Democrats are crying foul over new Congressional district lines that with seemingly surgical precision slice the City of Asheville, a liberal stronghold, out of the 11th Congressional District.
The maps, drawn by state Republican leaders in the the GOP-dominated General Assembly, are no doubt a political move, according to Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
“This is the game that both parties play,” Cooper said. “They know exactly what they are doing.”
The new 11th Congressional District would include Mitchell, Avery, Caldwell and Burke counties. In exchange, the district divests itself of Asheville and eastern Buncombe, as well as Polk County. The mountain district will shift from 43 percent of the voters being registered Democrats to 36 percent.
The result: a far more conservative voting base, and much more difficult re-election campaing next year for three-term Democrat Congressman Heath Shuler of Waynesville.
Shuler seized the district in 2006 over eight-term incumbent Charles Taylor, R-Transylvania County, and has easily won back his seat every election since. His opponent last fall was considered an admirable opponent, and the year was a watershed for Republicans, but even then Shuler handily kept his seat with more than 54 percent of the vote.
That may not be the case in 2012 given the new district lines, however. Shuler is one of several previously Democratic-leaning districts that has been infused with just enough GOP voters to tip the balance.
As for what to do with all those Democratic voters? The best bet is to lump as many as possible into as few districts as possible. In otherwords, pick a few Democratic-leaning districts to be sacrifical lambs. Stack them heavily with Democrats, while spreading Republican voters around to have just enough of an edge in as many districts as possible.
“Any vote after 50 plus one is a wasted vote,” Cooper said. “The reason you do that is not to dominate a few districts but to win a lot of districts by a little bit.”
All the while, however, the districts must make geographic sense or else risk being overturned in a court battle. If the other party can prove gerrymandering and show that districts are not geographically “compact,” a lawsuit over the district lines is likely.
In this instance, Cooper doesn’t think the new mountain districts cross that line. He sees the districts being geographically close enough to be bullet proof in court, yet still achieving their purpose of favoring Republicans.
“They did a great job of it. The more I look at the more impressed I am,” Cooper said.
Mike Clampitt of the Swain County Republican Party said the redrawing wasn’t tit-for-tat as it might appear — Democrats have a long history of gerrymandering districts in North Carolina — but a case of putting likes with likes.
“This balances the playing field,” Clampitt said. “Asheville is more like the Greensboro and Charlotte area.”
That metropolitan, urban mindset is at odds with the rural understandings and needs of the bulk of the 11th Congressional District, Clampitt said.
Members of the opposing party see the situation differently, however: “Democrats will not take this lying down,” promised Janie Benson of the Haywood County Democratic Party.
“I’m stunned, because the distance between Caldwell county and Cherokee county is so great,” Benson said, adding that the redistricting proposed by Republicans is a “blatant” attempt to wrest the district from Democrats.
“Frankly the redistricting maps that I’ve seen just look unfair,” she said. “The Democrats, to my knowledge, have never been so obvious in whatever they were doing. This just seems almost like a punishment, and it feels that way somewhat.”
In addition to threatening Democrats hold on the 11th Congressional District, Democrats could also lose control of the 7th, 8th and 13th districts.
But Kirk Callahan of Haywood County, a self-described conservative, believes Republicans might be missing the mark some. While cautioning he hasn’t had time to fully assess the potential voter fallout, Callahan thinks the growing bloc of unaffiliated voters could actually dictate who wins and who loses.
“They are key,” Callahan said. “A candidate has to earn the votes, because they are not going to be swayed by party labels or an appeal to party loyalty.”
Callahan, by way of example, pointed to Taylor’s defeat, saying he was dismayed by the longtime congressman’s unabashed support of earmarks.
“That didn’t sit well with me, because (earmarks) really corrupted the budgeting process,” he said.
Lawmakers will vote on the redistricting plan in a special session that starts July 25.
Across the state, there were five districts that posted major geographical shifts. Four are seats currently held by vulnerable Democrats that have now seen the scales tip in their district to favor Republicans — as is the case with Shuler’s district. The fifth that showed the biggest changes was held by a vulnerable Republican, but is now more solidly Republican.
“It is really clear they targeted these vulnerable Democrats,” Cooper said.
Shuler’s new district would be the most Republican-leaning district in the state when judging by those who voted for McCain over Obama in 2008.
Shuler is a conservative Democratic at best — others considered him a DINO, or Democrat In Name Only — and plays well with conservative Southern Democrats and even many Republicans.
But under the new district lines, even that may not be enough, Cooper said.
“For Shuler to win he would have to practicaly completely separate himself from the Democratic party,” Cooper said. “This is going to be a really intersting race.”
Why the new voting maps?
Every 10 years, along with the census, state legislative and Congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the population change. As the population grows, so does the number of people each elected leader represents.
The state’s Congressional District will need to grow from the current 619,177 people to the 733,499 each, plus or minus 5 percent.
Since growth was more robust in urban areas, districts in rural regions like Western North Carolina will have to expand geographically to take in the required number of people.
Under the proposed new maps, which sever Asheville from the district, it would lose 9,000 Democrats and gain 26,000 Republicans.
The Department of Justice issues guidelines governing how states can and can’t be carved up, and they must approve a map before it can be put into action.
Currently, redistricting is done by legislators and is a highly partisan affair. With every redistricting comes a court challenge from one side or the other, claiming that the lines are unfair.
But under new legislation recently passed by the state House, the process would become staff-driven, with a simple up-or-down vote by legislators. It’s based on a system long used by Iowa, where no redistricting has been to court in the four decades since the system was put into place.
The measure is now headed to the Senate.
Weigh in on new Congressional districts
A public hearing on the new Congressional district maps will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 7, at Western Carolina University in the Cordelia Camp Building.
It is one of nine across the state on the same day and time. There is also one in the Ferguson Auditorium at A-B Tech.
The hearings are sponsored by the Joint House and Senate Redistricting Committee, and anyone wishing to comment can sign up online at www.ncga.state.nc.us or in person the day of the hearing. Written comments can also be submitted on the North Carolina General Assembly’s Website.