Safe political districts are no longer feeling quite so safe.

For decades, the political party that controls North Carolina’s government has drawn election districts that help keep them in power. It’s gerrymandering — no doubt about it — and it’s only gotten more targeted as technology improves.

Also for decades, the minority power has protested this arrangement and called for a district-drawing policy that’s outside of politics. Never has this happened more vigorously than in the past few years.

[Longleaf story: The definitive explainer on North Carolina’s redistricting mess]

I had originally thought gerrymandering would never end absent a court decision. This could still happen, and even as soon as this year. But the Supremes have kept pushing back a decision on whether partisan districting is legal, and who knows how definitive their ultimate decision will be.

I’m starting to see another way. North Carolina’s politicians in power will continue to draw themselves into “safe” districts — until their friends start losing.

This is happening faster than you think.

Last night’s primary in New York fired the latest warning shots against the political establishment.

Political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — and a Democratic Socialist — ousted a Congressman who had been in office nearly as long as she’s been alive. Ocasio-Cortez ran to Rep. Joe Crowley’s left, calling for the abolishment of ICE and federally guaranteed jobs for everyone.

The district is certainly safe for Democrats, and this New York seat was all but wrapped up in the primary. Such are the dynamics in “safe” districts. Low-turnout primaries draw an electorate much more polarized than the general population. Sometimes, even the power of incumbency and money isn’t enough to overcome a challenge.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo via her public Facebook page and shot by José A. Alvarado Jr.

North Carolina has been somewhat insulated so far.

Since taking over control of state government in 2010, the Republican political establishment has largely fought off challenges on the right.

The Tea Party movement that toppled Eric Cantor in 2014 never fully made its way here, at least not in sufficient numbers to have a huge impact.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis soundly defeated more right-wing candidates in 2014, and establishment figures have kept firm control over the House speaker and Senate president pro tem roles. These General Assembly leaders have faced little dissension among the rank and file.

U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger was the sole incumbent in North Carolina’s congressional delegation to lose a primary challenge, falling to Charlotte pastor Mark Harris.

Mark Harris. Photo via Facebook.

Harris, however, more or less still falls within the political mainstream.

Yes, North Carolina has plenty of politicians on the political fringe. But so far, there hasn’t been that shocking upset close to home.

Out of 170 seats in the General Assembly, 8 incumbents were defeated in the 2018 primary.

Four incumbents in the N.C. House and four in the N.C. Senate lost to their challengers. That’s more than usual — but in most cases, there was a reason for their defeat other than an uprising on the left or right.

Among Republicans, two of the three senators who lost were double-bunked with other incumbents. The third, Sen. David Curtis (R-Denver), lost in a newly drawn district that took away most of his home territory.

On the House side, Rep. Beverly Boswell (R-Dare) lost to a more centrist candidate after being weakened by unfounded claims of being a nurse. Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanley) lost after a tumultuous tenure marked by infighting in his home county.

That’s not to say there weren’t rumblings.

Political unknown Isaac Burke came within about 250 votes from unseating Republican Rep. Chris Malone in Wake County.

On the Democratic side, more centrist Sen. Joel Ford (D-Mecklenburg) lost to a challenger on the left. Rep. Duane Hall (D-Wake) lost after claims of sexual harassment cost him the support of his party’s establishment.

Here are two scenarios where the General Assembly gets serious about redistricting reform.

1) Establishment figures start getting challenged, and losing.

In this scenario, Sen. Phil Berger, who hasn’t had a primary opponent since 2012, and other legislative leaders face primary battles against more theocratic opponents or ones who claim North Carolina Republicans haven’t shrunk the size of government. U.S. Rep. David Price falls to a Democratic Socialist in the Triangle and U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry loses out west.

2) Democrats flip the General Assembly (or come darn close).

Last year, our neighbors to the north showed that a wave election can still flip control of state government even with partisan gerrymandered districts. Think the N.C. GOP moved fast when they saw their party losing control of the governorship? Watch what would happen in their final lame-duck session.

What sort of system would the General Assembly set up? It’s hard to say. Just about any way of setting up districts is fraught.

[Longleaf story: Redistricting reform is just a search for a better gerrymander]

But as the establishment continues to crumble, its hold-outs may prefer competitive elections against the opposition party than revolts from within.


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