The congressional district lines are officially drawn and ratified. With the first round of redistricting settled, we have a few clues as to how 2012 might play out in North Carolina.

If one were to simplify the state’s new electoral dynamics into two distinct “lolcat” posts, the first might be a forlorn kitten with a birthday hat accompanied by the words “teh democratic parti haz a sad.” For the second, an angry feline with a Patrick McHenry mask and the words “all yr districks iz ourz!”

Would that it be so easy to suss out.

Certainly, the Democratic Party is sad, and you would be too if your head had been handed to you on a bill that the governor legally can’t veto. And, of course, Rep. McHenry, a brash man by nature, bragged back in early May that the redistricting process would lead to GOP gains by concentrating North Carolina’s black voters. He predicted the state, which split almost 50-50 in the last presidential race, would soon transform from a congressional delegation composed of seven Democrats and six Republicans to four and nine respectively.

His prediction turns out to be in line with a number of early forecasts.

North Carolina is proving to be a key state in the GOP strategy to maintain control of the U.S. House. Now that redistricting has set the table, the party and outside groups are preparing to pour enormous resources into close races to unseat Democratic incumbents now in less favorable districts.

Republican leaders are counting on picking up seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and other states where they’ve been able to command the redistricting process in order to offset expected losses in Illinois and California.

The latest update from the Cook Political Report has North Carolina as the GOP’s top state in a number of potential pickups with the districts of Democrats Larry Kissel and Brad Miller in the “Leans Republican” category and the races for Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre listed as toss-ups.

At this point, the predictions might be based more on the new district lines, but the matchups will only be generic for a little while longer. Even though the spring primaries are nine months away, fundraising, internal polling and opposition research should quickly point to the challengers incumbents will meet in the fall.

The Department of Justice and the courts can, and probably will, shake up individual races, but don’t bet the ranch on an extensive redrawing of the districts. In the long run, the new maps set up a dynamic for the state similar to that of the General Assembly, where there are more GOP-leaning districts than the statewide voter breakdowns support. While that’s made a handful of seats on both sides of the aisle far safer, it’s left a huge number in the middle much more volatile.

Here’s how the district races look so far:

1G.K. Butterfield, D-Wilson

Republicans said concerns raised by the four-term Democrat guided the redrawing of the district, an assertion Butterfield called overblown. After the dust-up, the district was redrawn and now extends into Durham. While the ripple effect from the redrawn district may hurt some fellow Democrats, Butterfield’s seat remains one of the safer ones in the state for Dems.

2Renee Ellmers, R-Dunn

Ellmers, a proud member of the freshman class of 2010, succeeded in wrestling the seat from seven-term Democrat Bob Etheridge thanks in part to the congressman’s ill-tempered tussle on a D.C. sidewalk. A rematch with the same district could easily swing the other way, but now Ellmers sits in a much safer district and will draw far more party support than last time. Despite the new lay of the land, Roll Call reported last month that Etheridge is thinking about vying for his old seat.

3Walter Jones, R-Farmville

Jones, arguably one of the most anti-war members of Congress, has the same kind of political instincts and the same kind of lock on his district as his late father, Democratic Rep. Walter Jones Sr., who won 13 consecutive congressional elections. The sprawling 3rd District picked up a smattering of new Democratic voters, but not enough to matter for Jones the younger, who is seeking his 10th term.

4David Price, D-Chapel Hill

Italy or Vietnam? The odd, vaguely recognizable shape of the new 4th District packs in Democratic votes. As part of the move to bolster Ellmers, Price lost some of Wake County and picks up new Democratic constituents around Fayetteville. The 4th will likely prove to be the bluest of the blue. Brad Miller, who currently resides in the 4th courtesy of redistricting, has already said he’ll move into the 13th rather than run against Price, a longtime Democratic ally.

5Virginia Foxx, R-Banner Elk

Foxx got her district all tidied up for her, picking up a big chunk of the town of Hickory along with a bigger piece of Forsyth County sans the Democratic portions of Winston-Salem, which remains in District 12.

