I was wrong.
I was wrong about the Washington Nationals prospects this season. (Silly me; I thought they could contend for a division title). I was wrong about who would wind up on the Iron Throne in “Game of Thrones.” (We all were). I was wrong about how everybody would rush to get vaccinated and we’d have this virus thing beat by summer. (Instead, well, you know).
For our purposes, today, though, I was wrong about the Virginia Redistricting Commission. Not the part about how it’s not really a neutral, dispassionate group of citizens bent on drawing fair maps devoid of any gerrymandering – that was never going to happen with the commission set up the way it is. Instead, we have a redistricting commission that’s politicized from the get-go, just politicized both ways, so that the odds remain very good that the whole process will gridlock and the Virginia Supreme Court will wind up drawing the lines. (If the casinos coming to Bristol and Danville were open now, perhaps you could even get actual odds).
No, what I was wrong about was the undesirability of having rival Democratic and Republican map-makers instead of a single, non-partisan outfit drawing the lines. I still think we’d all benefit from seeing what some non-partisan mapmakers might come up with, but it turns out there is some value in seeing what the partisans want to do.
That’s because there’s a surprising amount of agreement between the two party’s cartographers when it comes to state Senate lines in this part of the state, both in their original plans and the surprise consolidated plan they released over the weekend. I’ll deal mostly with the former, then come around to the latter because it generally reflects the two partisan maps for this part of the state.
Here’s the big shocker: Even the Democratic mapmakers would eliminate the only two Democratic state Senate seats west of the Blue Ridge. Who would have suspected that even Democrats – who hold just a two-seat margin in the state Senate – would so easily toss Creigh Deeds and John Edwards overboard? (To be precise, only Edwards district would turn red; most of Deeds’ district would stay Democratic, it would just stay east of the Blue Ridge around Charlottesville while Deeds would find himself in a strongly Republican district west of the Blue Ridge). Republicans may not like other parts of the Democratic Senate map but they might want to go ahead and say the part west of Charlottesville is just hunky-dory.
Allow me to explain. Let’s start with the Roanoke and New River valleys.
Years ago, Roanoke and most of Roanoke County were in the same Senate district. The city is strongly Democratic, the county strongly Republican, and this led to some very competitive races. Democrat Bill Hopkins lost to Republican Ray Garland in 1979 who lost to Democrat Granger Macfarlane in 1983 who lost to Republican Brandon Bell in 1991 who lost to Democrat John Edwards in 1995.
Likewise, in those days all of Montgomery County was in a state Senate district with its neighboring counties. Montgomery has dual personality – with Blacksburg very Democratic, Christiansburg and the rural parts of the county very Republican. That led to some of the state’s most competitive races. In 1979, Democrat Madison Marye won over Republican Ed Stone by just nine votes. It’s hard to get much more competitive than that.
The current lines change all that. Roanoke is carved into a district that connects with Blacksburg. Not surprisingly, it’s very Democratic, and is now represented by Edwards. The Republican parts of Montgomery County are in a district that connects with most of Roanoke County (it actually extends all the way from Carroll County to Bedford County). Not surprisingly, it’s very Republican, and that seat is now held by David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.
Some in Montgomery County have often complained that Montgomery is sliced up like a Thanksgiving turkey, which makes it difficult for the county to elect one of its own. One of the county supervisors – Sara Bohn, a Democrat – even wrote to the redistricting commission to officially request that the county stay intact in the new maps. Under these maps, she’d get her wish – and a Republican state senator.
Both the Democratic and Republican maps keep Montgomery County intact; so does the consolidated plan. To get the numbers required, other localities have to be added in. With the exception of Radford, all of Montgomery County’s neighbors are strongly Republican. The bottom line: All those Democratic voters in Blacksburg, who now get a Democratic senator (albeit one in Roanoke), would find themselves outvoted by Republicans. The Republican map puts Montgomery County in a Senate district that runs from Giles County to Alleghany County. Using the 2016 presidential election returns as a baseline, the Virginia Public Access Project says this is a district that would be 59% Republican. The Democratic map puts Montgomery County in a district that runs from Giles and Pulaski counties to Alleghany and Rockbridge counties. VPAP computes it to be 58% Republican. The consolidated plan would make the district 59% Republican. For all those Montgomery County Democrats who wanted their county to stay intact, be careful what you wish for.
