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John Hood: History favors Democrats in coming state elections

By John Hood

RALEIGH — It would be very surprising if North Carolina Democrats didn’t make significant gains in the next election for General Assembly — whenever that may be.

Normally, we’d be talking in the summer of 2017 about legislative elections to be held in the fall of 2018. That remains the most likely scenario. However, because the U.S. Supreme Court has now upheld a lower court ruling that Republican lawmakers used the race of voters to an impermissible degree to draw 28 House and Senate districts, Gov. Roy Cooper and other state Democrats are pressing for an immediate redrawing of legislative maps and a special election to be held either this fall or in early 2018, followed by another round of legislative elections in late 2018.

Having three legislative elections in the space of as many years would be extraordinary. Practical considerations may well convince the U.S. Supreme Court not to agree to such an order. But leaving that aside for now, what’s the likely effect on the composition of the General Assembly?

We’ve already been through something similar with North Carolina’s congressional districts. Plaintiffs successfully made the same argument in the legislative redistricting case — that the Republicans concentrated black voters too much, depriving the latter of a sufficient ability to influence the outcome of elections in neighboring congressional districts.

As a result, the state legislature redrew the congressional map. The new districts, used for the first time in 2016, are much more compact than the previous ones and don’t appear to run afoul of the new “Goldilocks standard” that federal judges have endorsed, which forbids state lawmakers from using race too little or too much in drawing districts.

Nevertheless, the new congressional map didn’t produce a change in partisan balance. There were 10 Republicans and three Democrats in North Carolina’s delegation before the 2016 election. There are 10 Republicans and three Democrats in the delegation under the new districts.

You can expect GOP lawmakers to use a similar approach when redrawing legislative districts. They’ll attempt to comply with the Goldilocks standard — its subjectivity will always be a problem — and otherwise seek to maximize Republican victories. Because there are far more seats in play — several dozen in the House and Senate, including both the 28 Voting Rights Act districts and neighboring ones — there will probably be more competitive races under the new maps. However, Democrats ought not to assume the political cartography will shift dramatically in their direction.

What’s arguably more important for Democratic prospects in the next wave of legislative elections is the overall political environment. Even if the maps weren’t being redrawn, Democratic gains would be likely. History is certainly on their side. In the modern era, the party not in the White House has almost always gained seats in the North Carolina legislature in midterm elections. By my count, that average gain since 1950 has been 11 seats. The largest anti-White House party wave was in 1974, when Republicans lost 40 seats in the General Assembly in the midst of the Watergate scandal. The other two massive midterm losses were by North Carolina Democrats — 39 seats in 1994 and 26 seats in 2010.

As we speak, history appears to align with the present. Republican President Donald Trump is unpopular. Generic ballot tests for Congress and legislature favor Democrats by significant margins, including a double-digit Democratic edge in the latest Civitas Institute poll.

But what about cases in which one party controls the presidency and the other controls the governorship? There have been five such instances, including two when Dwight Eisenhower was president, one under Richard Nixon, one under Ronald Reagan, and one under Barack Obama. In four of those cases, it was a Republican president and a Democratic governor. The average Democratic gain across those four cycles was nine seats.

It’s too early to hazard a specific prediction here. If Democrats net nine to 11 seats, they’ll be disappointed. If they match the 39-to-40 seat gains of some past cycles, they’ll jump for joy.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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