Just two years ago, North Carolina Republicans were riding high in the U.S. Capitol.
Holding 10 of the state’s 13 seats in the House, their ranks included the chairmen of the two most powerful conservative caucuses in Congress, a rising star in GOP leadership and the chair of the committee overseeing labor laws.
Then the 2018 midterm elections swept Democrats into power and the state’s GOP representatives hunkered down for life in the minority. They were at least reassured in their numbers: Republicans still hold 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats, despite a brutal election year that saw states like Virginia break sharply toward Democrats.
Now, however, the Tar Heel State’s GOP is facing a reckoning that will leave it with barely any clout.
State courts have ruled that the current congressional district maps are an unconstitutional gerrymander purely drawn for partisan gain. The state legislature — dominated by Republicans — responded two weeks ago with an opening offer that still might not be enough of a sacrifice to meet judicial demands.
At minimum, Republicans would likely lose two seats in next year’s elections, including one held by the only North Carolinian still in elected leadership, U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro, who represents the 6th District.
Moreover, several of those Republicans still in office are very likely to move into districts that are not as conservative, the sort of shift in constituents that will compel them to either moderate their positions or face increasingly difficult reelection battles.
“To suggest that it wouldn’t change the delegation would be inaccurate. If you’re truly the voice of the people that you represent, you’re going to vote the way that your constituents believe that you need to vote,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-11th District, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus and close ally of President Donald Trump.
Meadows will likely be spared the most brutal fate in his western North Carolina district, but he is bracing for the likelihood that he will now represent all of Buncombe County, which is home to Asheville, a liberal enclave currently divided between him and GOP U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, diluting its voting power.
Trump won more than 63% in Meadows’ current district, but under the latest state GOP proposal, he would represent a district that Trump won with 57%. Meadows believes it would be a bit more of a test for his staunchly pro-Trump positions, but he will not change his ways.
“My district is described as San Francisco, surrounded by Mayberry, surrounded by Jesse Helms,” Meadows said. “And yet, listen, I am who I am, it’s not about a brand. It’s about who I am, and if who I am as a member of Congress is someone that is out of touch with the district they represent, they will be sent home and that will be the will of the people.”
Mayberry is the fictitious rural town where “The Andy Griffith Show” was based in the 1960s, painting a quaint small-town life. Helms, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1973 until 2003, is in many ways the ideological progenitor for Trump’s “America First” vision, and many of today’s North Carolina Republicans came up working on Helms’ bare-knuckle campaigns.
The state’s shift toward the Helms view signaled a broader transformation of the South’s realignment into the GOP column — 25 years ago North Carolina sent eight Democrats and four Republicans to the House. Now, however, as the state’s economy is being driven by finance in Charlotte and new technologies in the Research Triangle, its growth is younger and more diverse.
Combine those with new congressional maps, and it’s easy to wonder if North Carolina’s GOP is headed toward the same fate as their friends north in Virginia.
Other states are also undergoing deep transformations as power shifts in Washington, perhaps none more so than Texas, where the GOP used to have a 25-11 edge in its House delegation. Texas Republicans in 2018 held seven powerful committee chairmanships, including Ways and Means, Armed Services and Financial Services.
Then Democrats gained two seats in the 2018 elections, and six GOP incumbents barely hung on. Combined with term limits on top committee spots, six Texas Republicans have announced they will not run for reelection, creating the term “Texodus.”
But the North Carolina implosion is unique in its pace — only Texas, Florida and Ohio send more Republicans to the House — and just how little control most of the lawmakers had over their fate.
Walker, 50, is in just his third term and had already chaired the influential Republican Study Committee, which he used to jump into a junior leadership post. An ambitious figure, he wanted to challenge North Carolina’s junior senator, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, in next year’s GOP primary, but he settled into the House. Now, the new proposal would leave him in a district with little hope of returning to Congress in 2021.
While in the majority, McHenry had climbed to the critical position of chief deputy whip, gaining a reputation as the smartest vote counter in the GOP. Now in the minority, he abandoned leadership and claimed the top GOP post at the House Financial Services Committee, working in committee rooms and playing a long game to get back into top leadership posts whenever Republicans win back the majority.
After serving as an irritant to GOP speakers in his three terms, pushing the most conservative causes, Meadows now has very little power in the minority. He frequently gets asked whether he is going to leave Congress to work in Trump’s West Wing.
Some Republicans are hoping that the decennial reapportionment will add more seats to the fast-growing state, opening up more opportunities next decade. “Don’t lose track of the fact that in the next census, North Carolina picks up at least one House seat and maybe two House seats,” U.S. Rep. George Holding, a Republican who represents the state’s 2nd District and is one of the most likely to lose his seat in 2020, told The Washington Post.
Some are already eyeing the 2022 Senate race, when Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is likely to retire, as a possible fallback plan rather than run sure-loss campaigns in 2020.
But Democrats are still challenging the 8-5 map that state Republicans have offered, and it is possible that the map could get even worse for the GOP.
Meadows said he would just roll with the outcome.
“If it gets too tough,” he said, “you just go home or run for a different office.”