Now that we have answers to one question – what will the Supreme Court’s redistricting maps look like? – we can ask more questions, so let’s get to it.
The first question comes from one of our readers in Galax, who asked:
- What is the process when two state delegates or senators are thrown into the same district? Is there a primary if they are of the same party? What if they are of two different parties?
This is more than an academic question. The mapmakers – two “special masters,” one Democratic, one Republican, appointed by the court – intentionally drew their maps without regard for where incumbents lived. The result is that some districts include more than one incumbent, and some don’t include any. In our part of Virginia, these are the legislators who find themselves paired up:
U.S. House of Representatives
- Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem.
- Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County; Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County; and Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County.
- John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.
- Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, and Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg.
House of Delegates
- Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, and Will Wampler Jr., R-Washington County.
- Marie March, R-Floyd County, and Wren Williams, R-Patrick County. (Of note: Neither of these legislators has served a day yet. Both were elected for the first time in November and already one of them is a short-timer.)
- Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, and Chris Head, R-Botetourt County.
- Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockridge County, and John Avioli, R-Staunton.
- Danny Marshall, R-Danville, and Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County.
- Kathy Byron, R-Campbell County, and Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg.
The answer to our reader’s question is: politics happens. There’s no specific process other than the usual process of each party nominating a candidate for the next election, whether by primary, convention or a Black Mass at midnight in a cornfield. That process is up to each party and may be subject to some politics, depending on who thinks they’ll benefit from which method. (See the 2020 5th District Republican nomination, where Bob Good favored a convention of party insiders rather than face Denver Riggleman in a primary that would include any voter who wanted to show up and cast a ballot.) If there are two legislators of the same party in the same district, it’s no different than any other nominating contest when two candidates want the same nomination. They have to slug it out.
Now, how many cage matches should we expect out of this? I’d be surprised if there were any. Some legislators may choose to retire. Some may choose to move – there are three delegate districts in this part of Virginia that will have no incumbent, and one of those is right next to the district where Byron and Walker live. Some may choose to run for some other office – there are four Senate districts in this part of Virginia with no incumbent. Take, for instance, Austin and Head. Both live in Botetourt County so it’s not surprising they wound up in the same House district. However, they also both now live in a state Senate district with no incumbent. One of them could easily run for that. (Head would seem the logical candidate, since Austin is set to become chairman of the House Transportation Committee; you don’t throw away that kind of seniority lightly.)
Now, how all this shakes out will be interesting – who stays and who goes? However, some of this was also expected. We knew Southwest and Southside would lose seats because of population shifts to other parts of the state. When Wampler ran for his seat in 2019, he surely knew that district would probably get eliminated in the next redistricting. Edmunds has lamented that he’s getting doubled up with Marshall. “I said all along that somebody in Southside was going to lose their seat,” he recently told the South Boston News & Record. “It’s not fun, but somebody has to go. We don’t have the population to keep it up.” March, in a podcast interview, hinted at a conspiracy to put her and Williams in the same district, but it’s hard to have a conspiracy if the two mapmakers didn’t even know where incumbents lived. And again, given the numbers, Southwest Virginia was going to lose multiple seats. If she and Williams weren’t going to get paired together, then two other Republicans somewhere else would be. The math is unforgiving. The only resolution we know so far is on the congressional level, where there are no residency rules. Griffith has already said he’ll run again in the 9th, despite new maps that put him in the 6th.
Next question? We haven’t received any others from readers, but I have a few – and, conveniently, I have answers, too.
- Did the Democrats who backed the constitutional amendment setting up this new process make a colossal mistake? Well, that depends on how you define “mistake.” Many of these definitions are, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, or, in the case of redistricting, the eye of the officeholder. Democrats were all for a new redistricting process when they were in the minority. Once they regained the majority in the General Assembly, many of them lost their enthusiasm. That’s not surprising: Until now, the majority party has always controlled redistricting. So, in that sense, yes, Democrats made a mistake because they gave up power. They could have spent the fall drawing the most ingenious lines possible to maximize their chances and minimize the chances of Republicans. Voters, though, made it clear that they didn’t want that kind of redistricting. They probably wanted exactly the kind of redistricting they got from the Supreme Court: maps drawn without regard for incumbents, maps that at least aspired to be logical even if they weren’t always.
