So, we have redistricting maps.
The Virginia Supreme Court on Tuesday signed off on new lines for the U.S. House and the General Assembly and, well, that’s that. Unless, of course, somebody sues and takes this into the federal court system, which is always a possibility. The final maps did not create as many Black-majority districts as they could have, which will surely be a point of contention.
Here are some initial observations:
- Democrats who worried that a court mostly appointed by Republicans would draw maps that favor Republicans were wrong. These maps appear to inconvenience both parties, just in different places and different ways. The two court-appointed special masters who drew the lines – one nominated by Democrats, one by Republicans – say they ignored incumbents in drawing new lines and focused on creating what they felt were more logically drawn maps (more on that to come). They say their maps have a “marginal Democratic advantage” in the state Senate and “a small Republican advantage in the House of Delegates,” which would seem to reflect Virginia’s overall political balance. As for Congress, right now Democrats have a 7-4 advantage. The new maps create six districts where, based on previous election returns, Democrats would have a majority, and four where Republicans have a demonstrated majority, with one – the 2nd , in Hampton Roads – that seems almost equally split. “In a very good Republican year, Republicans could win a majority of the seats in Virginia’s delegation,” the special masters 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.” If Republicans had had their way, they’d have certainly drawn some of these districts differently.
- Does Morgan Griffith need a Realtor? The original maps put the two Republican congressmen west of the Blue Ridge – Griffith of Salem and Ben Cline of Botetourt County – in the same 6th District. Influential Republicans – notably former Rep. Tom Davis of Fairfax County – pleaded with the court to adjust the lines to separate them. The court ignored that. It fiddled with a few lines, putting Craig County back into the 9th – “increasing the number of Virginia’s Appalachian counties placed in the 9th,” the special masters wrote – in return for moving some Roanoke County precincts into the 6th. But it left Salem, and Griffith, in the same district as Cline. Mathematically, this was almost inevitable. The special masters said they wanted to avoid crossing the Blue Ridge. They started counting in Winchester and went south, and ran out of numbers after they included Salem. If they’d started at the Cumberland Gap with the same criteria, they’d have wound up with both Griffith and Cline in the 9th. Griffith would seem to have an easy out: The law doesn’t require House members to live in their district, merely in their state. When Griffith first ran for Congress in 2010, Salem wasn’t in the 9th District. Voters sure didn’t seem to care then. Griffith could easily stay right where he is and keep on running in the 9th. Indeed, he quickly took to Twitter to declare his intention to run for re-election — in the 9th District. The only question is whether some other Republican in the 9th will sense an opportunity here and challenge him.
- Democrats in Charlottesville and Albemarle County won’t like the new 5th District. The Supreme Court was peppered with complaints from liberal voters there who didn’t want to be part of such a conservative, and rural, district. Sorry. The special masters’ original maps did Democratic voters in northern Albemarle a favor by splitting the county and putting them in a reconfigured 10th District that ran to Loudoun County. That district generated lots of complaints, on the grounds that it put too many rural localities into a Northern Virginia-based district. The special masters listened to those complaints, and made the 10th District more suburban. That’s great news for Democratic incumbent Jennifer Wexton, who now gets a district that’s more than 56% Democratic. It’s bad news for those Albemarle Democrats, who now find themselves stuck, once again, in the 5th District. They are victims of geography: They are a blue island in a red sea and it’s hard to connect them to other blue areas without engaging in gerrymandering or causing math problems elsewhere. Otherwise, the special masters created a 5th District that’s pretty logical: They whacked off the northern part of the district that didn’t make geographical sense and, after initially adding some Richmond suburbs, backed off that and added more rural territory in Fluvanna, Goochland, Louisa and Hanover counties. The 5th District we’ve had for the past decade has been a classic example of gerrymandering, stretching from the North Carolina line to almost the state’s Maryland border. Now, it seems a textbook example of compactness. Alas for those Charlottesville and Albemarle Democrats, the new 5th is about as Republican as the old one has been – rated 53% Republican.
- The Roanoke Valley is due for a competitive state Senate race that will kick out an incumbent. The General Assembly maps in our part of the state didn’t change much from what had been proposed. The biggest change was to take Vinton out of a strangely shaped state Senate district that ran to Waynesboro and instead unite it with Roanoke, Salem, most of Roanoke County and part of Montgomery County (including Christiansburg). That’s certainly a more logical configuration. Politically, here’s what matters: That district would have two incumbents, Democrat John Edwards of Roanoke and Republican David Suetterlein of Roanoke County. Based on previous election returns, the special masters rate this district as 52% Republican, 47.9% Democratic (if you use the 2017 attorney general’s race), or 54% Republican, 45.9% Democratic (if you use the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race). This map returns the Roanoke Valley to the types of maps, and types of elections, it once had when Republican Ray Garland ousted Democratic Bill Hopkins in 1979, when Democrat Granger Macfarlane ousted Garland in 1983, when Republican Brandon Bell ousted Macfarlane in 1991 and then when Democrat John Edwards ousted Bell in 1995.
