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Analysis: Wake’s congressional seat was decided months ago, by a new map

Months before there were candidates and fundraisers and the omnipresent yard signs, the North Carolina General Assembly decided the outcome of the 2nd Congressional District race. A Democrat would win.

To comply with a court ruling, the Republican leaders of the legislature agreed that the 2nd Congressional District would be their surrendered soldier. 

Incumbent Republican George Holding knew this when he announced he would not seek reelection. Democrat Deborah Ross knew it when she launched her campaign for the seat in December 2019. And Alan Swain surely knew it when he agreed to take a bullet for the GOP, running as the party nominee in a race that was inevitably doomed. 

No matter how many “Swain for Congress” signs were planted in yards and medians around the district, he could not defeat his greatest enemy: the newly redrawn map. 

Holding’s announcement certainly shed light on the realization that running in this district would be an uphill battle,” Swain said in an email to The 9th Street Journal. 

The (almost final) tally: 311,834 for Ross to 172,518 for Swain.

The map got more friendly for Ross because it was reconfigured to solely encompass Wake County, with lots of Democratic voters in Raleigh and Cary. 

That’s politics in the age of gerrymandering. Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan group that promotes transparency in government and opposes gerrymandering, says lawmakers can’t resist the temptation to help themselves.

Those who are in power, currently the GOP in North Carolina’s legislature, want to ensure they maintain that power, he said. 

The Republicans’ strategy for the maps is to concentrate Democrats into as few seats as possible, according to Phillips.  

“The doctrine is lose big and win small when you have the power to draw the maps. And so you’ll pack as many Democratic voters into as few districts as you can,” Phillips said. 

This played to Ross’s advantage. In 2018 Wake County elected U.S. Rep. David Price with over 70% of the vote. Ross won by similar margins this election, claiming victory with about 63% of the vote. 

For Swain, the new map signaled defeat. For Ross, it meant opportunity. 

After a failed U.S. Senate run in 2016, Ross still wanted to represent North Carolina in Washington. But she needed an opening. 

“I wasn’t going to run against David Price,” she told The 9th Street Journal in an interview this week. “But when they redrew the maps, I was in a different congressional district.”

As a resident of Raleigh, the redrawn maps moved her out of Price’s district. 

“The biggest factor was, new seat, no Democrat,” she said. 

Map makers will also make or break Ross’s chances for reelection. With 2020 Census data, the maps will be reconfigured yet again with population growth likely adding a 14th seat for North Carolina. And with that comes the temptation for more gerrymandering.

Above, Swain had lots of signs. But they couldn’t overcome the map. Photo from Swain for Congress campaign.