Longtime Democratic consultant Ben Tribbett tweeted his disgust with the result: “No surprise the Republican VA Supreme Court drew a 6-5 GOP congressional gerrymander in a Biden +10 state. Total hacks, and every member of the court needs to come off when they are up for reappointment.”
I disagree. Now Tribbett is a partisan and I’m not, so we see the world in very different ways. Many Democrats (and not just him) focused on statewide results over the past 12 years (they tend to regard this year as a fluke) and felt that the congressional and legislative mix should reflect that, with guaranteed Democratic majorities. The problem: Neither party’s vote is distributed evenly geographically. The problem for Democrats is that their vote is so clustered in metro areas, particularly Northern Virginia. A lot of their votes are essentially “wasted” because they wind up in such heavily Democratic districts. If you try to draw districts that emphasize compactness, you wind up with districts like this: The new 8th District in Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church and part of Fairfax County is rated 75.6% Democratic. Democrats would be better off if that were a 55% Democratic district, and all those “surplus” Democrats were somewhere else in the state – say, the 5th District. But that’s not how people live.
I don’t see any gerrymandering in these maps, if you define gerrymandering as drawing weird-looking lines to benefit one party. Most of the districts look pretty logical. Where there are weird lines, they’re drawn for purposes of making the numbers work out, not to help this side or hurt the other. I’d have drawn different lines but I can’t say mine would have been “better.” For instance, I would have put Bedford County wholly in the 5th Congressional District rather than mostly in the 9th, but then those numbers would have had to have been made up somewhere else.
I’d also contend that the new congressional maps, while more geographically logical than before, don’t really change the political balance. Virginia’s current congressional delegation is seven Democrats, four Republicans. However, it’s probably better to score it as five seats that are generally sure for Democrats (Bobby Scott in the 3rd, Donald McEachin in the 4th, Gerald Connolly in the 8th, Jennifer Wexton in the 10th and Don Beyer in the 11th), four that are sure for Republicans (Rob Wittman in the 1st, Bob Good in the 5th, Cline in the 6th and Griffith in the 9th), with two swing districts that right now have swung Democratic (Elaine Luria in the 2nd and Abigail Spanberger in the 7th) but could easily swing the other way. Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago that the 10th District elected a Republican (Barbara Comstock, who was elected in 2014 and then defeated in 2018). So while Virginia’s delegation is currently 7-4 Democratic, not long ago it was 7-4 Republican. What these new maps give us are five sure Democratic districts (3rd, 4th, 8th, 10th and 11th), one likely Democratic district (the 7th), two sure Republican districts (6th and 9th), two likely Republican districts (1st and 5th) and one truly swing district (the 2nd, which is rated as 49.6% Democratic and 48.4% Republican). So instead of the current 7-4 Democratic split with two of those Democrats being perpetually vulnerable, it looks like the new districts will be 6-4-1. It could easily be 7-4 Democratic or, in the right year for Republicans (and the wrong one for Democrats), it could be 6-5 Republican. I’m not really sure that’s much of a difference from what we have now. Plus there’s this: If you count that very swingy 2nd, there are technically seven districts with more demonstrated Democratic voters than Republican ones.
- So did Republicans make a mistake by not coming to an agreement in the redistricting commission and instead letting this go to the Supreme Court? Again, define “mistake.” If they thought a Supreme Court elected mostly by Republican legislators would do them favors, they were wrong. The court didn’t seem to be in a mood to do anybody any favors. In fact, the court rejected the most partisan Republican nominees for a special master and went with Sean Trende, who might identify as a Republican but is also one of the most straight-shooting political analysts in the land. Republicans didn’t really get what they could have from the court. It certainly ignored Republican pleas to put Cline and Griffith in different districts (not that it really mattered). On the other hand, Republicans are certainly better off than if they had been left to the tender mercies of Democrats under the old system.
