Updated: 5:24 p.m.
On the road to House Democrats’ goal of winning back the majority, North Carolina is now their biggest and most jarring speed bump.
A draft map of new Congressional districts released Friday by the GOP-controlled state Legislature politically endangers four Democrats in the state: Reps. Brad Miller, Larry Kissell, Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler. While it leaves each Member in his own district, they are not districts that will be easy to win.
The Republican-drawn map also substantially shores up the district of Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican freshman who won an upset victory in 2010.
The current Congressional delegation is split with six Republicans and seven Democrats. Republicans hope the new map would give them a split of nine Republican districts, three Democratic districts and one toss-up district in a wave year such as 2008, and 10 Republican districts in a wave year such as 2010.
The three safe Democratic districts are the two majority-minority districts held by Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Mel Watt and Rep. David Price’s Raleigh-Durham-based district. Under the draft map, all three districts grow substantially more Democratic. But all Republican incumbents, including Ellmers — along with Miller, Kissell, McIntyre and Shuler — would be in districts that would have voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 by at least 55 percent.
One of the two most vulnerable Members under the draft lines is Miller, a former North Carolina state Senator who chaired the redistricting committee a decade ago and helped draw the district he now occupies. But 10 years later, he has few friends left in the state Legislature, Democrats and Republicans in the state said.
He won re-election in 2010 with 56 percent of the vote, but McCain got just 40 percent in the current district in 2008. Under the draft map, McCain would have carried Miller’s district with 56 percent. Miller’s middling fundraising haul in the first quarter of this year, only $32,000, has left some thinking the Congressman is headed for retirement, though his spokeswoman said recently he is indeed running for re-election.
One likely GOP candidate to run against Miller is Nathan Tabor, a tea party-aligned businessman and chairman of Forsyth County Republican Party. In 2004, when he was 29, Tabor came in fourth place in the GOP primary in the 5th district, which was then an open seat.
Another exceedingly vulnerable Democrat is Shuler, who won his third term in 2010 with 54 percent of the vote. A recent report, which was not denied by his spokesman, said he is in talks with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to become athletic director. His spokesman did say, however, that Shuler would be running for re-election.
Shuler’s 11th district currently leans Republican, but under the proposed map it would be one of the most Republican in the state. It loses parts of liberal Buncombe County and gains four counties from the conservative 10th district. Shuler’s current district gave McCain 52 percent of the vote in 2008 and President George W. Bush 59 percent in 2004. Under the new lines, those numbers jump to 58 percent for McCain and 64 percent for Bush. A likely GOP candidate for the district is Hendersonville District Attorney Jeff Hunt, Republicans said.
Under North Carolina law, if a Congressional seat becomes vacant before February 2012, the governor would call a special primary and general election to fill the vacancy. The time frame for calling the elections appears to be at the governor’s discretion, an official at the North Carolina State Board of Elections said.
Another vulnerable Democrat is Kissell, a sophomore whose 8th district on the South Carolina border shifts from a district that went 47 percent for McCain in 2008 to a district that the Arizona Senator would have carried with 55 percent. Even more telling is the fact that Sen. John Kerry received 44 percent in 2004 in the current district, while under the new lines he would have taken just 38 percent of the vote there. The 8th gains half of Robeson County along with portions of Rowan, Davidson and Randolph counties.
“I plan to seek re-election, return to Congress and continue the fight on behalf of my constituents,” Kissell said in a statement on Friday afternoon.
McIntyre’s district grows more Republican, but he may be able to hold it. McCain carried the current 7th district with 52 percent. Under the draft lines, he would have taken 55 percent.
“The challenge for him ... is it adds Republican voters who are not familiar with him,” said Jonathan Kappler, the research director at the nonpartisan North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation. “It still is a winnable district for him, but it’s going to be a challenge, more so than it has been in the past,”
Retired Marine Corps officer Ilario Pantano, who lost to McIntyre in 2010, is running again.
Paul Shumaker, a longtime GOP political strategist in North Carolina, said he believes McIntyre will be “better off than Shuler and Miller and Kissell” under the draft map. But he explained it is too early to be sure if this will be the final map for the 2012 elections. “You have the legal hurdles you have to get over. That becomes the $64,000 question,” he said.
Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, any map passed into law must be cleared by the Department of Justice or a federal court before it can be enforced.
Democrats concede the map will mean they lose seats, but think McIntyre and Kissell can be competitive, especially given that both survived the GOP wave of 2010.
“The biggest takeaway here is there is going to be a ton of money spent on Congressional races in 2012,” said Thomas Mills, a North Carolina Democratic consultant. “The districts are going to be more competitive than Republicans think.”
Mills also warned that given the new constituents many Republicans will have, incumbents could face unexpected Republican primary challenges.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) does not have legal authority to veto the new map. Top legislators in the state hope to complete the Congressional redistricting process by the end of the month.