6Howard Coble, R-Greensboro

Races in District 6 have been rather dull for the past couple of decades, but that all could change should Coble, now 80, decided to step down. He’s already said he’s displeased with his new district, which includes several counties he’s never represented before. Coble has said he’ll decide at the end of the year. Should he go, the new district has no shortage of ambitious young Republicans ready to get into the race, including Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr., son of Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger Sr.

7Mike McIntyre, D-Lumberton

The new 7th is a much weaker Democratic district, with about 56 percent of its voters going for John McCain in 2008. As a result, Charlie Cook, Roll Call, Politico and your grandmother have it leaning Republican. But McIntyre has managed to tough out races before. That said, he’ll have to find some way to replace lost Democrats and cozy up to new constituents in counties like Johnston, which were added to the 7th in redistricting. State Sen. David Rouzer has signed up to take him on, and will face retired Marine Ilario Pantano, who lost to McIntyre last time out in the primary.

8Larry Kissell, D-Biscoe

Kissell has already said he’s in and plans to run hard. He’ll have to. His seat is rated as an even more likely pickup for the GOP than his 7th District neighbor. With the recent announcement that insurance executive Daniel Barry has filed his paperwork to run, the GOP field is growing. Barry said he may self-finance part of his campaign. He joins Iredell County Commissioner Scott Keadle and perennial candidate Vernon Robinson, a black Republican from Winston-Salem who will no doubt warn the 8th District voters about the president’s adherence to black liberation theology. State Reps. Jerry Dockham (who served on the redistricting committee) and Justin Burr, an appropriations committee vice chair (and no relation to U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in case you’re wondering) are also said to be considering a run.

9Sue Myrick, R-Charlotte

Myrick’s district shed some Republican voters, but her run for a 10th term shouldn’t suffer too much as a result.

10Patrick McHenry, R-Cherryville

McHenry agreed to take on deep blue Asheville to give his party a shot at Shuler, making the 10th one of the more interesting races. McHenry’s seat is more competitive, but still quite red.

11Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville

The loss of a wealth of Democratic votes in Asheville makes Shuler, a blue dog who has drawn a primary from Asheville city council member Cecil Bothwell, one of the most vulnerable Dems in Congress. So far, the GOP field includes Jeff Hunt, five-term district attorney for Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties; Murphy ophthalmologist Dan Eichenbaum and former Henderson County GOP chair Spence Campbell.

12Mel Watt, D-Charlotte

The GOP-run redistricting process narrowed Watt’s district, nibbling off more conservative precincts and further concentrating African-American voters in what is officially already a majority African-American district under the Voting Rights Act. The district, which was created in 1991 and redrawn in 1992 and 1997 as a result of court action, is a top candidate for remapping again this time.

13Brad Miller, D-Raleigh

Miller has been booted from his district and into the 4th. Both he and Price may be waiting on the DOJ to make its move, after which Miller, whose voting precinct was split in order to double-bunk him with Price, may make it back to the 13th.

Meanwhile, the GOP can count on a strong candidate with some kind of tie to Jesse Helms to emerge from the primary. George Holding, a former Helms aide, recently stepped down from his post as U.S. district attorney to announce a run for Congress. As DA he took down John Edwards and Mike Easley, credentials that should make him a magnet for campaign cash.

Holding joins Paul Coble as the other top-tier candidate running in the 13th. Coble, a former Raleigh mayor and Wake County commissioner, is Helms’ nephew.

Clarification (Aug. 23, 2011): In the recent redistricting, Democratic congressmen Brad Miller of Raleigh and David Price of Chapel Hill were double-bunked in a new 4th District. In this column, we reported that if the new lines hold Miller might move, but the congressman says that’s not the case and he’s laying the groundwork for a run in the new NC-4. See Triangulator for the ins and outs of the new district and the potential for a primary battle.