I’m not really sympathetic to complaints from either party on these congressional maps – although I still think some of the General Assembly maps are a mess, but they are, at least, a well-intentioned mess. The mapmakers tried to respect the Blue Ridge as a dividing line, they tried to minimize splitting localities, and they did listen to at least some of the public comments and tried to reshape lines accordingly. If some of the General Assembly maps are a mess, it’s simply because it’s harder to draw 40 Senate districts and 100 House districts than it is to draw 11 congressional districts – and still make the math work out.
- What are the best-shaped districts? It’s hard to get much more logical than the new House of Delegates districts in Roanoke and Lynchburg. The district Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, has represented has always been pretty coherent: It’s most of the city. The new maps jiggle the lines a little but it’s still most of the city. Lynchburg has been split between two House districts. Now it’s united in a single district, with a little piece of Campbell County added in to make the numbers balance. Likewise, the state Senate district that now covers Lynchburg, Bedford County and Campbell County is quite sensible. Yes, it throws two Lynchburg-area Republican senators into the same district, but I’m more focused on practicalities than politics. Consider this: The maps we have had for the past decade had a state Senate district that went from Lynchburg all the way to Craig County on the West Virginia line. Now there’s a Senate district focused solely on Lynchburg and environs. As the great political analyst Mary Poppins might say, those districts are “practically perfect,” and Lynchburg’s new House and Senate districts are certainly a vast improvement from what it had been. (Craig County, alas, doesn’t necessarily find its situation improved. Instead of being united with Lynchburg, it’s now in a district that runs all the way to Staunton and Waynesboro. Them’s the breaks.)
- What are the worst-shaped districts? We have a lot more contenders here. If I had to pick – and since I asked the question, I suppose I do – I’d pick finalists in both the state Senate and the House of Delegates. On the Senate side, I’d say the 7th state Senate district. On paper (or digital electrons), it looks quite reasonably shaped – as long as you don’t take into account topography. The biggest problem is how Wythe County gets split in two, and the eastern part assigned to a district whose population is weighted east of the Blue Ridge in Franklin County, Henry County and Martinsville. That’s a bad deal for Wythe County, whose residents will live closer to two other state senators (Todd Pillion of Washington County and Travis Hackworth of Tazewell County) than to the one who will actually represent them (Bill Stanley of Franklin County).
On the House side, I’d fault the way Montgomery County is split between two House districts. It’s now split among three House districts so getting split between just two seems a modest improvement, but this split still seems to defy the reality on the ground. In a more perfect world (and more perfect maps), the three biggest communities in the New River Valley – Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Radford – would wind up in the same district. (My pole star here is compactness, not political considerations.) Instead they’re split (once again) between two House districts and two Senate districts. If you have to split them up, then there are arguments that Blacksburg and Christiansburg, as the two big towns in Montgomery County, should be grouped together. There are also arguments that Blacksburg and Radford, as two college towns, should be paired. Neither happens. The House map, though, goes with a more unusual Christiansburg-Radford pairing yet somehow pairs the Riner area with Blacksburg instead of neighboring Christiansburg. Democrats had argued that on the Senate side Roanoke should be paired with Blacksburg. Now, they obviously had partisan considerations in mind – both places vote Democratic – but they did have some well-founded arguments that there are lots of economic ties between Roanoke and Blacksburg, more so than Roanoke and Christiansburg. Yet the state Senate map that takes in most of the Roanoke Valley wraps in Christiansburg, not Blacksburg. Good for Republicans, but maybe not the most logical. Blacksburg, meanwhile, gets drawn into a state Senate district that runs all the way to Tazewell County. That brings us to . . .
- Who should be most upset with these maps? That seems easy. Outside of the urban crescent, the most disappointed voters are surely Democrats in the two big college towns – Blacksburg and Charlottesville. Democrats in Charlottesville and neighboring Albemarle County flooded the public comments with complaints about how they don’t want to be in the 5th Congressional District with all those rural Republicans. Guess what? They’re still in the 5th Congressional District with all those rural Republicans. Our site tracks what search terms people are using. I notice that one recent search term was: “albemarle and c’ville get screwed in va redistricting.” Their problem is geographical: They live too far away from other concentrations of Democratic voters. Democrats in Blacksburg are arguably even more unhappy. For the past decade, they’ve been in a state Senate district represented by Democrat John Edwards of Roanoke. Now, suddenly, they’re in a state Senate district represented by Republican Travis Hackworth of Tazewell County. He’s farther away and, in the eyes of Blacksburg Democrats, he’s in the wrong party. Hold that thought.
