Answer man: Did gerrymandering pick WNC's U.S. House winner? 15 counties in 11th District

Following Western North Carolina's most important election on Nov. 8 − the contest for the 11th congressional district − a reader submitted a question looking for a particular type of post-race analysis. Got a question for Answer Man or Answer Woman? Email Interim Executive Editor Karen Chávez at KChavez@citizentimes.com and your question could appear in an upcoming column.

Question: Across states such as ours, gerrymandering appears to give Republicans advantages beyond their actual popularity. Is the 11th District that covers WNC similarly affected? We have three natural borders with Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, so it would seem all the gerrymandering has to be done on the north/southeastern boundary of the district.  Is there much gerrymandering there − and was it enough to change the result in Chuck Edwards' congressional victory over Jasmine Beach-Ferrara?

Background: Interest in U.S. House and Senate elections was particularly high this year as Republicans looked to flip control of the country's legislature, something they did partially by taking the House with 220 seats to Democrats 212. Democrats retained their control of the Senate.

In WNC, Republicans held onto the 11th District after state Sen. Edwards beat incumbent and fellow Henderson County resident Madison Cawthorn in the Republican primary. In the general election, Edwards went on to handily defeat Beach-Ferrara, a Democratic Buncombe County commissioner from Asheville, with 53.8% of the vote to 44.5%.

But a lot of the action in N.C.'s congressional races actually started in 2021, after results from the once-in-decade census were known. That kicked off the map-drawing for new political lines. As the majority party in N.C. General Assembly, the GOP got to drive that process. But as has become a tradition in the state, those were not the final maps. Court battles ensued with claims Republicans had illegally constructed districts to give their party an advantage, a devious and historically practiced tactic (by both parties) with the whimsical name of gerrymandering. Judges agreed, and on Feb. 23 of this year ordered the maps now in place. That gave the 11th District 14 and a half counties, including Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania.

WNC's 11th District :Cawthorn's return to Asheville, WNC's 11th District sets up 'messy' Republican primary

Asheville, Buncombe other WNC counties:Cawthorn backtracks, files to run in home district

Answer: For the answer, we turned to gerrymandering expert, Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper, who is adept at making the arcane practice understandable.

"The reader is, of course, correct that NC-11 is hemmed in by borders with Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, leaving only the eastern edge to blow with the winds of redistricting," Cooper said. "And, given the current voting patterns of WNC, it’s unlikely that any legal congressional district in WNC would have resulted in a Jasmine-Beach Ferrara victory.

Court-approved congressional districts, including the WNC's 11th District
Court-approved congressional districts, including the WNC's 11th District

The reason for that is growth. While the booming population of Asheville and Buncombe County have gotten bluer, the rest of the region has grown even redder, Cooper said. As evidence, Buncombe removed its one Republican county commissioner in the last election, but Jackson County, which supported Barrack Obama in 2008 and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper in 2016, did not back a single Democratic candidate in 2022, he said.

"But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to gerrymander WNC. The 2011 map that split Asheville changed the 11th congressional district from the most competitive in the state to the most Republican in the state overnight," Cooper said.

"In sum: Can WNC be gerrymandered? Yes. Has WNC been gerrymandered? Yes. Did gerrymandering hand Chuck Edwards a victory over Jasmine Beach Ferrara? No," he said.

Chris Cooper
Chris Cooper

More: Results of all 14 U.S. House races in the state appear to bolster the argument that N.C.'s current congressional maps are not a gerrymander. That is because while the only statewide race was won by GOP Senate candidate Ted Budd, with 50.1% of the vote to Democrat Cheri Beasley's 47.3%, the congressional seats were split evenly 7-7.

Regardless, N.C. Republicans are attempting to remove the courts from the process. GOP leaders of the General Assembly will argue on Dec. 7 before the U.S. Supreme Court that the sole power to redistrict lies with the state legislature. In N.C., the governor is already excluded with no veto power over the maps.

Meanwhile, the undemocratic effects of gerrymandering stretch farther than congressional races, Cooper said.

GOP district redraw likely:NC abortion restrictions, other issues hang on one Democrat?

"There’s the less covered, but no less consequential decisions that are made about redistricting General Assembly, county commission, and city council seats in various parts of WNC."

Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He's written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Got a tip? Contact Burgess at jburgess@citizentimes.com, 828-713-1095 or on Twitter @AVLreporter. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times. 

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Answer man: Did gerrymandering determine WNC's U.S. House winner?