Updated Dec. 10 2:42 p.m. with a new open district we’ve determined.
This has been a busy news week. Virginia Tech received the largest individual gift in its history – $35 million to help build a new engineering building. Hollins University received the largest gift ever to a women’s college – $75 million to support scholarships. Radford University announced a new president. Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin announced he’ll pull Virginia out of a cap-and-trade consortium that, depending on your point of view, either a) helps reduce carbon emissions or b) simply drives up the cost of electricity for consumers. We also have an abandoned coal mine in Wise County that is threatening to swallow up some houses. But the thing that has set Virginia’s political world aflame are some lines on a map – still proposed lines on proposed maps at this point, but lines that could well become written into law if the Virginia Supreme Court approves the redistricting plan presented by its two “special masters.”
I made it clear in a column yesterday that while some of the lines in parts of Southwest and Southside are pretty darned reasonable, some of the ones in the Roanoke Valley and New River Valley are simply a mess – an avoidable mess that does a disservice to voters in Roanoke County and Montgomery County, in particular. Today, let’s step back and take a broader view of what’s being proposed. Before the maps came out, I identified seven controversial things the court will have to decide on this side of the state alone. Let’s start by looking at how the special masters dealt with those seven, and then look at some other questions.
1. Should Martinsville and Danville be in the same House of Delegates district or separate ones? This was a question because some were pushing to create a Martinsville-Danville district that would be nearly evenly divided racially. It’s impossible to create a Black majority district on this side of the state, but it is possible to draw one that’s 51% white, 49% Black. The special masters did not do this, which makes me wonder if that makes their map legally vulnerable. If you can create an “ability-to-elect” district and don’t, is that something federal courts will find suspicious? We’ll see. In any case, the people who wanted separate Martinsville and Danville districts don’t get all of their wish, either. Many from Martinsville wanted a district that connected them with either Patrick County or Franklin County (and might allow the election of someone from Martinsville or Henry County). Instead, Martinsville remains in a district anchored by Pittsylvania County. Historically speaking, this represents a continued loss of power for Martinsville and Henry County: Once they had the speaker of the House – A.L. Philpott. After that, they had the House minority leader – Ward Armstrong. Under the current map, Martinsville is represented by a delegate from Pittsylvania and, under this map, that would likely continue. To go from being represented by House leaders to having no legislator with a Martinsville or Henry County address is quite a fall, no matter how much voters there might like their current delegate, Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania County. That fall happened a decade ago but this map would perpetuate it.
2. Should Lynchburg stay whole? The city is currently split between two House districts and two state Senate districts. Many in Lynchburg wanted that changed. It’s always reasonable to ask that a locality not be split, but some may have also had political motives. Lynchburg has become competitive in recent years – Tim Kaine carried the city in 2018, Mark Warner and Joe Biden carried it in 2020, Glenn Youngkin carried it this year – which means a House district that included all of Lynchburg would likely be competitive as well. That would be troublesome news for Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, the only delegate who actually lives in the city, as Markus Schmidt reported recently. The people who wanted Lynchburg to stay whole got their wish – twice! The city would stay intact in both the proposed House and Senate maps. In the House, the city would be joined with a little piece of Campbell County; the special masters estimate the district would be 55% Republican. That’s based on 2017 election returns (more on that later) so doesn’t reflect the Democratic drift from 2018 to 2020. So, yes, this could conceivably be a competitive district, based on the candidates and the political mood.
The state Senate map is remarkably coherent and a quantum improvement over how things are now – although incumbents Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, and Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, might not agree since they wind up in the same district. Newman’s current district starts in Lynchburg and runs west to Craig County on the West Virginia line, one of the most unnatural alignments ever. Peake’s current district runs from Lynchburg to almost the outskirts of Richmond in Louisa and Goochland counties. This proposed map creates a quite compact and logical district composed of Lynchburg, Bedford County and Campbell County. That seems, as Mary Poppins might say, practically perfect. While the lines in the Roanoke and New River valleys are incomprehensible, people around Lynchburg get the benefit of the new redistricting process. So, too, do those people in Louisa County and Goochland County who will now get a senator who lives at least a little bit closer to them. Craig County is still out of luck; it would now be drawn in a district that would go to Staunton and Waynesboro.