Democrats had lobbied hard to avoid this; they wanted a state Senate district that connected Roanoke with Blacksburg or, if possible, both Blacksburg and Radford. Instead they got most of Roanoke County and Republican-voting Christiansburg. The special masters, in their report, singled out the Roanoke Valley for commentary: “The Roanoke Valley/New River Valley areas were perhaps the most vexing areas to assess, especially since we received so many contradictory claims regarding what areas should be included in which districts and where exactly the COIs [communities of interest] lay. Had we started in this area we might have drawn different districts, but we ultimately decided we could not enact major changes here. The Roanoke suburb of Vinton was placed with Roanoke to accommodate a request that appeared to be sensible given transportation lines and population patterns.” If this district votes the way it has in recent years, the result would be a Republican state senator. In fact, under these new lines, both Democratic state senators west of the Blue Ridge likely would lose, leaving Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, as the only Democratic legislator west of Charlottesville. Not all that is the fault of mapmaking, though; that’s a reflection of how much rural voters have realigned into the Republican column.
5. We’re going to see other incumbents retire or move. The only question is who and where. The new maps pair some incumbents but also create some open districts. The catch is that this part of the state loses representation overall – that’s a population thing – so somebody somewhere is going to wind up losing a seat. I went through many of those options, so rather than repeat them, I refer you here. The biggest drama will be in the Shenandoah Valley, where three incumbents wind up in a single district: Democrat Creigh Deeds of Bath County, Republican Emmett Hanger of Augusta County and Republican Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County. If nobody moves, two of them will lose out, which is a big loss of seniority for this part of the state, if nothing else. However, there are options, if those senators choose to exercise them. Deeds and Hanger could move. There’s now a state Senate district around Charlottesville and Albemarle with no incumbent and a strong Democratic majority. That’s where most of Deeds’ constituents now are anyway. The maps also split Augusta County. There were lots of voter comments objecting to that split. The special masters send their regrets: “We could not make this work with equal population concerns.” But Hanger, if he wanted, could move there – into a district that has no incumbent. Of course, others might have an interest in that district, which runs all the way to the Hollins neighborhood of Roanoke County. Two House incumbents – Terry Austin and Chris Head of Botetourt County – get paired. Considering that Austin is set to become chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he seems an unlikely candidate to be interested in a state Senate seat. But Head ought to be looking at the possibility. I guarantee you right now a lot of those incumbents are going to be checking the real estate listings – or other job opportunities.
- So did this process work or not? There is no such thing as a perfect redistricting map. Because the numbers have to balance out, there will always be some locality that gets chopped up when it doesn’t think it should be, and some county that gets paired with one it doesn’t feel much kinship with. The question is, can those unfortunate outcomes be minimized? The great philosophers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards long ago advised us: “You can’t always get what you want.” They may as well have been the redistricting special masters.
The real question isn’t whether these maps are perfect – they most certainly are not – but how they match up against what could have been. What maps would a Democratic majority in the General Assembly have drawn this fall if voters hadn’t taken that power away from them and given it to a redistricting commission? What maps would that commission have approved? It may have been completely unrealistic to expect a commission composed of equal numbers of partisans to agree on anything – but at least we got to see just how gerrymandered each side would have drawn the maps if given the power.
The special masters didn’t go along with any of that. They didn’t draw strange lines through Bent Mountain and Alleghany Springs to connect Roanoke with Radford and Blacksburg, as Democrats wanted in their state Senate maps. They didn’t slice up the Richmond suburbs or slice up Lynchburg, as Republicans had proposed. They also didn’t keep incumbents in mind, which is why two Republicans – Cline and Griffith – now find themselves in the same district and why a Democrat – Abigail Spanberger of Henrico County – now finds herself in a district with Republican Rob Wittman. Instead, they focused on population, which is why they drew yet another congressional district on the outskirts of Northern Virginia, one that has no incumbent. The only strangely-shaped district out of the 11 is the 1st, which is mostly the counties east of the fall line, south of the Potomac and north of the James, with the exception of the western suburbs of Richmond. The special masters were somewhat forced into that odd-looking district because so many voters complained about the Richmond suburbs being split — so the special masters put them together and had to attach them somewhere. They also had to work around the legal necessity of drawing other districts nearby that have large Black majorities, so they weren’t exactly working with a blank canvass. One oddly-shaped district out of 11 is probably a pretty good record.
If federal courts don’t intervene, Virginians won’t wind up with perfectly shaped districts, but they will wind up with something they’ve never had before: districts that weren’t drawn to benefit the party already in power.
Here are maps of the new congressional districts, in numerical order: