The plan worked. In 2016, the court said, Republican congressional candidates won 53 percent of the statewide vote. But they won in 10 of the 13 congressional districts, or 77 percent of them.
The Supreme Court has ruled that racial gerrymandering can violate the Constitution. But it has never struck down a voting map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
Republicans and, in private, many Democrats in North Carolina had expected the Supreme Court to stay last week’s ruling. But elected officials and political strategists had been preparing for the possibility of a hasty redrawing of the congressional map and an upending of carefully laid plans for the midterm campaigns.
Even the brief gap between the trial court’s ruling and the Supreme Court’s order left the state in a fit of paralysis weeks before the deadline to declare candidacies.
“Candidates are already running in districts across the state,” Thomas Mills, a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2016 and the publisher of PoliticsNC, a website, wrote in a column last week. “They’ve raised and spent thousands of dollars. Now, they don’t know whether they’ve wasted their time, energy and money or not. Maybe they’ll have a district in which to run, maybe they won’t.”
Few states in recent years have seen as much political turbulence as North Carolina, where Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010 and now face off regularly with a Democratic governor. Many of the high-decibel clashes in North Carolina, even before Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016, focused on elections and voting procedures.
A voter ID law has been the subject of contentious litigation, and a different three-judge panel concluded that many of the state’s legislative districts had been racially gerrymandered. In 2016, a court struck down a different version of the congressional map, saying it was a racial gerrymander.
But last week’s ruling again invalidating the congressional map stirred particular anger in Raleigh, the North Carolina capital.
“Once again, unaccountable federal judges are attempting to throw North Carolina’s elections into chaos by adopting radical, untested new theories at the 11th hour,” Robin Hayes, the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, said in a statement.
Republicans were particularly infuriated that the judges had begun making arrangements for a court-appointed expert to draw a map as an alternative to one that the Legislature might develop.
Observers said the three-judge panel’s ruling, stayed or not, offered Democrats a valuable talking point in the months before midterm elections.
“This will be another piece of ammunition that the Democrats can use to wage war in this midterm,” said J. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, which is near Charlotte.
In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case from Wisconsin. The trial court in that case had struck down a voting map for the State Assembly as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
The Supreme Court has also agreed to decide whether Maryland Democrats crossed a constitutional line by redrawing House districts to flip a Republican-held seat to Democratic control.
In asking the Supreme Court to block the North Carolina ruling, state lawmakers said the trial court had made legal errors and unreasonable demands, notably in ordering new congressional maps to be drawn by Jan. 24.
The lawmakers’ brief reminded the justices that they had granted a stay in the Wisconsin case. “Particularly given the relief this court already granted to Wisconsin,” they wrote, “it makes no sense whatsoever to force North Carolina to immediately remedy a purported partisan gerrymandering violation and commence its 2018 election cycle under a new court-imposed map before this court can even decide whether and under what circumstances such claims may be adjudicated.”
In their own brief, lawyers for Democrats challenging the map said the lawmakers’ motive in seeking a stay was “plain as day.”
“The Republican contingent of the legislature wants to enjoy the fruits of their grossly unconstitutional actions for yet another election cycle,” the brief said.