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Republican Jen Kiggans ousted Democratic incumbent Elaine Luria in the 2nd Congressional District in Hampton Roads.
You know what really defeated Luria? It wasn’t inflation or crime or her role in the Jan. 6 committee investigations into the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol. It was redistricting.
Had General Assembly Democrats been able to draw the new district lines last year – as the majority in the legislature always had before – they’d have surely drawn a district more favorable to Luria and other Democratic incumbents.
They didn’t control that process, though. Virginia voters in 2020 approved a constitutional amendment setting up a bipartisan (not nonpartisan, but bipartisan) redistricting commission to draw new lines. When that evenly divided commission predictably failed to agree, the task was kicked to the Virginia Supreme Court, which appointed two “special masters” – one nominated by Democrats, one nominated by Republicans. They’re the ones who drew the present lines for the congressional and General Assembly districts.
Their mission was to draw lines without regard for where incumbents lived; they also set out to draw more geographically coherent lines – and those lines didn’t do some of Virginia’s Democratic House members any favors. They didn’t do some Republicans any favors, either. The special masters put Salem in the 6th Congressional District, which meant that 9th District Republican incumbent Morgan Griffith and 6th District Republican incumbent Ben Cline were in the same district. The law doesn’t require House members to live in their district, though, just to live in the state, so Griffith simply kept running in the 9th District. Judging by the election results – Griffith took a record 73.49% – voters didn’t seem to mind voting for someone who no longer lives in the district.
The new districts deprived 7th District Democratic incumbent Abigail Spanberger of what had been her base in the Richmond suburbs; she moved into a radically reconfigured 7th District squeezed between Richmond and Northern Virginia that, fortunately for her, had Democratic voters in Prince William County for her to eke out another victory.
The impact on Luria was more significant. She won election in 2018 with 51% of the vote and reelection in 2020 with 51.6%. The special masters drew a district that they officially rated 49.6% Democratic and 48.4% Republican based on composite election returns of the previous four years. This time she lost – Kiggans took 51.95%, Luria 47.90%. Now, the 2nd District, under previous maps, had long been a competitive one, albeit with a Republican tilt. In 11 previous elections, going back to 2000, Republicans have won that district eight times, Democrats three times. Hampton Roads is simply a competitive place.The point is, though, that if Democrats had had a free hand in drawing the lines, they’d have made sure the lines this time were more favorable for Luria. In less gentle language, they’d have gerrymandered. They’d have brought in fewer of the Republican-voting rural areas that the special masters included and brought in as much of Democratic-voting Norfolk and Portsmouth as they could have without running afoul of the necessity of creating a district that Democrat Bobby Scott of Newport News could win.
If you’re a Democrat, Luria’s loss stands as a great injustice – and a reason why the party was foolish to give up the power of redistricting and allow the constitutional amendment to go to a referendum where everyone knew it would pass. If you’re a Republican, this is a case where the new redistricting process worked to the GOP’s advantage (knowing in their hearts that if they had kept control of the legislature they’d have never approved this new process and would have gerrymandered things the other way). If you’re a nonpartisan, you may just be happy to see non-gerrymandered districts – and whatever happens after that happens.
We’ll see more impacts of the new redistricting maps in next year’s General Assembly races – we’re just not entirely sure how. I’ve seen people on both sides complain that the maps were biased against their party, which always seems a sign to me that they’re pretty fair.
Here’s what we do know:
Democrats currently control the Senate 21-19. Obviously some of those seats are in competitive districts that could go either way – under the old maps. One of those districts is the one Kiggans will soon vacate for Washington. In fact, she lost that district in the congressional race, so Democrats see the opportunity to extend their majority to 22-18. That special election in January will take place under the old maps because it’s to fill the remainder of Kiggans’ term.
Under the new maps, the special masters rate 23 districts as leaning Democratic. Five of those are ranked between 51.6% and 54.9% Democratic, so those five should be considered competitive seats. Likewise, three Republican-leaning seats fall into that competitive zone, ranking between 52% and 53.8% Republican. (I count anything under 55% as competitive.) Those eight seats are the ones that will be the most fought over next year. Six of them are in the urban crescent. The two that aren’t are in the Roanoke and New River valleys and eastern Southside – hold that thought.
