still has final say; it will have to approve the proposed map before it goes into effect for 2016. As a result of a 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina is no longer required to seek pre-clearance from the Justice Department when making changes to its districts.
Earlier this week, the North Carolina's joint redistricting committee voted not to consider race when drawing its proposed map. In response, Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who represents the 1st District, wrote to legislative leaders to argue that the new criteria violated the Voting Rights Act. The State Democratic Party echoed his concerns, saying in a statement Wednesday that the new maps would be challenged.
"Now taxpayers will have to pay even more money to defend yet another round of illegal gerrymandering, all because North Carolina Republicans are afraid to face voters on even ground,” said NCDP Chairwoman Patsy Keever.
Supreme Court jurisprudence on when and how race should be considered is muddled, said the Brennan Center's Michael Li, senior counsel for the center's Democracy Program. Relying exclusively on race to configure districts that look like the existing 12th District is what got the GOP legislature in trouble in the first place. But intentionally scrapping a majority African-American district would also be unconstitutional, Li explained.
Not looking at race, however, doesn't mean race wasn't involved in the legislature's redraw. "Obviously they’re going to try to avoid race being the predominant factor," said Li. "But partisanship is often a proxy for race in much of the South," he added.
Partisanship is what Democrats, who are currently discussing challenging the proposed map, are focused on. "It’s fine to draw an advantage," North Carolina Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson said. "Let's be honest, in every state, whoever controls the legislature does that. ... Having seven or eight Republicans and five or six Democrats would be one thing." The difference here, he said, is that the partisan advantage is so great in a state that has had some of the closest presidential and Senate races over the past three cycles.