3. How many ways should Albemarle County get split? People in Albemarle also benefit from the new process, at least as far as General Assembly maps go. They might disagree (and probably will) when it comes to the way their county is treated in the congressional map. Right now, Albemarle is split among four House of Delegates districts – classic gerrymandering to chop up a Democratic stronghold and bury the pieces in weirdly shaped Republican districts that, in some cases, cross the Blue Ridge and go all the way to West Virginia. Many Democrats in rCharlottesville asked that Albemarle be split between just two House districts and they get their wish. There’s one with Charlottesville and some surrounding parts of the county, then another with most of Albemarle and pieces of Nelson and Louisa. Albemarle is currently split between two state Senate districts; the proposed map would take Charlottesville and Albemarle whole and group them with Amherst, Nelson and part of Louisa. There are certainly other ways to draw any map but that seems a quite reasonable district (although some in Amherst might want a district more Lynchburg-focused).
The catch for Albemarle (and Charlottesville) comes with the congressional map. Democrats there had made it clear they didn’t like being associated with conservative voters in rural Southside in the 5th District; some preferred to be connected to Richmond in a district that would tilt Democratic. Didn’t happen. Instead, Charlottesville and part of Albemarle stay in the 5th, while the rest of Albemarle gets drawn into a district that goes north to Loudoun County. Democratic voters in northern Albemarle would get their wish – they’d be in a district whose partisanship tilt is put at 53% Democratic. Not enough to declare it a Democratic district, but certainly a competitive one where a Democrat would have a slight edge. Democratic voters in Charlottesville and southern Albemarle would have to make do in a reconfigured 5th District that would be 54% Republican. Personally, I still have problems with putting Charlottesville in a Southside district – culturally, they’re not the same – but the special masters do greatly improve the 5th District. Right now, it’s perhaps the state’s most gerrymandered district, stretching from the North Carolina line to almost the northern border. The special masters add Lynchburg and make the 5th a more traditional Southside district.
4. How should Southwest districts be drawn? While other localities were asking the court to keep them whole, officials in Smyth County asked the court to split their county. They said southern Smyth was naturally aligned with Washington County while northern Smyth was naturally aligned with Wythe County. That split would also have ensured that Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth County, would keep his seat. Smyth County officials did not get their wish, but Campbell seems safe. All of Smyth gets drawn into a district with Wythe, Grayson and part of Pulaski. Others had lobbied against Russell and Washington being joined in a single House district. They got joined. Some wanted Grayson County and Galax to stay together. They did not. For the most part, though, the House districts the special masters propose in Southwest seem pretty natural alignments even if not everyone map matches someone’s wish list. Of course, when you’re dealing with a triangle that is bounded by four other states, there aren’t many options. The state Senate districts, though, do have some weird shapes. As I pointed out yesterday, Wythe County gets split between two state Senate districts, one of which goes as far east as Franklin County. As for the rest of Wythe, well, hang tight, we’re coming to that.
5. How many ways should Montgomery County be split among House districts?
6. And should it be split at all among state Senate districts?
7. And how should the Senate districts in the Roanoke and New River valleys be drawn? I dealt with this mess yesterday but allow me to elaborate on my complaints. Instead of Montgomery County being split three ways, the special masters split it two ways. That’s an improvement – given the county’s population, it has to be split – but does it have to be split the way they propose? (The answer is “no.”) If I were drawing the map (alas, the Supreme Court didn’t ask me), I’d try to keep the three big metros – Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Radford – in the same district. If you can’t do that, other natural configurations would be Blacksburg and Christiansburg as two big towns in the same county or the two college communities, Blacksburg and Radford. Instead, this map puts Christiansburg and Radford together, which seems the most unusual of the possibilities.
