In Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” King Henry urges his soldiers to continue their attack against the numerically superior French with these oft-quoted words: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more unto the breach.”
Those words might also inspire me to take on, once again, Virginia’s proposed redistricting maps. I’ve previously looked at whether the districts in Southwest and Southside make geographic and cultural sense (some do, some don’t). I’ve looked which localities would benefit, geopolitically, by becoming bigger forces within their respective districts (Lynchburg, Henry County, among others) and which ones would lose power by being split up like an estate on the auction block (Roanoke County, among others). Today I’ll look at how redistricting might change the politics of the state and region. Or not.
Overall, the two special masters appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court say their maps have no partisan tilt, and it’s hard to argue with their math. On the other hand, Shakespeare also tells us – in “Henry VI, Part 2” – that “smooth runs the water where the brook is deep.” So let’s take a deeper dive into how things might change, or not. Once more unto the breach!
The special masters tell us that from 2016 to 2020, the average vote in statewide elections has been Democrats 54%, Republicans 44%. (Obviously this year will pull those numbers a little closer.) They say all their maps reflect this, but let’s start with the congressional districts. “In a very good Republican year, Republicans could win a majority of the seats in Virginia’s delegation,” Democrat Bernard Grofman and Republican Sean Trende write. “Generally, however, we would expect to see a 6-5 Democratic edge in Virginia’s delegation. In very good Democratic years, Democrats might perhaps achieve the same 7-4 advantage that they now enjoy from having won two highly competitive seats in 2020.”
The two most competitive districts would be the 2nd in Hampton Roads (now represented by Democrat Elaine Luria) and the 10th, which is currently in Northern Virginia (and represented by Democrat Jennifer Wexton) but would get reshaped under these maps. The 2nd would be an almost exact split between Democrats and Republicans; that’s not surprising, as the 2nd has long been a highly contested district. This map makes it somewhat more Republican, by taking out Norfolk and adding Chesapeake, among other changes. The proposed map for the 10th is more interesting, because it would stretch the 10th from Loudoun County down U.S. 29 to include about half of Albemarle County. That would make it 52.6% Democratic, 45.3% Republican, according to the special masters’ report, and more rural, a point that has unnerved some Northern Virginia Democrats. This is the cartographical trade-off for drawing the 7th District farther north. Now it’s based around the Richmond suburbs and is represented by Democrat Abigail Spanberger. Under these maps, she’d wind up in the Republican-leaning 1st District with GOP incumbent Rob Wittman, while her district moves up to Fredericksburg, Stafford County, Prince William County, Manassas, Manassas Park and pieces of Caroline and Fairfax counties. It would be quite Democratic – 58.5% – but that wouldn’t do Spanberger much good unless she employs the services of a Realtor. (Given the housing market these days, I suspect quite a few would be willing to help her.)
The third most competitive district would be the 5th District in Southside, although it’s debatable whether it would be competitive. The special masters put it at 53.6% Republican. That sounds competitive, except for this: Bob Good won that district with 52.4% in 2020; Denver Riggleman won it with 53.2% in 2018. If you want to be technical, the special masters would make it a wee bit more Republican – bad news for all those Democrats in Charlottesvile and (southern) Albemarle County who wanted out of the district but would still be in it.
Politically, the maps don’t change anything for our side of the state. The 6th and 9th would stay very Republican – 59.5% for the former, 67.6% for the latter. There’s really no way to draw districts on this side of the state that aren’t strongly Republican. The big political question is how Republican incumbents Morgan Griffith of Salem and Ben Cline of Botetourt County deal with being drawn into the same district – the 6th. I’d be surprised if anything happens. The law doesn’t require members of the U.S. House to live in their districts, just the same state. In 2017, The Washington Post reported that at least 21 House members didn’t live in the districts they represented (not sure about the current number). The point is, Griffith could keep right on running in the 9th and keep right on winning. His only concern should be whether some Republican who actually lives in the new district decides to challenge him. (More on that later.)