- Who should be happiest with these maps? Let me rephrase that: Whose position is unexpectedly improved by these maps? Newly elected Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County, certainly gets a more Republican-friendly district than the competitive one he was just elected in – Democratic-voting Blacksburg has been taken out and some Republican-voting rural areas added in. He’s gone from a district that could easily elect a Democrat (and obviously had) to one that’s now rated 61.3% Republican. His life just got a lot easier.
Any Democrat in western Roanoke County should like these new maps because now Blacksburg has been drawn in with the Glenvar area. Ballard’s district becomes less competitive but, lo, here’s a new competitive district that doesn’t have an incumbent. Likewise, Democrats ought to like that Lynchburg is united in a single House district. It still leans Republicans but now Democrats think they might have a shot in a good year.
On the other hand, any ambitious Republican between Hollins and Staunton and Waynesboro now lives in a Republican-leaning state Senate district with no incumbent. This is an opportunity for someone. Same with some Republican who lives between Appomattox County and Hanover County. Here’s another Republican-leaning state Senate district that appears free for the taking. There are also opportunities for Republicans in several House districts that have no incumbent: Some Republican living in Franklin County or eastern Roanoke County just got lucky. Ditto some Republican in northern Bedford County, Amherst County or southern Nelson County.
On the congressional level, you can argue that Spanberger is in a better position. She now lives outside her reconfigured 7th District but says she’ll run in it anyway. It’s still a competitive district but is a wee bit more Democratic than before: She was elected in 2018 with 50.3% of the vote and reelected in 2020 with 50.8%. Now the 7th is rated 52.3% Democratic. Considering some of the proposed alternatives, she ought to be pretty happy with this.
8. What’s the most unexpected consequence of these maps? It’s not political, it’s economic – at least potentially. The map puts Blacksburg – and Virginia Tech – in a district that runs to the coalfields. That could have interesting consequences under the right circumstances. Here’s a state senator from the coalfields whose district now suddenly includes one of the most important institutions in the state – Virginia Tech. In fact, here’s a state senator from the coalfields whose district now includes two state universities – he also represents Radford and Radford University. Democrats in Blacksburg and Radford won’t like this because they will consider themselves trapped in a Republican district, and it’s easier to understand why Hackworth might not like this either: He’s now going to hear from noisy college town liberals every time he casts a routine Republican vote. On the other hand, this seems a geopolitical opportunity for Southwest Virginia.
Hackworth ought to be looking at Virginia Tech and Radford like a restaurant menu to figure out what things he can order that would benefit the more far-flung, rural parts of his district. Yes, I realize the world doesn’t quite work that way but still, this is a very different political dynamic from what we’ve had where Tech’s state senator was officially from Roanoke. Maybe it doesn’t really matter whose district Tech is in. Tech is a statewide institution that doesn’t just depend on a single legislator to speak for its interests in the state Senate. However, could these new maps, which strip seats from Southwest Virginia, actually benefit Southwest Virginia? For the past three decades or more, Roanoke has been looking to build closer ties to Tech and has done so quite spectacularly. Here’s a grand opportunity for coal country to do the same. I’ll just throw this out in the spirit of brainstorming: Maybe Hackworth should be asking Tech President Tim Sands what it would take to build a mini-Corporate Research Center in, say, Richlands or Marion or the Virginia side of Bluefield. Speaking of Bluefield, a few years ago there was a proposal for Bluefield College – now Bluefield University – to start its own dental school. That didn’t happen, but if there’s still a need for dentists in Appalachia, maybe Hackworth could go to Virginia Tech, which now has a medical school in Roanoke with Carilion, and make the case that maybe Tech should open a dental school and put it in the coalfields. Then again, legislators from Southwest could do all that no matter how the lines are drawn.