We are just weeks away from midterm elections that could upend the nation’s political dynamics and … if you’re in much of Virginia, you might not even notice.
To be sure, Virginia does have two hotly contested House districts whose outcome could tip the balance: In Hampton Roads’ 2nd District, Democratic incumbent Elaine Luria faces a strong challenge from Republican Jen Kiggans, and in the 7th District between Richmond and Northern Virginia, Democratic incumbent Abigail Spanberger faces a hot race against Republican Yesli Vega.
Both parties also have districts that might get classified as “stretch goals.” In Northern Virginia’s 10th District, Republican challenger Hung Cao is taking on Democratic incumbent Jennifer Wexton, and in Southside’s 5th District, Democrat Josh Throneburg is trying to unseat Republican Bob Good.
West of the Blue Ridge, though (and a few places east of the Blue Ridge), the campaigns are not nearly so competitive.
In the 6th District, which now stretches from the Roanoke Valley up Interstate 81 to Winchester, Republican incumbent Ben Cline has a rematch with his 2018 challenger, Democrat Jennifer Lewis.
And in the 9th District, which now pushes out of Southwest Virginia into Franklin County and parts of Bedford County, Republican incumbent Morgan Griffith faces Democrat Taysha DeVaughn.
On what basis do I blithely declare these races noncompetitive?
First, there’s history:
- Cline took 59.7% of the vote in his first race against Lewis and 64.6% against a different Democratic challenger two years ago – and redistricting has only made the district more Republican.
- After first winning election in 2010 against an incumbent, Griffith has never polled less than 61% in any election – his average share, in a contested race since then, has been 66.75%. It’s hard to make that district more Republican but redistricting may have done just that.
Second, there’s other election analysis:
An analysis by the two special masters who drew the new district lines for the Virginia Supreme Court found that the 6th and 9th are the two most Republican districts in the state. In looking at elections between 2016 and 2020, the special masters determined the newly drawn 6th is 59.4% Republican and the 9th is 67.7% Republican. In the 2020 presidential election, the 6th – as it’s now drawn – voted 60.1% for Donald Trump, the 9th voted 70.2% for Trump. (The 9th may be the state’s most Republican district but it’s not the state’s most lopsided district; that honor, if you call it such, belongs to the 8th District in Northern Virginia, which voted 76.7% for Joe Biden in 2020.) Virginia currently has four Republican House members, but those other two Republican congressmen – Good in the 5th and Rob Wittman in the 1st – come from districts without such a strong Republican tilt. The 5th voted 53.2% for Trump; the 1st voted 52.4% for him. In theory, those districts could be competitive under the right circumstances. The 6th and 9th, though, stand alone in Virginia for being such deep shades of red.
So that’s the documentation of how strongly Republican those two districts are. That doesn’t address, though, why these districts are so Republican. One obvious answer is that both are mostly rural districts – and in today’s America, rural localities with low minority populations routinely vote Republican, strongly so. Some might find that curious — maybe rural areas should be liberal because they benefit from lots of government subsidies (most rural schools in Virginia get the majority of their school funding from Richmond) and maybe urban areas should be conservative because they benefit the most from the free enterprise system — but culturally rural areas are conservative and so they vote that way, as well. That explanation may suffice for some but for data nerds and history nerds like myself, there’s more than can be said about just how these two districts wound up so Republican because they came to that political conclusion in two different ways.
How the 9th District moved from the Fightin’ Ninth to the strongest Republican district in the state
Let’s start with the 9th – because not only is it the strongest Republican congressional district in the state, it’s also one that was Democratic until a dozen years ago. What changed?
The short answer is that the coal counties changed, part of a broader realignment of not just rural voters in general but Appalachian voters in particular. At the national level, West Virginia was once a reliably Democratic state – up until 2000, when George W. Bush carried it over Al Gore. How much of that was simply cultural conservatism, and how much of that was Gore’s environmentalism, which didn’t play well in coal country? Who knows? All we know is that West Virginia is now a state where Republican candidates for president don’t just win, they win big – Trump took 68.6% of the vote in West Virginia in 2020.
