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The 2022 midterm elections will be the first of the Biden era. They will also be the first since the 2020 census, which means likely changes to congressional districts. There will be at least two open U.S. Senate races in the Carolinas as well, with the seats held by Richard Burr in North Carolina and Tim Scott in South Carolina up for grabs. Both Burr and Scott are Republicans. Burr is not seeking reelection, and jockeying for his seat began as early as January 2021.

After NC redistricting, Republicans could get a supermajority in Raleigh again

Nick de la Canal / WFAE

When North Carolina lawmakers rolled out new legislative maps this month, a lot of attention was paid to how they carved up the state's 14 congressional districts. So, we're taking a moment right now to focus on how state legislative maps were drawn and what it means for politics and policy in the state. Redistricting happens every 10 years after census data is released. Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer follows the redistricting process closely, and he joins WFAE "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry to break things down.

Marshall Terry: Welcome.

Michael Bitzer: Good to be with you.

Terry: So, let's start with color first. Is North Carolina a red state? Is it blue? Or is it purple?

Bitzer: It's a purple with a slight red tint to it. Basically, I describe North Carolina as anywhere from 51-49 to 52-48.

Terry: Well, it looks as though the way the new maps are drawn that Republicans in the General Assembly could gain a supermajority, making the legislature redder. What changed with the maps in order to make that possible?

Bitzer: Well, I think certainly part of this issue is the advantage that the Republicans had in drawing the maps and placing precincts into certain districts. Yes, they said that they were not going to take into account partisan dynamics in their redistricting criteria, but they were looking at communities and local dynamics.

And I think anybody who studies North Carolina politics really understands that central cities like Charlotte, like Raleigh, like Asheville, are Democratic-dominated areas. When you get into the surrounding suburban counties, the Unions, the Cabarruses, the Iredells, the Gastons — those are heavily Republican. They are the most Republican areas in the state. Rural counties have been trending more and more Republican as well.

So, when you dove below the surface of the state and get into kind of regional dynamics, Republicans and Democrats both know where their strengths lie. And I think what Republicans did was draw the state House and state Senate maps to really kind of accentuate their power and their dynamics to the detriment of Democrats.

(Use the slider on the graphic above to see how districts changed. Can't see it? Click here.)

Terry: Just how competitive is North Carolina? I mean, as you say, Democrats tend to live in the urban areas, the rural areas tend to be more Republican. Are there places in North Carolina that are still competitive?

Bitzer: Really, the most competitive areas in North Carolina are in what I call the urban suburbs. So, areas like Huntersville, Davidson, Cornelius, Pineville, Mint Hill — those urban suburbs outside of the central city of Charlotte but inside of Mecklenburg County, they are generally considered the most competitive areas of the state. And that happens in Wake County, that happens in Guilford County.

But really, when you have so few precincts, which are the building blocks of these districts that could go one way or the other by some analysis and research that I've done, less than 15% of all the precincts across North Carolina could swing to one party over the other in a competitive nature. When you have so few of those precincts, and they're kind of isolated in certain counties, it's hard to make competitiveness a criteria in North Carolina redistricting efforts.

(Use the slider on the graphic above to see how districts changed. Can't see it? Click here.)

Terry: If more of these state legislative maps are being drawn in a way that makes them less competitive, are we likely to see more elections being decided in primaries instead of in the generals?

Bitzer: Most definitely. And I think that is the dynamic that really kind of is the result of not just the voters sorting themselves, but these districts that align strongly or landslide with one party over the other. Now, the major attention focuses to primaries. The problem is primaries don't get the attention that general elections tend to do.

And so, I think with next March, we will have to see what kind of candidates both parties put up, who wins those party primaries. And for a lot of these districts, we'll be able to say the night after the primary, "Well, the Democrats are going to win here. The Republicans are likely to win here" — Very few kind of that we'll be focusing on come November.

Terry: If Republicans were to get a supermajority in the General Assembly, what effect is that going to have on the overall legislative process?

Bitzer: I think the dynamics of what we will see if Republicans gain that supermajority status in both the state House and the state Senate, is a reversion back to kind of when (Democratic Gov.) Roy Cooper first came into office in 2017. It was certainly a strong dynamic of Republicans being able to override vetoes. I think in his last two years, that dynamic, if indeed they gain the three-fifths majorities in both chambers, will yet again be the opening for Republicans to really push a lot of their conservative public policy philosophies and not have to worry about a roadblock in the governor's mansion.

Terry: You know, for a while, Democrats had a supermajority in the General Assembly, then Republicans got it, and now Republicans could get that supermajority again. How does the state tip itself to either a balance between the parties or back to the Democrats? Or could Republicans just lock in a supermajority after this round of redistricting?

Bitzer: That's a great question. A lot of people say, "We want fair maps. We want maps to reflect the dynamics of an evenly divided state." You're not going to get that when the political geography shows that 70% of the precincts are landslide precincts to one party over the other and less than 15% of all these precincts are competitive.

So, right now, the Republicans have the advantage. They are more spread out. They are not as concentrated in central cities as the Democrats are. And the voters have become party loyalists. They tend to vote. How they vote at the top of the ticket translates all the way down the ballot.

So, part of it is indeed these legislative lines that distort the dynamics on the ground. But the ground effect was already there. It's there. We have sorted ourselves. And so that is the potential issue: How do we get voters to be more flexible — to not be party loyalists? I'm at a loss as to how to do that, and I study polarization for a living, so I'm not real sure I've got the concrete answer.

Terry: Well, thanks for joining us today.

Bitzer: My pleasure.

Terry: Michael Bitzer is a professor of political science at Catawba College.

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