The decision by both mapmakers not to split Montgomery County sets the stage for the next big redistricting decision: How to draw the Roanoke Valley. Both parties’ consultants draw Roanoke into a district with Salem and much of Roanoke County. The Republican map makes the district 53% Republican; the Democratic map makes it slightly more Republican at 53.6%. Not unwinnable for the right Democrat in the right year, but certainly not the safe Democratic seat that Edwards has now.
Next we move up to the Senate district now held by Creigh Deeds. It presently stretches from his home in Bath County to Charlotesville. This is an elongated – some might say gerrymandered – district that shows realignment in action. At one time Deeds was an easy winner in the rural parts of his district. No more, which is why he now has all those Democratic voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle County (and why they have an incumbent who lives several mountain ranges away). Both the Democratic and Republican maps cleave away Charlottesville and Albemarle and redraw the district so it’s entirely west of the Blue Ridge. That also means the new district is very Republican. The Republican map draws a district from Bath County to Harrisonburg; it would be 59% Republican. The Democrats draw a slightly different map that still goes from Bath to Harrisonburg; it would be 59.7% Republican.
It’s hard to see how Deeds survives in that. The fact that this reconfigured district includes a Republican incumbent, Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, sure doesn’t help, either. (Historical oddity: In the early ’90s Democrats sliced up Hanger’s House district in a way that enabled Deeds to defeat him. Of course, that was back when the right Democrat, of which Deeds was one, could win win rural voters. Those days are long gone.)
The consolidated plan does something different. It extends the district that includes an intact Montgomery County all the way up to Bath County. Under that map, Deeds wouldn’t be in a district with Hanger; he’d be in a district without an incumbent but it’s a district that’s so Republican it’s hard to see any Democrat winning. That’s bad news for a Democratic incumbent but the consolidated map also has bad news for at least one Republican incumbent in our part of the state; it draws a state Senate district that puts together two Lynchburg-area Republicans, Steve Newman and Matt Peake, in a district that commits the cardinal sin of crossing the mountains to unite Lynchburg with Lexington and Rockbridge County, something that many voters have complained about to the redistricting commission in the past. It also creates a district without an incumbent that would stretch from the outskirts of Lynchburg in Campbell County to the outskirts of Richmond in Goochland County.
The geography in those last two districts seems weird but many of the other districts I’ve just described are logically shaped, geographically, which raises a question: Is that really what people want? Is it more logical for Democratic voters in Roanoke to be in the same district with their Republican neighbors in Roanoke County, or more logical for those Democratic voters in Roanoke to be in the same district with Democratic voters in Blacksburg? There’s an ideological community of interest, to be sure, but it can only be achieved through gerrymandering – which is what this commission was set up to prevent. So should a “community of interest” be defined ideologically or geographically?
Still, I’m surprised the Democratic mapmakers didn’t find some way to avoid eliminating two Democratic districts, particularly the one now held by Edwards (Deeds’ district is harder to maintain with a straight face). On the other hand, I’m surprised that the Republican mapmakers have drawn two separate House districts in this part of the state that puts not one, not two, but three (!) incumbents in the same district. Under the Republican House plan, Chris Head of Botetourt County, Terry Austin of Botetourt County and Ronnie Campbell of Rockbridge County would all wind up in the same district. The Republican plan also puts Kathy Byron of Campbell County, Matt Farriss of Campbell County and Jim Edmunds of Halifax County all in the same district. Both are logically shaped, but politically inconvenient for at least four of six Republican incumbents. They might think the Democratic plan makes more sense.
Both parties’ plans also put some other Republicans incumbents in the same district – Israel O’Quinn and Will Wampler, both from Washington County, and Les Adams of Pittsylvania County and Danny Marshall of Danville. Some of that is unavoidable: The region’s going to lose some seats and when legislators live close to one another it’s hard to keep them in separate districts.
Now, those are all the places where the two parties agree – or at least their mapmakers do. The one place where they really diverge is in the New River Valley, with the House seat now held by Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery County. At present that’s a marginally Democratic district, which is why Hurst’s re-election campaign against Republican Jason Ballard is one of the most closely-contested in the whole state. The Republican plan would make that district a Republican-leaning one, by taking out Democratic-voting Radford and adding in GOP strongholds in rural Montgomery and Craig County. The Democratic plan would make it more Democratic by taking out Republican-voting Giles and Pulaski and adding in more Democratic-friendly parts of Montgomery. How will that get resolved?
Not easily, I imagine. That’s why I think there’s a good chance the Supreme Court justices will wind up having to draw the new lines. What they come up with would be anybody’s bet.
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.