Mathematically, Montgomery County doesn’t have to be split between state Senate districts, yet it is. The current map has a gerrymandered district that runs from the coalfields to Radford; that was drawn by Democrats back in the day to protect Democrat Phil Puckett of Russell County when he was in the legislature. The special masters perpetuate that gerrymander by drawing a district that goes from the coalfields (Tazewell County) to Blacksburg. Their motives might be different – they’re just trying to make the math work out and those Southwest districts have to grow geographically. But there are more logical ways to draw that district that keep it out of Montgomery County (such as keeping Wythe County whole; that won’t get you all the numbers you need but it’s a start)
Likewise, there’s been a robust debate about how state Senate districts in the Roanoke Valley should be drawn. Democrats wanted a map that connected Democratic Roanoke with Democratic Blacksburg (as is the case now), while Republicans wanted a map more focused on the Roanoke Valley. The special masters do neither. The result is a map that is, as commenter Bennett Snyder said in a posting on the Supreme Court site, “just not great.”
The special masters were forced into this by their decision to start drawing maps in Winchester and working their way south. Granted, I’m biased, but I’d have started in Southwest and worked my way east. That would have allowed them to draw more natural alignments in the Roanoke and New River valleys. Instead, the Roanoke Valley gets chopped into pieces simply because that’s where the special masters’ math ran out as they worked their way down Interstate 81. (True, if I were drawing the maps, somebody somewhere would have probably wound up with a district they thought was oddly shaped, because not everything fits together. But these maps in the Roanoke and New River valleys are just so strange that they cry out for correction).
Now that we’ve checked off those questions, let’s deal with some others that weren’t asked but have now come up.
8. Who will be the next representative from the 9th District? The special masters, drawing the 6th District north to south, needed more numbers, so they added in Salem and Roanoke. That means the 9th District representative – Morgan Griffith, R-Salem – would be in the same district as Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County. Will we see them squaring off in a party primary up and down I-81? Will we see candidates popping up in Southwest Virginia to take advantage of this opportunity of an open seat? Neither seems likely. There’s no law that says a U.S. House member has to live in his or her district, just in the state. Remember that when Griffith first ran for Congress, Salem wasn’t in the 9th District – it got drawn in after he won. Griffith could quite easily continue as the 9th District congressman. Some Democratic candidate might tweak him for that, but this is a district that would be 68% Republican. Griffith’s only concern would be if some Republican popped up to challenge him, using his out-of-district residency as a campaign issue. As long as Griffith has kept Republicans in Southwest happy, that seems unlikely to happen. He can always, quite correctly, blame the special masters for not understanding Southwest Virginia the way he does. To paraphrase Barack Obama, if you like your congressman, you can keep your congressman. (Yeah, I know that didn’t work out very well …)
9. How will the dynamics in the 5th District change? Or will they? Taking Lynchburg out of the 6th (where it’s historically been) and adding it to the 5th is fascinating. In the 6th, Lynchburg was, at best, the second-biggest locality, behind Roanoke. Maybe the third biggest, depending on how much of Roanoke County was in the 6th (it’s varied over the years). In the 5th, Lynchburg would be the biggest locality – and neighboring Amherst County also would get added into the 5th. Suddenly the Lynchburg metro becomes the political center of gravity in that reconfigured district. That’s good for Lynchburg – what second fiddle wouldn’t want to be the headliner? None of that, though, changes the partisan dynamics of the district. In 2020, Republican Bob Good won with 52.4% of the vote. The special masters say this district would be 53.6% Republican. Unfortunately, that’s based on data that’s now four years old, which brings us to this question:
10. Why must the court rely on partisanship data that’s four years old when we’ve had four election cycles since then? Blame the Democrats in the General Assembly. When people vote early, they are technically voting absentee, which means all votes countywide or citywide are counted in the “central absentee precinct.” That means we can’t analyze which precincts those votes are coming from, which is important for election nerds like me but also important in trying to analyze whether these districts tilt one way or another. I’m not blaming Democrats for adopting early voting; that’s clearly proven to be a hit with voters – I give Democrats credit for that. I do fault them, though, for not fixing the central absentee problem, which leads to the big “ballot dump” on election night. State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, proposed a fix; Democrats in the General Assembly thought that was too complicated and killed it. He was right; they were wrong. Three localities went ahead and figured out a solution on their own – Chesapeake, Fairfax County and our own Floyd County. The special masters lament the demise of Suetterlein’s bill, although they didn’t say so directly: “We would have preferred to have available the 2021 data,” they write, but it’s not available on a precinct level. That meant the special masters had to go back to 2017, where they used the attorney general’s race that year as the baseline. Even that’s somewhat flawed, though, because Mark Herring was running for reelection and so had an incumbent’s advantage that year (just not this year). Why the attorney general’s race? Presumably it’s because that was a two-way race; there was a Libertarian on the ballot in the 2017 governor’s race to skew things. The special masters could also have used the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race. They don’t say why they didn’t – were they afraid that a contest between a Black man (Justin Fairfax) and a white woman (Jill Vogel) – might skew the data? They don’t say, just that they used the 2017 attorney general’s race to determine a precinct’s partisanship. But things change over four years; we’d have more accurate data if Democrats had passed Suetterlein’s bill.
11. Which candidates benefit most from these maps? The special masters say statewide neither party benefits from their maps but from district to district, certain candidates will benefit. Markus Schmidt, in his story today, looks at which legislators wind up paired with another legislator. In our part of the state, the special masters hit the trifecta in the state Senate district from Bath County to Rockingham County – it combines three senators into one district: Democrat Creigh Deeds of Bath, Republican Emmett Hanger of Augusta and Republican Mark Obenshain of Rockingham. That’s pretty significant beyond the sheer numbers but all three of those are senior legislators. Losing any two of them would be a big deal. But there are other districts that wind up with no incumbent. I guarantee you right now there are aspiring politicians looking at these maps thinking “gosh, I could run there.”
The proposed state Senate district from Catawba, Northside, Hollins and Vinton in Roanoke County to Staunton and Waynesboro (above) is one such opportunity. There might be some obvious candidates, too. On the House side, Terry Austin and Chris Head, both R-Botetourt County, get paired together. One of them could run for this seat. Given this Senate district’s 64% Republican lean, all one of them would need to do is win the Republican nomination and they’d be as good as elected.
There appears to be another open state Senate seat in Southside, from Appomattox County to western Hanover County. This is another 64% Republican district, so a good opportunity for an aspiring Republican with a rural address. On the other end of the scale, there’s an opportunity for a Democrat who lives in Amherst, Nelson, part of Louisa or, more likely, Charlottesville and Albemarle County. That’s a district that would be 62% Democratic – with no incumbent.
On the House side, there are even more opportunities. The district that would cover Franklin County and eastern Roanoke County would have no incumbent – and a 68.5% Republican tilt. The district that would cover Catawba and Bent Mountain in Roanoke County, and much of Montgomery County (including Blacksburg but not Christiansburg), would have no incumbent. It would also be very competitive – 51.1% Democratic thanks to Blacksburg. Democrat Carter Turner, who lives in western Roanoke County and has previously run for the House in uphill races in a Republican district, appears to live in this district. If so, he ought to be dusting off his old campaign signs right now. This district doesn’t make a lot of geographic sense but, politically, it’s a potential gift to Democrats.
There is also an opening in the district that would cover Nelson, Amherst and the northern half of Bedford. This is good news for some Republicans – this is a district that votes 68.5% red. Or maybe it’s good news for either Kathy Byron or Wendell Walker, two Republicans paired in a district that consists of Lynchburg and a piece of Campbell County — and whoever their Realtor might be.
So are the proposed maps good or bad? Like many things, that all depends on where you sit – or what seat you’d like to have.