We see the same thing happening in Virginia’s coalfields, just a little later. In 1996, Bill Clinton carried all of the localities in Virginia’s coal country. In 2000, Bush and Gore split the region – but Gore still took 58% in Buchanan County, 55% in Dickenson County and 50.4% in Russell County. As late as 2004, Democrat John Kerry still carried Buchanan County with 53.7% and Dickenson County with 50.8%. That was the last time a Democratic candidate for president won there. By 2020, Trump was posting vote shares north of 80% in many coal counties – 80.45% in Wise County, 81.27% in Russell County, 83.1% in Tazewell County, 83.38% in Scott County, 83.5% in Buchanan County, 84.10% in Lee County. In historical terms, the realignment of the coal counties has been stunningly swift. It’s hard to believe now that this was once part of the Democratic base in Virginia. In less than two decades, some counties have gone from being reliably Democratic to not just reliably Republican, but more than 80% Republican. While the scale of realignment in coal country has been dramatic, it’s not the only place this has happened. We’ve seen a similar realignment across the Blue Ridge in Henry County, which once had been a Democratic stronghold. In 2001, Democrat Mark Warner took 61% of the vote there; last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin took 69.6%.
Other parts of the 9th have always been Republican, particularly those localities along the Blue Ridge. Floyd County is the most reliably Republican county in the state. It’s voted Republican in every presidential election since 1912 – when it voted for Theodore Roosevelt, a former Republican president, who was running a third-party campaign on the Bull Moose Party ticket. If you want to find the last time Floyd County voted for a Democrat for president you have to go back to Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880. In 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt was romping to victory over Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression, only one locality in Virginia stuck with Hoover. You guessed it: Floyd County.
Carroll County next door is almost as Republican: It voted for FDR in 1932 but otherwise has consistently voted for Republicans for president since 1892.
Both those counties have now become more Republican, as rural areas have shifted against Democrats, so the 9th offers a combination of a) former Democratic localities that now are the strongest Republican localities in the state, b) the most reliable Republican localities in the state that are now even more Republican, and c) some rural areas that once were considered swing counties that are now strongly Republican. It’s hard to remember but there was a time when counties such as Pulaski, Smyth and Washington were considered swing areas; now they’re strongly Republican.
In all of the 9th District, there are only three localities where Democrats still win – and even those localities aren’t particularly strong for Democrats. The last time Griffith faced opposition, the only localities he lost were Montgomery County and Radford (both home to major state universities) and Martinsville (which has a large minority population). In last year’s gubernatorial election, the Democratic advantage in two of those three localities went away – Youngkin carried both Montgomery County and Radford.
Redistricting has added even more Republican-voting territory. Henry County had been split between districts, now it’s entirely in the 9th. Franklin County has been added. So has part of Bedford County. All those localities voted for Trump in 2020 and Youngkin in 2021 at higher voter shares than Griffith has averaged district-wide – 66.7%. So, yes, redistricting has made the most Republican congressional district in Virginia even more Republican.
How the 6th District has become more Republican over time
While the 9th is a relatively recent convert to the Republican Party – and rests partly on that sudden realignment of the coal counties – the 6th has a much longer and different history with the Republican Party.
The big Republican breakthrough in Virginia came in 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower carried the state for president, and swept in three Republican congressmen — Joel Broyhill in Northern Virginia’s 10th District, William Wampler in Southwest Virginia’s 9th District, and Richard Poff in the 6th District, which then encompassed the New River Valley, the Roanoke Valley and Lynchburg. Over time the 9th expanded to take in New River, and the most recent redistricting cleaved off Lynchburg, but the one constant over the years has been the Roanoke Valley, so let’s start there and work our way north.
The 6th was once a Republican district partly because Roanoke was a Republican city. From 1948 to 1972, the city voted Republican for president every year except one – the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. It went Republican again for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and barely voted for Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988. Historically speaking, Roanoke was the city that Republican Linwood Holton chose to make his political base. Roanoke was the historical capital of the so-called “mountain-valley Republicans,” who led the party in the days when the conservative Byrd Democrats dominated the state. Since then many white-collar voters have realigned from right to left, but Roanoke’s realignment from Republican to Democrat has been counterbalanced – more than counterbalanced – by other realignments in the more rural parts of the district. Roanoke is now the proverbial blue island in a great red sea that runs west of the Blue Ridge.
For instance, rural Botetourt County was once considered Democratic. Now, like other rural localities, it votes Republican – 71.49% for Trump, 76.3% for Youngkin. Small blue-collar cities such as Buena Vista and Covington were once Democratic strongholds, so much so that statewide Democrats made a point of rallying there every Labor Day. Now, that tradition has been largely abandoned by Democrats and no wonder why: Now both places routinely vote 60% or more Republican, with Buena Vista voting 74% for Youngkin. That’s consistent with many blue-collar voters nationwide now voting Republican.
The trade-off for Democrats nationwide has been they’ve traded blue-collar voters for white-collar voters – which means they now run strong in suburbs where they once did not. The one exception is Roanoke County, the suburban county that is the doughnut to the twin doughnut holes of Roanoke and Salem. Northern Virginia may be lost to Democrats but Roanoke County remains the state’s most solidly Republican suburb, voting 59.93% for Trump in 2020 and 65.7% for Glenn Youngkin last year.