One political loser out of these maps isn’t even in Congress: State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield County, had wanted to run against Spanberger. Instead, Chase appears to wind up in the 5th District with fellow Republican Bob Good. Others have pointed out how the three Democratic women in Virginia’s congressional delegation come out worse off. Luria’s 2nd district is always going to be competitive but the maps make it more so (and draws her into the neighboring 3rd District represented by fellow Democrat Bobby Scott. Meanwhile, Wexton’s district becomes less favorable for her and, as we’ve seen, the maps effectively write out Spanberger altogether.
Bottom line: While the lines will change, the congressional politics in Southwest and Southside probably won’t but they would elsewhere.
Now things start to get interesting.
The special masters say their maps won’t change the partisan landscape. The current Senate lineup is 21 Democrats, 19 Republicans. The special masters say that their maps show 23 Democratic districts and 17 Republican ones, but that four of those districts are close. “Thus, each party will have to win an election in ‘unfriendly’ territory in order to control the state Senate,” they write. The Virginia Public Access Project analyzes the numbers somewhat differently. They rate the proposed districts as 16 strong Democratic, six leaning Democratic, one swing, six leaning Republican and 11 strong Republican. If all those districts went the expected way, that would be 22 Democrats, 17 Republicans with one swing district. Based on that, all the Democrats who worried that the Virginia Supreme Court would draw Republican-friendly districts have cause to celebrate and Republicans who thought the court might help them out do not. For what it’s worth, VPAP rates the current lines as 21 Democratic, 17 Republican, with two swing districts – so by their analysis the special masters’ maps would be one seat more Democratic than at present.
What’s more interesting is how those lineups might change under the surface.
The two senators who represent the Roanoke and New River valleys – Democrat John Edwards of Roanoke and Republican David Suetterlein of Roanoke County – would be drawn into the same district. Based on the results of the 2017 attorney general’s race, which is what the special masters used as a baseline, that district would be 52.1% Republican, 47.8% Democratic. VPAP, using the 2016 presidential results, says that year those precincts went 50.2% for Donald Trump, 43.6% for Hillary Clinton. Either way, this district would be a competitive one that tilts Republican. A Democrat has represented Roanoke in the state Senate ever since Edwards defeated Brandon Bell in 1995. If you go back further, Democrats have consistently represented the city in the Senate with the exception of Bell’s single term and, before that, Ray Garland’s single term that began when he was elected in 1979. For Roanoke to be in a district with a Republican state senator wouldn’t be unprecedented, but it would be historically unusual. Furthermore, Garland and Bell were in precarious situations because they represented districts that were fundamentally Democratic, as the next election showed. This map would put the city in a district that’s fundamentally Republican at large.
Farther north, the proposed maps put three senior legislators in the same district: Democrat Creigh Deeds of Bath County and Republicans Emmett Hanger of Augusta County and Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County. Deeds is in a tough spot. Once he was the classic rural Democrat and maybe could have won this district, but rural voters have realigned toward Republicans during his time in Richmond. He’s managed to stay in office because his current district is gerrymandered – there’s really no other way – to bring in the Democratic strongholds of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The special masters made it a point – a good one – not to cross the Blue Ridge unless necessary. The result is that Deeds winds up in a more logically drawn district that the special masters rate as 66.7% Republican. Unless Deeds wants to move to Charlottesville or Albemarle – where most of his constituents now are anyway – he can’t survive. If you’re keeping score at home, that means the only two Democratic senators from west of the Blue Ridge would be gone. Indeed, if every district stays true to its partisan leanings (which they usually do), then the only Democrat in Richmond from west of Charlottesville would be the delegate who represents a district that covers most of Roanoke – at present, Sam Rasoul. He would have a heavy responsibility to speak for a part of the state that is increasingly foreign territory for Democrats.
