Legislative leaders are scrambling for their political lives after the conservative U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the legislative districts they drew to lock in the power they gained in the 2010 election were unconstitutional because they were racially gerrymandered.
They are desperately trying to avoid two things that could put their supermajority control of the House and Senate in jeopardy, holding a special election in 2017 and/or having the federal courts draw the districts themselves instead of letting lawmakers try again to manipulate the maps to extend their hold on power.
There is not much doubt about what would happen if voters went to the polls this year. President Trump is historically unpopular at this point in his presidency with only 36 percent of Americans approving of the job he is doing while 60 percent disapprove.
The news is not much better for Republicans in North Carolina. Trump’s well underwater in the state too and Democrats lead the generic ballot in legislative races by 15 percent in the latest survey by the right-wing Civitas Institute.
That’s creeping up to landslide territory and some private polls show that might be understating things.
Republicans know they are doomed if voters get the chance they deserve as soon as possible to elect their representatives from legal and constitutional districts. There have already been three elections held since 2010 in which voters were denied that opportunity.
Legislative leaders are pulling out all the stops, refusing to convene a special session called by Gov. Roy Cooper to draw new districts, brazenly asking the federal courts to give them more time, and cranking up the spin machine to distract attention from the devastating decision by the Supreme Court.
Delaying the election to correct the unconstitutional districts until 2018 is their first priority — but they also do not want the courts to step in and draw the districts either.
In a normal election year, districts drawn impartially would result in many more competitive races, and as good as that would be for democracy, the Republican bosses simply can’t stand for it. In the current political environment with a deeply unpopular president, fair districts drawn by a court could spell political disaster for Republicans even if the election is not held until 2018.
Republicans didn’t count on this as part of their long-term master plan seven years ago to seize power and stay in control of North Carolina for a generation.
They had everything in place, an infusion of national money and generous funding in North Carolina from right-wing financier Art Pope who spent tens of millions of dollars supporting conservative think tanks and advocacy groups for decades to influence the political debate in North Carolina.
And Pope didn’t just fund the Republican revolution. He was in on the details too. A 2012 Pro Publica story quoted a Republican mapping technician saying that Pope sat beside him as he was drawing the racially gerrymandered maps at the headquarters of the N.C. Republican Party after the 2010 election.
Republicans had been waiting for years for that moment that their money and their decades of propaganda and the backlash they created against President Obama gave them to seize power and pursue their radical agenda to remake North Carolina.
And no matter how unpopular their policies became or how many tax cuts they gave to corporations and the wealthy while inadequately funding schools and health care and environmental protections, their carefully gerrymandered maps would keep them safe.
But the constitution and the courts do not exist to serve political parties or agendas, they are there to guarantee the basic rights of Americans.
And those rights are now being violated by the leaders of the General Assembly whose response to the courts is to ask for more time, let them have one more election with their illegal districts, one more session with their gerrymandered supermajorities to continue their assault on the fundamental institutions of the state.
And they’ll draw the new districts themselves. They’ll do it right this time, they promise, just give them more time, more years in control so they can hope that the political climate will change again so they can somehow hold on to the power they are so desperate to maintain.
But enough is enough. The courts have spoken clearly. It’s time to return some power back to the people.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.