GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — The North Carolina General Assembly on Thursday completed its assignment: approving and submitting what lawmakers called “remedial” electoral maps for the courts to review.

Today was their deadline to complete the process, and the state House gaveled the process closed with a nearly party-line approval of the congressional districts that had been drawn by the Senate. Earlier the House had approved its new legislative districts in a landslide vote, and the Senate approved its districts along party lines.

The headline of all of this is the congressional map, and the approved plan continues to cause controversy for not only the way it was devised but because of the effects it has on communities.

NCGA's final congressional map
This is the map the NC General Assembly adopted for congressional districts. (NCGA)

For instance this map creates two districts in Guilford County – an original map considered by the Senate had kept it whole – and severed any connection with Forsyth County. In fact the Triad cities of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem are in three separate congressional districts.

Michael Garrett
State Sen. Michael Garrett

Asked why the Senate eschewed the congressional map its members had debated on Wednesday in favor of this map, state Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro) said, “We’re not sure. They said it was because the original map didn’t score as well [in competitiveness]. We [Democrats] didn’t get the scores, so we don’t know if that’s true.”

Garrett also suggested that some of it could have been political relationships and “personal agendas at play” or perhaps individual antagonism among some members of the General Assembly.

None of this may matter. The acceptance and/or approval of this map and those for state House and Senate districts will fall to the courts. They will be submitted today to the 3-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court that first heard the legal challenge from voting rights groups.

That panel has until Feb. 23 to review those maps and determine if they are acceptable or need to be reworked before submitting them to the Supreme court, which on Feb. 4 had ordered this process. Justices, in a 4-3 vote, sided with the plaintiffs that said the original maps from the General Assembly should be rejected because of the extreme partisan gerrymandering identified by the trial court.

One caveat is that the trial court selected three special masters – expert advisers – to help review the maps. Those are three former judges: Robert H. Edmunds Jr., Thomas W. Ross and Robert F. Orr. Ross is a native of Greensboro, and Edmunds started his career as a prosecutor in Guilford County.

Competitive districts?

Observers suggested that this map, which includes some sprawling districts, would give the GOP no more than a 9-5 edge in representation and perhaps provide Democrats with a chance at a 7-7 split because of two nearly even districts.

“The NCGOP has been literally all over the map with these congressional districts, but this is a smart play for them,” Asher Hilldebrand, a professor at Duke and former Democratic operative, wrote on his Twitter feed. “More competitive overall (with four true swing districts), probably 8/6 R in a “normal” year, but easily 10/4 R in a good R year … e.g. 2022.”

Based on data from prior elections, Democratic stronghold Guilford County would be dived into districts that lean Republican.

The 6th District, in which Democrat Kathy Manning is the incumbent, expands south and west, including all of Randolph, Chatham, Lee and Harnett counties and small pieces of Rockingham and Alamance.

The 8th District would group the remainder of Guilford County, including High Point, Oak Ridge, Summerfield and Stokesdale, with northern Davidson County and all of Rowan and Cabarrus counties. Rep. Richard Hudson (R-Concord) would be the incumbent there.

All of Forsyth County would be part of the 5th District, as it once was, where Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-Banner Elk) is the incumbent. That district also includes all of Stokes, Surry, Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes and Watauga counties, a small northwestern piece of Yadkin County and almost all of Rockingham County.

Splitting communities

Pricey Harrison
State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) debates the merits of the new congressional map.

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) argued during debate of this map that the Triad shouldn’t be split, but she was far from the only person concerned about dividing communities of interest into various districts.

During the debate, Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland) argued against — and voted against — the map because his “community interest is Fort Bragg, the largest base in the U.S. When you have community of interest of hundreds of thousands sitting around one base, we want unity of command. The community doesn’t get what it wants because court’s fascination for statistics. … My biggest gripe is that we have been forced into a map that doesn’t reflect reality.”

Rep. Charles Graham (D-Robeson) argued that the Sandhills region, which is described as parts of Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, Lee, Montgomery, Moore, Richmond and Scotland Counties, was split by the map, with pieces basically in the 9th, 7th and 13th.

“The sandhills has been split with Charlotte – what do we have in common with Charlotte?” he said. “Now we are split and going up to Davidson County and Union County. The Sandhills are the Sandhills.”