For a region that not that long ago routinely produced Democratic legislative leaders – the speaker of the House (A.L. Philpott of Henry County), the House majority leader (Richard Cranwell of Roanoke County), the House minority leader (Ward Armstrong of Henry County) and the Senate majority leader (Bill Hopkins of Roanoke) – that’s quite a comedown. (Not all of those were at the same time, of course!) It also raises the question of whether Democrats are truly a statewide party or merely a regional one, albeit representing some big regions. Of course, Democrats might ask the same thing of Republicans – they’re well-represented in Hampton Roads but are blanked in the Northern Virginia delegation. The point being: These maps will increase Virginia’s regional polarization. Is that the fault of the maps, or the fault of the voters? If voters want to change that, all they need to do is for Republicans in rural Virginia to start voting Democratic and for Democrats in Northern Virginia to start voting Republican.
Beyond that, some Republicans are going to have to make some choices – retire, move or run for something else? The special masters drew their maps without regard for which officeholders live where, so between that intentional blindness – and the way the numbers work out – nearly half the state’s legislators find themselves paired with another incumbent.
Besides the ones above, Republicans Steve Newman and Mark Peake both find themselves in the same district that would cover Bedford County, Lynchburg and Campbell County. If Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin were thinking about offering Newman a post in his administration, now would be a good time. On the other hand, there are 11 districts that would have no incumbent. One of those runs from Roanoke County to Waynesboro, one from Amherst County to Albemarle County, one from Buckingham County to Hanover County. The first and last of those would be very Republican (both 64%) and the middle one strongly Democratic (62.1%). That one seems perfect for a Charlottesville-area Democrat; that’s where the political center of gravity would be – unless Deeds wants to pick up and become that Charlottesville-area Democrat. The other two districts are opportunities for Republicans. The Roanoke County-to-Waynesboro district could be a good refuge for Hanger if he wanted to move. It would also be a good fit for Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, who finds himself drawn into a House district with Terry Austin, also R-Botetourt (more on that to come). With Austin set to become chairman of the House Transportation Committee, I figure he’s not likely to run for the Senate, but Head sure could. The Buckingham-to-Hanover district is a true opportunity – there are no delegates displaced there. However, the most populous locality in that new district is Hanover, with 18% of the population. Between it and Powhatan County, Louisa County and Goochland County, 55.9% of the weight in that new district is on the eastern end.
The likely bottom line: No more Democratic senators from west of the Blue Ridge, three senior senators lost (Edwards, Deeds and either Hanger or Obenshain), and a seat represented by a Lynchburg senator (Peake) likely turning into a Richmond-exurbs senator. (Yes, I realize that seems to contradict what I said the other day about Lynchburg being a winner in redistricting; that was in terms of geopolitical weight within a single district. Peake’s district is already weighted toward the eastern end; it just has a senator from its western end. This map would shift that district farther east toward where the population already is.)
HOUSE OF DELEGATES
Right now, the House consists of 55 Democrats, 45 Republicans. Come January, it will be 52 Republicans, 48 Democrats (and Republicans came oh so close to winning some more seats). That’s kind of swing-y. The special masters say their maps show a likely lineup of 53 Democrats, 47 Republicans, but five of those Democratic seats are no more than 53% Democratic and nine of those Republican seats are no more than 53% Republican. The Virginia Public Access Project, using different sets of numbers, computes the partisan tilt of the new maps as 49 likely Democratic seats, 41 likely Republican seats and 10 swing districts. That would seem to suggest Democrats have an advantage, but the special masters see it differently, based on their math: “Although Republicans may find it slightly easier to win a majority, Democrats will have a tendency to enjoy larger majorities when they win.” It all depends on the political mood at the time, and how much those swing districts really swing. (In the 2019 and 2021 cycles, we saw them swing quite a bit.)
As for Southwest and Southside, there’s no obvious political change in the offing, although there might be some interesting possibilities. Right now, we have one Democratic district (Rasoul’s in Roanoke) and one swing district – the New River Valley district currently held by Democrat Chris Hurst, who lost to Republican Jason Ballard in November. Under these maps, we’d still have one Democratic district – in Roanoke – and one swing district, although the shape of that swing district changes.
