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Analysis: Kathy Manning should thank mapmakers for her Greensboro win

In the race for North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, the question was not whether Kathy Manning would win, but by how much. 

Manning had money. By the final Federal Election Commission filing on Oct. 14, she had raised about $1.9 million, over 30 times more than her opponent Lee Haywood, who had raised about $60,000.

Manning had name recognition. A local philanthropist with ties to big community projects, she was known from her unsuccessful campaign against Rep. Ted Budd in 2018 for the 13th Congressional District. Haywood had neither held public office nor even run before.

Manning had the boost of a presidential election. President-elect Joe Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s already wide margins from 2016, winning Guilford County by over 20 points and Forsyth County by almost 15 points, according to the state election board’s unofficial results.

But most of all, Manning had a favorable map.

Manning’s most significant campaign asset was court-mandated redistricting. When district borders shifted from eight counties to Guilford County and southeastern Forsyth County, her victory was preordained — so much that Rep. Mark Walker, the Republican incumbent, declined to run for reelection.

The new district includes the Democratic stronghold known as the Triad — Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point — so it comes as little surprise that Manning won by almost 25 points last week.

But maps are fickle. What the mapmakers and courts give, they can take away.

“Manning can definitely breathe a little easier now that she’s won, but we don’t know what the new map is going to look like,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan election prediction website.

Kathy Manning, who won the precincts in blue, benefited from the new 6th Congressional District, which includes Guilford and Forsyth counties. Map from North Carolina State Board of Elections.

A likely additional congressional seat due to the 2020 census would redraw North Carolina’s map again. Republicans control the General Assembly and are predicted to add a new Republican district, shifting the congressional delegation to a 9-5 split in their favor. Alternatively, they could make a bid for a 10-4 split by removing a Democratic seat, inviting litigation and risking more court-mandated redistricting.

“One district is worth a lot, especially given the Republicans’ success in holding onto state legislature across the country in the 2020 election. You gain a seat in North Carolina, you gain a couple of seats here and there,” said David Holian, a political scientist at UNC Greensboro. “And all of a sudden, the Democratic majority is in peril just from the natural forces of redistricting.”

Coleman and Holian do not expect major changes to the map and believe that Republican legislators will maintain a Democratic district centered around Guilford County. When gerrymandering, Coleman said, it is in both parties’ interests to have minimally competitive districts; consolidating voters means securing seats.

Either way, the future is uncertain for Manning. 

The potential for a tougher map and reelection campaign led Manning to run a cookie-cutter campaign, where she took stances in lockstep with the Democratic Party. She is likely to play her first term safe as well, hoping to discourage serious challengers in the primary and general elections.

“When redistricting comes around, the number one goal of a politician is always self-preservation,” Coleman said. “If I were Manning, for these next eight months or so, I would just wait and then I would proceed based on what those maps are.”