The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., hosts both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

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North Carolina’s congressional delegation is bound to change after Tuesday’s election.

The question is by how much.

Just like the battle for control of the General Assembly, 2019 court-ordered redistricting as a result of a successful challenge over partisan gerrymandering has shaped the congressional election of 2020.

Unlike the ruling in the General Assembly challenge, which ordered a redraw of fewer than half of the 170 state House and Senate districts, the court ordered a redraw that affects all 13 U.S. House seats.

The GOP’s current 10-3 advantage relied on concentrating Democratic voters into some districts and splitting Democratic strongholds in others, a strategy known as “cracking and packing.”

North Carolina’s new districts, now much more unpacked and uncracked than the previous iteration, all but assures a two-seat Democratic gain in districts centered in the Triangle and Triad, making the partisan split at least 8-5.

Whether the outcome this year stays 8-5 or results in further gains for Democrats hinges on a presidential race in a state with shifting demographics and a history of bouncing between parties on top-of-the-ticket races.

Chris Cooper, professor of political science at Western Carolina University, said most of the redrawn districts are still locked in, but three are close enough to not count out as upsets if Joe Biden wins the state. 

“The presidential race won’t matter in the lion’s share of the congressional races in North Carolina, precisely because the lion’s share are shoo-ins for one party or the other,” Cooper said in a recent interview.

“But if Biden has a big night statewide, his coattails will lift the tide of Democrats in the three potentially movable districts — 8, 9 and 11.”

The larger Biden’s margin of victory, Cooper said, the more likely they are to flip.

According to Ballotpedia, an online political clearinghouse, North Carolina has six of the nation’s 206 so-called pivot counties, places that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Of the six — Bladen, Gates, Granville, Martin, Richmond and Robeson — the biggest swing came in Robeson County which went from a 17.41% margin of victory for Obama in 2012 to a 4.27% point win for Trump four years later.

District 9

Robeson County is a key county for Republicans to hold, and both presidential candidates have said they’ll seek federal recognition of the Lumbee Tribe, the largest voting bloc in the county.

Robeson and Richmond counties are also in the 9th Congressional District, a district that earned notoriety in 2018 for an election fraud scandal that forced a new election.

Dan Bishop, the winner of the new election that was ordered in 2019 after the 2018 results were thrown out, is running against Democrat Cynthia Wallace, a financial services executive.

The race wasn’t on the national radar until a surge in absentee ballot requests portended a year of high turnout.

At the end of early voting, district residents have cast 337,331 in-person early votes and mail-in absentee ballots, 114,000 above the number cast in 2016 and more than double the total in the special election Bishop won in 2019.

While Bishop, an attorney and former state senator from Charlotte, is still favored to win the race, more eyes are on the race, and more money is flowing to the candidates as well.

Early last week, Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman, who tracks U.S. House races, raised the idea of a potential surprise in the 9th District contest.

“My pick for a sleeper House race neither party is spending $$: NC9, which everyone forgot about after the fraud drama of 2018/2019,” Wasserman wrote.

“But the district was redrawn to be slightly *bluer* since Dan Bishop (R) won it by 2 points last Sept., and there’s been zero public polling.”

On Thursday, 314 Action Fund, a political action committee focused on climate change issues, released the results of a poll it commissioned from Public Policy Polling showing Bishop leading Wallace 45% to 43%, well within the poll’s margin of error.

Earlier this month, Wallace also picked up the endorsement of the Charlotte Observer.

District 8

Running west to east through the counties above the 9th District is North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District.

Because of the 2019 redraw, it now includes all of Fayetteville.

The district is still listed as leaning Republican, according to the Cook Political Report, but turnout is likely to reach a record high, and the race between four-term Rep. Richard Hudson and former state Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson has been close for more than a month.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released an internal poll on Oct. 12 showing Timmons-Goodson up by 3 points. In a previous poll in late September, she was down by 2. Timmons-Goodson drew an early endorsement from Obama and on Sunday campaigned alongside Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris

The size of turnout in Cumberland County could tip the race, but it will also depend on rapidly changing areas like the growing Charlotte suburbs in Cabarrus County.

Monday morning, the national political website Politico update its evaluation of this race to “toss-up.”

District 11

The district with the state’s liveliest congressional race and the toughest to call also underwent a major change in the 2019 redistricting.

High-growth Buncombe County, no longer split between the 10th and 11th congressional districts, is proving to be every bit the deep source of Democratic voters that led it to be split in the first place.

The county logged more than 140,000 early and mail-in votes. Turnout is close to its 2016 total with Election Day still to go.

The turnout in the race between Democrat Moe Davis and Republican Madison Cawthorn overall is now running more than 115,000 votes ahead of the total in 2016.

Cooper said the intensity of the race is raising interest and ire.

“It certainly demonstrates the power of competitiveness to drive turnout,” he said.

“Voters aren’t dummies, and they are more likely to turn out and vote when they know their vote can make a difference. These numbers also demonstrate the power of candidates to drive turnout. Certainly, Davis and Cawthorn are driving some turnout themselves, but my sense is that much of this is negative partisanship — the idea that folks want to vote against Cawthorn or against Davis as much as they want to vote for either one.”

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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