WASHINGTON (AP) — The 2012 election should have been a good one for Democrats running for Congress in North Carolina.
They received a total of 2.2 million votes — about 81,000 more than their Republican opponents. But when those votes were divvied up among the state’s 13 House districts, Democrats came up short. Way short.
Republicans won nine seats and Democrats only four.
How did Republicans pull off this unlikely feat? State lawmakers set the stage when they redrew the boundaries of congressional districts following the 2010 Census.
Before redistricting, North Carolina’s congressional delegation was closely divided. Democrats held seven seats and Republicans held six. In any given election, three or four races could be competitive.
But the 2010 election was historic for Republicans in North Carolina, and the ramifications are still being felt. In 2010, Republicans won control of North Carolina’s entire state legislature for the first time since 1870, giving them control of the redistricting process.
North Carolina still had a Democratic governor, Beverly Perdue. But in North Carolina, the governor has no say over the congressional map. The entire process is controlled by the legislature.
Two neighboring districts illustrate how GOP lawmakers remade the map in North Carolina: Districts 10 and 11.
Before redistricting, the 11th District covered most of western North Carolina, including the city of Asheville. The district leaned slightly Republican, but it was competitive. Democrat Heath Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, represented it in Congress.
Shuler was helped by a strong Democratic base in Asheville. But following the 2010 Census, Republicans in the legislature carved much of Asheville out of the district. Democratic voters were replaced by Republicans to the north and east, making the district solidly Republican.
Facing a tough re-election campaign, Shuler retired in 2012, and Republican Mark Meadows won the seat with 57 percent of the vote. Meadows is expected to easily win re-election in November.
Asheville, meanwhile, was placed in the 10th District, which is overwhelmingly Republican. Rep. Patrick McHenry is in his fifth term representing the district. The change made McHenry’s district more Democratic, but not enough to threaten his seat.
In 2010, before redistricting, McHenry won re-election with 71 percent of the vote. In 2012, he won the redrawn district with 57 percent.
In this year’s race, McHenry is out-fundraising his opponent by more than 10-1.
Where did the rest of North Carolina’s Democratic voters go? Many of them were packed into three districts: District 1 in the northeastern part of the state, District 4 in the center of the state and District 12, a long, narrow district that snakes from Winston-Salem to Charlotte.
All three districts are so politically lopsided that the three Democratic incumbents overwhelmingly won re-election in 2012.
Rep. Mel Watt got 80 percent of the vote in District 12; Rep. G.K Butterfield got 75 percent in District 1 and Rep. David Price got 74 percent in District 4.
Both the 1st District and 12th District have black majorities. The share of black voters increased in both districts after redistricting, according to the Census Bureau.
Two lawsuits were filed in late 2011 to challenge the districts. The lawsuits allege the boundaries are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that cluster black voters in the districts so that seats around them are more likely to elect Republicans.
“I think Republicans got very greedy,” said Scott Falmlen, a former executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party. “They just went to the extreme to maximize their power.”
Republicans say the districts are lawful and were designed to protect the state from legal claims under the Voting Rights Act, which generally prohibits states from diluting the voting power of racial and ethnic minorities. Republicans note that the Justice Department signed off on the maps and decided not to challenge them.
Partisan gerrymandering played a role in shaping the map, said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh. But GOP lawmakers also were guided by the Voting Rights Act, he said.
“It’s gerrymandering, but there’s another part to it,” Hood said.
The lawsuits are still pending before the North Carolina Supreme Court.