Primary day is less than a month away in North Carolina, home to two of this cycle's more competitive Republican House primaries. A court order to redraw the state's map by Friday had already thrown into question the March 15 primary, but Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden death this weekend is adding extra uncertainty to when the state's congressional elections will take place.
The General Assembly's joint legislative redistricting committee held public hearings Monday to discuss how to draw a new map, and on Tuesday, the committee agreed that race would not be considered when revising districts. The joint redistricting committee also agreed to maintain the current partisan split: Republicans control 10 congressional seats and Democrats control three. A map proposal isn't expected until Wednesday, on which the full General Assembly would then vote on Thursday and Friday in a special session.
Republicans had hoped that it wouldn't come to that, though. GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and state election officials had asked the Supreme Court to let them use the current congressional districts for the coming election instead since early voting is already under way. The Supreme Court was considering that request when Scalia died on Feb. 13.
Without Scalia’s vote on whether to grant the stay of the court order, the Supreme Court could tie 4-4 on the request if the four justices comprising the liberal wing of the court — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — vote to deny the state’s request.
Such a tie vote would leave in place the order from a three-judge panel, which found race predominated in the drawing of the state’s 1st and 12th Congressional Districts held respectively by Democrats G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams, both African-Americans. The panel directed the state to draw new congressional districts within a two-week period, or by Feb. 19. The Supreme Court was expected to weigh in before that deadline.
Republicans, while still optimistic, are prepared to go forward with a contingency plan.
"We feel there’s a better chance than not of getting a stay. But we can’t turn around and miss a deadline by a day and let the court draw the map. We have to run this on a dual track," one Republican in the state said Tuesday. Time is running out for the court to step in. Last fall, North Carolina moved up all of its primaries from May to March 15. North Carolina officials, who want to appeal the lower court's decision, told the Supreme Court that the order to draw a new map could cause “massive electoral chaos” because the election process started months ago.
"Remember, we are in the election now," said North Carolina GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse.
According to the North Carolina Board of Elections, more than 17,000 voters had requested absentee ballots, and as of Tuesday, 1,568 returned ballots had been accepted. Without a stay from the Supreme Court, Woodhouse predicts that all primary elections would go forward on March 15 — except the congressional primaries.
"And if you believe making things inconvenient for the voter is a form of disenfranchisement, you’re talking about a major disenfranchisement of voters who won’t be voting in the congressional primary," Woodhouse said, suggesting that turnout will be lower if the congressional primary isn't on the same day as the presidential and gubernatorial primary.
"Republican legislative leaders were aware that the court was examining their maps when they moved the primary to March," North Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Patsy Keever said in a statement Monday. "Let’s have no more political games and petty excuses. The maps should be redrawn immediately to restore basic fairness and integrity to North Carolina’s congressional elections," she added.
"We'll wait to see if the court issues a stay and if not, the state will pass new maps or we’ll be back before the [lower] court to have the court impose a map," Marc Elias , an attorney who often represents Democrats in redistricting cases, told Roll Call on Tuesday. He declined to speculate about what the Supreme Court would do without Scalia. "Virginia sought a similar stay not long ago and it was denied. Obviously we think it should be denied here too," Elias added. Neither the 1st nor the 12th districts are competitive, and in neither does the Democratic incumbent face a serious primary. The cycle's two competitive primaries are in safe Republican districts — the 2nd and the 3rd.
Three-term GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers faces at least four primary challengers , the best-funded of which, former Chatham County GOP Chairman Jim Duncan, has the backing of the Club for Growth . Elected with tea party support in 2010, Ellmers has since alienated parts of her base. Separating the congressional primary from the presidential primary, one Republican speculated, could hurt Ellmers if only the most conservative activists, and not rank-and-file Republicans (and Democrats), are motivated to vote.
"You know this is about politics when these plaintiffs support disenfranchising voters who have already cast their ballot in this election. It’s nonsensical and unwise — hopefully the Supreme Court agrees," Ellmers adviser Patrick Sebastian told Roll Call last week.
To a lesser extent, the same dynamic could be at play in North Carolina's 3rd District, where 11-term GOP Rep. Walter B. Jones faces a primary rematch from longtime GOP operative Taylor Griffin.