The strong Republican vote in Roanoke County (which is split between the 6th and the 9th) makes it especially hard for Democrats to win in the 6th. In the 2018 congressional race, the three biggest sources of voters were Roanoke, Roanoke County and Rockingham County, each providing between 31,000 and 32,000 votes. Lewis won the city by 8,131 votes but then saw that margin nearly erased by Roanoke County, which she lost by 6,716 votes. She then lost Rockingham County by 12,122 votes.
These are the hard numbers any Democrat in the 6th has to deal with. Even if Roanoke County mysteriously flipped to voting Democratic the way other suburban counties in the state have, redistricting has steadily added more and more Republican-voting counties to the 6th. If the Blue Ridge Plateau of Southwest Virginia was one historic home of Republicanism in Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley was another.
Here’s some history: In the 1870s and 1880s, Virginia had a party called the Readjuster Party – so-called because it favored “readjusting” the state debt to free up money for things such as education. That put the Readjusters in opposition to the Democrats, then a conservative party that was aligned with the state’s business interests – to whom much of that debt was owed. Broadly speaking, the Readjusters represented small farmers and small business owners, along with newly enfranchised Black Virginia. Geographically speaking, the Readjusters tended to be a western party that stood against the state’s old Tidewater elite. Here’s where all this is headed: The Readjusters were especially strong in the Shenandoah Valley; one of their leaders was Harrison Riddleberger of Shenandoah County, who authored that debt readjustment law and later became a U.S. senator. In time, the Readjusters evolved into Republicans, and they were always strongest west of the Blue Ridge. Riddleberger’s Shenandoah County has been almost as reliably Republican as Floyd and Carroll. Other than Roosevelt’s election over Hoover in 1932, Shenandoah County has voted Republican every year for president since 1916. Other localities in the Shenandoah Valley also showed Republican tendencies even when Republicans were little more than a fringe party in state elections.
Over the years, redistricting has pushed the 6th District north – it took in Rockingham County after the 1980 census, it took in Shenandoah County after the 2000 census, it took in Page County and Warren County after the 2010 census. Now it’s gone even farther north, bringing in Clarke County, Frederick County and Winchester – and losing Lynchburg as the new mapmakers created an I-81 district completely west of the Blue Ridge. That has made the 6th even more Republican. Some may think of Lynchburg as Republican, and sometimes it is, but it also has been close in recent years and tipped to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race. By contrast, most of the newly added parts of the 6th are strongly Republican (Winchester being an exception) – so, yes, by trading Lynchburg for the northern Shenandoah Valley, the 6th has become even more Republican. Frederick County is now the district’s second-most populous locality, after only Roanoke. Frederick County also voted 62.7% Republican in 2020 and 68.9% Republican in 2021.
So over time, what we’ve seen in the 6th is a) Democratic rural areas realigning into Republican areas, b) suburban Roanoke County remaining solidly Republican, c) the district expanding north to bring in some historic Republican counties – and d) the realignment of Roanoke (and smaller cities such as Harrisonburg and Staunton) into Democratic communities not nearly enough to make up for that. In terms of population, the communities in the 6th that typically vote Democratic – Harrisonburg, Lexington, Roanoke, Staunton and Winchester – add up to just 27.48% of the district’s population.
The one aberration to the 6th political history came with the election of Democrat Jim Olin in 1982; he served for a decade until his retirement and in later years was never seriously threatened. Olin benefited from a Democratic year in 1982 — Ronald Reagan’s first midterms — and a Republican Party split that resulted in a candidate from the northern part of the district, Kevin Miller of Harrisonburg. Politics were less polarized then, and more geographical, so Miller’s candidacy made it possible for Olin to win in Roanoke County — plus he had the benefit of many rural areas that were still willing to vote Democratic, such as Botetourt County and the Alleghany Highlands. Olin took north of 60% in many of those. Simply put: Those were different times. Those are not places Democrats win today.
It’s hard to see either of these districts voting Democratic unless and until there’s some massive realignment of rural voters into the Democratic column. Using the 2020 results as a baseline, Democrats would need about 23% of Ben Cline’s voters to switch parties for them to win the 6th. Griffith had no opponent in 2020 but using the 2018 results, the same percentage would apply in that district. What are the odds that nearly one of every four Republicans in the state’s Republican heartland would vote Democratic? You can figure out for yourself how likely that is anytime soon.
Why are the 6th and 9th districts so predictable? These are the reasons why.