Beware of Gerrymandering Denialists!

Democratic North Carolina Reps. Heath Shuler, center, and Larry Kissell, left, had to head for the exits after the last election.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It’s probably a function of pundit boredom as the shutdown drags on, but I’m seeing too many people be drawn into a deceptively #slatepitchy argument. In TNR, Nate Cohn wrote that it was time to “quit blaming gerrymandering for the shutdown.” On Twitter, conservatives like National Review’s Charles Cooke have echoed this, and refer to the “gerrymandering conspiracy theory” of shutdown politics. Yesterday, President Obama waded into the pool, saying that “a big chunk of the Republican Party right now is in gerrymandered districts where there’s no competition and those folks are much more worried about a Tea Party challenger than they are about a general election where they’ve got to compete against a Democrat or go after independent votes.” In the interest of balance, the Washington Post has a debate up on the question of whether “Republican gerrymandering caused the government shutdown.”

People: This is a straw man argument. Anyone who thinks gerrymandering was the reason for the shutdown is wrong, and I’m not hearing anyone say that. We do not know what a 2012 election along nonpartisan redistricting lines would have looked like, but we know one along pre-2012 lines would have narrowly elected a GOP House. (In Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, those lines were also drawn by Republicans, but let’s move on.) The point isn’t that gerrymandering gave us this Congress; it’s that it was designed to keep this Congress and to protect (mostly) Republicans from harm if they screw up terribly. (Caveat because Illinois and Maryland have been drawn to elect more Democrats.)

Cohn and Aaron Blake (in the Post debate) both argue, generally, that because of political polarization it’s hard to draw fair districts. Cohn, for some reason, points out that “of [Texas’] 254 counties, 244 were won by either Obama or Romney by at least 10 points,” and that this is a larger number of hard red/blue counties than in the past. Well, OK: That’s a pretty useless statistic that obscures how rural counties like Dallam (1,534 votes) have become very Republican while urban counties like Harris (1.89 million votes) have become competitive. People vote. Land doesn’t. Gerrymandering makes it easier to protect members of Congress from skeptical people, not skeptical brush and plains.

So let’s focus on one state: North Carolina. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democrat in a generation to win the state’s electoral votes, beating John McCain by a slim 50-49 percent margin. At that time, on a map drawn by Democratic legislators (in 2001), Barack Obama carried six of the state’s 13 congressional districts. (Democrats held eight seats overall, thanks to moderate Democrats Mike McIntyre and Health Shuler holding on in districts that went marginally for McCain.) But in 2011, a new Republican legislature drew a new map where only three of 13 districts had gone for Obama.

How’d they do that? Below, I’ve listed the districts, how their relative Obama-McCain vote broke in 2008, and how that vote broke after a gerrymander that basically packed black voters and white liberals into sprawling gerrymanders, liberating Republicans to win elsewhere. (If someone wants to make this pretty, with a map, please do!)

NC-01: From 63-37 Obama to 71-29 Obama. A pretty safe seat for Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield became unloseably safe, as white suburbanites were subtracted to make room for rural blacks.

NC-02: From 53-47 Obama to 56-43 McCain. Republicans shored up Rep. Renee Ellmers after her upset win over a Democrat who choked a video tracker. Ellmers went from a 50-49 squeaker in 2010 to a 56-41 rout in 2012, and is now one of the party’s favorite TV spox on shutdown issues. 

NC-03: From 62-38 McCain to 56-43 McCain. “Wait a minute!” you ask. “Why did they make it less Republican?” Easy: So Republicans could tighten up the coastal district and give some of its Republican votes to other members more endangered (and better liked) than Rep. Walter Jones.

NC-04: From 62-37 Obama to 72-27 Obama. Republicans crammed “Research Triangle” liberals into one seat, demolishing a second district that elected another Democrat, and keeping Rep. David Price safe. He won by 14 points in 2010, then by 48 points in 2012.

NC-05: From 61-38 McCain to 57-42 McCain. Republicans took some suburban votes away from Rep. Virginia Foxx, because she didn’t need them. Her safe 2010 victory, a 66-34 landslide, was followed by a still-respectable 58-42 win.

NC-06: From 63-36 McCain to 56-43 McCain. Spot the pattern? Republicans made life marginally harder for 15-term Rep. Howard Coble, but not so hard that he might ever lose. He won by 50 points in 2010, then by 22 in 2012.

NC-07: From 52-47 McCain to 58-42 McCain. This is possibly the GOP’s best shot at a pickup in 2014; the party intended to pull the legs out from under Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre, but he held on by 654 votes against a dreadful opponent, then went on to be a reliable “no” on every major Democratic priority.

NC-08: From 52-47 Obama to 57-42 McCain. Republicans succeeded in giving Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell a seat he couldn’t hold on to. In 2012 he ran 4 points ahead of the president—enough to win in the old seat—and went down.

NC-09: From 55-44 McCain to 54-45 McCain. Republicans didn’t need to tweak much to keep this safe for new member Robert Pittenger.

NC-10: From 63-36 McCain to 57-42 McCain. Another brilliant job of redistributing the wealth. In 2012, Rep. Patrick McHenry won his lowest-ever vote share, just 57 percent, but that was the plan. Instead of Asheville staying in the old NC-11, where it could vote for a Democratic congressman, the city was plopped into this otherwise safe seat.

NC-11: From 52-47 McCain to 58-40 McCain. This gerrymander inspired Rep. Heath Shuler to retire, and cleared a path for Republican Rep. Mark Meadows. You might know Meadows as the Republican who penned the letter pledging his colleagues against any CR that funded Obamacare. 

NC-12: From 71-29 Obama to 78-21 Obama. Republicans took this old Voting Rights Act district, which assured Charlotte and central North Carolina voters a black congressman, and scooped up part of Greensboro. The result: Rep. Mel Watt won re-election by 60 points.

NC-13: From 60-40 Obama to 54-46 McCain. This, the single most lopsided gerrymander in the state, was created by getting Raleigh Democrats out and into NC-04. Rep. George Holding, the U.S. attorney in the doomed John Edwards case, ran even with Mitt Romney and won 57-43.

What happened in North Carolina’s delegation from 2009 to 2013? Well: In 2009, it supplied three of the conservative or moderate Democrats who voted against Obamacare, and in five districts, the partisan balance was roughly close enough to create competitive elections. After the gerrymander, you’ve got one conservative Democrat who’ll probably lose next time and no other competitive seats. One of those conservative Democrats (Shuler) who might have been tempted to cross lines on Obamacare reforms has been replaced by a conservative Republican (Meadows) who is in large part responsible for yoking the GOP to a “defund” campaign that Democrats can easily avoid. Yes. Gerrymandering isn’t everything, but it matters.