Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, doesn’t mince words: he knows perfectly well that his budding state political career is being jeopardized by his own party’s redistricting proposals.
“But it follows the state constitution, and I’m in favor of that,” Davis said. “The districts are clean, and they are fair, and I think following the law is a lot more important than catering to my political career.”
Davis, a Franklin orthodontist and longtime Macon County commissioner, beat incumbent Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee County, during last year’s election in a Republican scrum that saw conservatives wrest control of the General Assembly. The victory won the GOP the right to reconfigure the state’s political landscape for the next decade.
But in recompiling state House and Senate districts to comply with population changes as recorded in the 2010 U.S. census, the GOP sure didn’t do party-member Davis any favors. The 50th Senate District has been redrawn minus Republican stronghold Transylvania County, and including all of Democratic-heavy Haywood County.
Davis knows that he could be fighting for his state political life.
The race last year was close: Davis trumped Snow by just more than 200 votes.
Not too fast, boys
“The 50th could be vulnerable to a Democratic challenger, but it’s far from a sure thing,” said North Carolina political expert Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
With the reconfiguring, Gov. Beverly Perdue still would have won the district 50-46 percent, Cooper pointed out. On the other hand, Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole would have won 49-47 percent over challenger Kay Hagen, a Democrat who went on to win the Senate seat, and Elaine Marshall, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr, would have ended in a dead heat, he said. Despite all of those relatively close races, however, Sen. John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, would have won soundly, 57-44 percent.
“It’s an interesting one for political prognosticators,” Cooper said. “We talk a lot about ‘incumbency advantage,’ the name recognition and benefits that come from being an incumbent, but with two potential challengers who have been in office before, it’s tough to know exactly how it will play out.”
Careful what you wish for
Janie Benson, chairman of the Haywood County Democratic Party, is excited about the prospects for her party.
“We feel like we do have two strong candidates,” she said.
Republicans, on the other hand, are left in the awkward position of supporting their party’s proposed redistricting plan even while acknowledging Davis has been left vulnerable.
“It’s going to make it very rough on Jim,” said Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party. “It really hurt to lose Transylvania. But, it’s logical, and it equalizes the counties (population numbers).”
Slaughter said the Republican Party would need to get conservative voters “revitalized” in Haywood County, and that the GOP has its work cut out for it to hold on to the 50th.
Ironically, Haywood County’s Republican Party openly lobbied for the county to be returned to one district. Haywood currently is a split county in both the Senate and the House, and is represented by two different legislators.
County Republicans, apparently with some success, argued that two House and two Senate districts are confusing to voters and have diluted the county’s legislative influence. Local Democrats fought the change they now are embracing joyfully, maintaining only a few weeks ago that Haywood County residents were well served by having two senators and two representatives.
Davis said the Haywood County precincts he currently represents are solidly Republican, but that he’s now picking up strong Democratic-dominated precincts, based on party registrations.
But, he said, it’s impossible to argue with the geographic logic of having the 50th Senate District made up of the state’s seven westernmost counties, as it once was.
For his part, former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, a Democrat from Haywood County, doesn’t believe that GOP redistricting leaders were trying to develop a perfectly balanced and fair political scenario in this part of the state. He thinks they simply ran out of North Carolina counties while trying to juggle things elsewhere in favor of Republicans.
“They didn’t have a lot of options at this end of the state,” Queen said. “You can’t get behind John.”
Cherokee County is the state’s westernmost county, bordered by Tennessee and Georgia.
Elsewhere, the GOP’s proposed redistricting does appear to favor the party’s chances of retaining House and Senate seats. Transylvania County would shift from the 50th to the 48th District, further locking down the Republican’s hold through Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson County, the rules committee chairman in the Senate.
Also shifting in a dominoes-like manner? Polk County would move from the 48th to the 47th District, and more of the 48th District’s precincts in Buncombe County would shift to the 49th District. Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat, represents the 49th.
“Six incumbent Democrats were placed in districts with other incumbent Democrats, compared to three Republicans who were doubled up,” Cooper said. “There is also some evidence that Democratic voters were ‘packed’ into districts, increasing the chances that the Republicans hold onto more seats or expand their lead.
“We can’t forget, however, that the Democrats would do the same thing — and did do the same thing 10 years earlier. It is one reason these districts are so difficult to analyze — we tend to compare them to the existing districts that were drawn by Democrats.”