What they are saying about the latest GA maps

  • Michael Bitzer, professor and elections expert from Catawba College, on Twitter: “I feel like I have lived through the last month of an insane election…but it was compressed into three days.”
  • Chris Cooper, professor and elections map expert from Western Carolina University, on Twitter: “Earlier I said to be cautious & remember to take everything in the #ncpol with not just a shaker, but a truckload of salt. Turns out I was off. The phrase I was searching for was ‘oil tanker full of salt.’ ‘Hindenburg full of salt’ would also be appropriate.”
  • Hilldebrand, in separate Twitter posts: “My take: the NCGOP realized they could achieve their short-term goals (likely 10-4 split in ’22) by drawing more competitive districts and letting a favorable political environment do the work. A fairer map in the long term (or new map post-22?) was worth the trade. But why such ugly districts? Very possible to draw a map with 3-4 competitive seats with fewer county splits (such as this one).”
Duke professor Asher Hilldebrand asked on his Twitter feed why a map like this wouldn’t work. (TWITTER)

Who is running where?

Whether this map is adopted or not, much speculation – and some announcements – emerged about who would be running where and against whom. Congressional candidates aren’t required to live in their districts, so some have been fluid about their plans.

Almost before the gavel had struck to end the session approving the map, Foxx (R-Banner Elk) announced her candidacy to continue in the 5th District. She once had filed in that district before the first maps, then announced she would run in the 11th under the General Assembly’s court-tossed map. Now she’s back in the 5th and running for sure.

Manning had told WGHP two weeks ago, before the court ruling, that she would run for re-election no matter what. But her district is now far from safe, and former 3-term Rep. Renee Ellmers, who lives in Harnett County, announced she would pursue the nomination. Ellmers previously had announced a bid in the 4th District.

Another ambitious newcomer, former football player Bo Hines, told WRAL-TV that he would be running in the 6th. Hines, an acolyte of Cawthorn, is a native of the Charlotte area who lives in Winston-Salem, but he has been trying to determine where best to launch his political future.

He once filed to run against Foxx and then openly discussed running in a district that in discarded maps would have covered much of this same area. An interesting issue: Ellmers and Hines both have drawn the favor of former President Donald Trump.

Some other candidate issues:

  • At the heart of this debate is the new 14th District, which would group the southwestern corner of Mecklenburg County with Gaston, Cleveland and most of Rutherford counties, which is seen as one of the competitive districts, voting about 51% Republican in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Charlotte) is technically the incumbent, but he has told The News & Observer that he is planning, depending on how the maps evolve, to run in the 9th District, which is east of Mecklenburg and includes most of the counties he now represents. That’s not final, though.
  • Neither is the status of Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-Hendersonville), who had announced he would leave his 11th District and run there. Cawthorn also is under a challenge based on whether he upheld his oath of office.
  • A possible candidate in the 14th is House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), who once was considered to be running and then said he wasn’t when Cawthorn announced his plans. Moore told The News & Observer on Thursday that he was reconsidering whether to run.
  • Numerous people who had announced their candidacy and even filed during that very small window that was opened to do so in December have to sort out their plans and geographies when a final map emerges. Hudson already has filed to continue in the 8th, and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-Denver), a very powerful Republican on the national stage, will run in 10th District, which encompasses Davie, Iredell and most of Yadkin County in the Triad along with all of Avery, Caldwell, Burke, Alexander, Catawba, Lincoln and a little piece of McDowell.

What’s next?

From left, Superior Court Judges Nathaniel Poovey, Graham Shirley and Dawn Layton listen to testimony from Jowei Chen, a political scientist from the University of Michigan, not pictured, during a partisan gerrymandering trial over North Carolina’s new political maps Monday, Jan. 3, 2022 at a courtroom at Campbell University School of Law in Raleigh, N.C. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

The wait-and-see game will continue at least for a week as the panel of judges and special masters consider whether these maps relieve the extreme partisan gerrymandering that was proven in the suits filed by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, the Harper group of plaintiffs and Common Cause.

That court then would pass along final maps to the Supreme Court by Feb. 23 for final approval.

With the maps in motion again, candidate filing is scheduled to resume at 8 a.m. on Feb. 24 and continue through March 5, with the primary election now scheduled for May 17. There has been speculation those dates could move – the legislature voted to do so, but Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed that measure – but the courts have not commented further on that possibility.