Politically, Ballard is a big winner. He goes from a swing district to a strongly Republican one – his new district would be 61.7% Republican, according to the special masters. What a lucky guy! The new swing district would run from Blacksburg to Bent Mountain. The special masters rate it as 51.1% Democratic, 48.9% Republican based on the 2017 results. Using the 2016 presidential race, VPAP says that district went 47.2% for Trump, 44.9% for Clinton. Expect a lot of money to get spent in this district by both sides. More intriguingly, this is a district with no incumbent. Aspiring Democrats and Republicans in this district ought to be on the phone right now, lining up support for the nomination – and money.
The special masters passed up a chance to draw a district uniting Martinsville and Danville that would have been racially balanced – I continue to wonder if that will form the basis for some legal challenge. Can you pass up a chance to draw a district with such a large Black population? We’ll see. That would have certainly created a district that Democrats might have won. If Democrats want to find other opportunities in Southwest and Southside, their best shot would be in Lynchburg. This map unites Lynchburg and adds a piece of Campbell County. That puts Republicans Wendell Walker and Kathy Byron in the same district. Both would find themselves running on Republican terrain, just not as Republican as their current districts are. This one would be 55.7% Republican by the special masters’ math. In 2016, that district went 52.5% for Trump, 39.6% for Clinton. That would be a long shot for a Democrat but not out of reach for the right candidate in the right year.
The new district that includes Danville and parts of Pittsylvania and Halifax counties has a very similar profile. It’s rated as 55.3% Republican. In 2016, those precincts went 51.7% for Trump, which suggests that district might be ever so slightly a better opportunity for Democrats if their stars should someday align. That district also pairs two Republican incumbents, Danny Marshall and James Edmunds.
This next district is outside our area but close enough to catch my eye. The district that would cover Harrisonburg and part of Rockingham County (including my old hometown of McGaheysville) is listed as 53.8% Republican; Trump took 50.2% of the vote there. Republican Tony Wilt lives in this district but given those numbers, and the growth of Democratic-voting Harrisonburg, this is probably Democrats’ second-best opportunity outside the urban crescent (and Charlottesville). That new swing district from Blacksburg to Bent Mountain would be the best.
All that speculation aside, this side of the state is poised to lose at least six incumbents or incumbents-to-be. If this were a menu, you would need to pick one from each of these groupings:
- Israel O’Quinn and Will Wampler Jr.
- Terry Austin and Chris Head
- Wendell Walker and Kathy Byron
- Danny Marshall and James Edmunds
- Ronnie Campbell and John Avoli
- Wren Williams and Marie March (both elected in November and already endangered!)
Some of these have better options than others. Austin and Head have obvious options. They wind up in a state Senate district with no incumbent; one of them could run for that. Walker and Byron have an open House district next door in northern Bedford; one of them could move and run for that. O’Quinn, Wampler, Williams and March have a less obvious but still intriguing option: They’re all in the 9th Congressional District. If they wanted to make the case that Griffith shouldn’t run now that he’s been drawn elsewhere, any of them could challenge him for the Republican nomination there. The losers of the Marshall/Edmunds and Campbell/Avoli game of musical chairs don’t seem to have a place to go, at least not right now.
On the other hand, there’s an opportunity for some Republican in Franklin County and eastern Roanoke County, which winds up with an open-seat district that’s 68.5% Republican. Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Rocky Mount, who lost his nomination to Williams this year, could make a comeback here if he was inclined. Given how secure that seat would be for a Republican, I can also see a lot of Republicans in that district looking in the mirror and thinking, “Why not me?”
The bottom line: We’ll lose six incumbents but have three open seats, for a net loss of three legislators, some of them potentially senior legislators. Two on this list – Austin and Byron – will be committee chairs come January. Politically, it’s possible that if someday there’s a strong blue tide, Democrats could pick up a total of four seats in Southwest, Southside and the Shenandoah Valley – although I sure wouldn’t bet on that, not even with casinos coming to Virginia. In a “normal” election, Democrats can really just count on one seat in this part of Virginia – Rasoul’s seat in Roanoke.
So who wins and loses? Some of that depends on who you are, where you live and what you believe. But this much seems certain: Southwest and Southside will lose numbers in the General Assembly, no matter how the lines are drawn.