This article is published in collaboration with The 9th Street Journal at Duke University.

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

To comply with a court ruling, the Republican leaders of the legislature agreed that the Second 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 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 Wake County 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: 311,887 for Ross, to 172,544 for Swain. 

Ross, a civil rights lawyer and longtime state lawmaker, nearly doubled her opponent’s vote total. (Libertarian Jeff Matemu received almost 11,000 votes—not nearly enough to make up the difference.)

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. A similar process unfolded in North Carolina’s new Sixth Congressional District, where voters in Greensboro and Winston-Salem easily elected Democrat Kathy Manning by an almost identical margin to Ross. Like Holding, the District Six Representative Mark Walker, a Republican, also opted not to run again after redistricting last year.

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 state 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,” Phillips said. “And so you’ll pack as many Democratic voters into as few districts as you can.”

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

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

After a failed U.S. Senate run against incumbent Richard Burr 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. “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. 

Mapmakers 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. By successfully maintaining control of the North Carolina state House and Senate in this election, Republicans will once again be in the driver’s seat.

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