Voters in some of the state’s biggest counties, including Wake and Mecklenburg, will see some unfamiliar names on their ballots come November.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision Tuesday reset district lines for state House and state Senate. Barring further changes, the order means districts drawn by an outside expert will be used in Cumberland, Guilford, Hoke, Bladen, Sampson and Wayne counties. A panel of federal judges hired the redistricting expert, called a “special master,” to correct unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that the court said the legislature had failed to fix.
In Wake and Mecklenburg counties, the Supreme Court decision allows districts the legislature approved last year to be used for the first time in 2018 rather than districts the expert constructed. Groups that challenged the 2017 maps said the legislature violated the state constitution by redrawing five districts in those counties that didn’t need correction. The panel of federal judges told the outside expert to recreate the districts as they were drawn in 2011.
The court decision injects new uncertainties into some candidates’ plans, even as the election season is set to formally begin Monday with the first day of candidate filing.
Two Wake County Democrats, Matt Calabria and Jen Ferrell, had announced they were running for state House against seven-term Republican Nelson Dollar of Cary. As a result of the court decision, neither Democrat lives in Dollar’s district. Calabria and Ferrell said the district that Republicans drew for Dollar and which the Supreme Court decision allows the state to use was meant to protect him from challengers.
Democrats trying to break the veto-proof GOP majority in the legislature set their sights on Dollar, who has been considered to be at risk in election after election. The outside expert’s district could have helped a Democrat on the November ballot. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper carried the district drawn by the outside expert by 7 points in 2016. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory carried the GOP-drawn district 50 percent to Cooper’s 48 percent.
Ferrell, who challenged Dollar in 2016, is no longer in his district under the plan the legislature adopted. She lives in a House district with an incumbent Democrat.
Ferrell said she’d consider moving again to be able to run against Dollar and be closer to her children’s school.
“I’m prepared to run a strong race again this year,” Ferrell said. “I’m looking into options to move back to the 36th District.”
Rather than living in Dollar’s district, Calabria is in a House district represented by Republican Linda Hunt Williams.
Calabria said Wednesday that it was too soon to decide his next step, especially since the district boundaries remain unsettled.
On Wednesday, Democrats and voters challenging legislative districts in a 2011 lawsuit asked the state court to block the use of the five state House districts adopted by Republican lawmakers last year for Wake and Mecklenburg counties and order them to use election districts the outside expert drew.
“It’s too early to make any decision,” Calabria said. “It’s also important to be clear-headed about the potential for additional court action at the state or potentially the federal level.”
Dollar said he was pleased “that we’ll have the district that was lawfully drawn by the state’s elected representatives rather than districts drawn by an out-of-state professor.”
Dollar said he was certain plenty of candidates will want to oppose him this year.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said Democrats spent seven years suing to get districts they wanted.
“The Democrats won in this entire scheme, we think unjustifiably so,” Woodhouse said.
Districts will be more competitive, Woodhouse predicted, but Republicans will maintain majorities in the legislature.
“I would rather be us than them going into this election,” he said.
State Democrats were still digesting the Supreme Court ruling Wednesday morning, state party spokesman Robert Howard said. Democrats remain focused on recruiting candidates for all 170 legislative races and breaking the Republican veto-proof majority, he said.
“The battlegrounds are largely the same,” Howard said.
Elsewhere in Wake County, the race to unseat Rep. Chris Malone is in full swing despite the ruling. Democrats Terence Everitt, Joseph Longoria and Adam Wright have all declared their intent to run and have begun fundraising efforts. All three say they are eligible to run in the district under the latest boundaries.
But with new borders for the district, the candidates will have to change where they campaign.
“When you create your strategy it’s all dependent upon where you can and can’t go to ask for votes,” Longoria said.
Wright said because of the confusion over the districts before the ruling, he generally avoided campaigning in the areas in doubt in the case before the Supreme Court.
“My whole effort since day one has been making sure that I get into the areas that I knew for a fact were going to stay in the district,” he said.
Under the special master’s map, two traditionally Republican districts in southeast Charlotte would have been more competitive. Now they may be a little less so.
GOP Rep. Scott Stone’s District 105 has reverted to the lines it had in the 2016 election.
“In both cases, they’re probably the most favorable to a Republican in the county,” he said of the two versions. “But I don’t know if one is more favorable than the other.”
Two Democrats, Ayoub Ouederni and Susan Rodrigues McDowell, have announced their intentions to run in the district.
Democrat Brandon Lofton has announced he’s running in District 104, where Republican Rep. Andy Dulin is running for re-election.
Dulin said he’s not sure of the exact changes in his district. But he’s happy about one thing.
“My mom is in the district now,” he said, “So I’m thrilled.”