For Republicans to win the Senate, they need to hold their current seats and win just one or two of those five competitive seats now in Democratic hands – one to force a tie that the Republican lieutenant governor could break, two to win an outright majority. Democrats simply need to hold their current number, although redistricting complicates that from the outset. Redistricting drew state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, into the same district – a district that is ranked 52% Republican.
Democrats had proposed alternative designs that would have kept Edwards in his own district and drawn two Democratic strongholds – Roanoke and Blacksburg – into that district. The special masters, though, were intent on drawing districts that were geographically compact; the Democratic proposals involved some creative mapmaking – some might call that gerrymandering – to connect Roanoke and Blacksburg without picking up too many Republican voters in between. The result was a geographically compact district that tilts Republican. Democrats will want to try to win this district, obviously, but they also have to acknowledge the numbers and make plans to still win the Senate even if they lose this seat. Redistricting did not help Democrats in the Roanoke and New River valleys, although, historically speaking, it simply recreated the type of Senate district the region once had in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when Democratic Roanoke and Republican Roanoke County were in the same district.
Meanwhile, that other competitive seat that’s not in the urban crescent tilts Democratic and has no incumbent – Senate District 17 runs from Brunswick County east to part of Portsmouth. The special masters rate this district as 53.2% Democratic. So far, though, there is no Democratic candidate in this district but there are two Republican contenders: Del. Emily Brewer of Suffolk and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler of Emporia. While this is a Democratic-leaning district, its rural nature also makes it a very appealing Republican target. The Wren Williams-Marie March death match for the Republican nomination for the House district they now share will be the most closely watched in the state, but this one may be a close second.
House of Delegates
Republicans currently control the House 52-48. The special masters rate 53 of these new districts as leaning Democratic, 47 leaning Republican. However, five of those Democratic-leaning districts fall into a competitive zone of between 50.6% and 52.8%. Meanwhile 12 of those Republican-leaning districts fall into a competitive zone between 50.3% and 54.4%. That strikes me as an awful lot of Republican districts that could be in play under the right circumstances. In a Democratic year, Democrats could really run up the score in the House. In a Republican year, Republicans probably can’t win nearly as many seats, but could win a majority. Democrats may rue the congressional redistricting, but they might wind up liking the House redistricting – although once again, left to their own devices, they’d have drawn different lines that they’d have liked even more. For instance, it was theoretically possible to draw a district that would have united Danville and Martinsville in a district that would have been 48.9% Black, and thus likely to elect a Democrat. The special masters rejected that proposal.
Using the special masters’ analysis, for Republicans to retain the House they’ll need to win all 47 Republican-leaning seats and three of the five Democratic-leaning districts. That sounds like hard math to me. Democrats don’t even need to win all the districts that lean their way – just 51 of 53. They don’t need to win a single district that tilts Republican. They would seem to have more margin for error than Republicans do.
Do these numbers mean the special masters were biased against Republicans? No. These are simply the demographics of Virginia, which are close statewide but quite polarized geographically. While it’s always possible to quibble with some of the lines, in general the special masters seem to have done a pretty good job of drawing geographically coherent lines – and they certainly made good on ignoring where incumbents lived because many of them wound up paired together. The first thing either party would have done, had it controlled redistricting, would have been to make sure their incumbents were protected – and the other side’s incumbents were put at a disadvantage. The new redistricting process spared us those kinds of political games.
I’m also skeptical that all these districts are really as competitive as they might seem. One of the districts listed as 50.6% Democratic is the new 41st House District, which covers western Roanoke County and much of Montgomery County and has no incumbent. This is also a district that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 – narrowly. And a district that went for Glenn Youngkin in 2021. So far, no Democratic candidate has emerged here but two Republicans have: Lowell Bowman and Chris Obenshain. No matter what the numbers from 2017 show, this is a district where in 2023 any Republican will start with a built-in advantage. Things do change. Just because a district was ranked one way in the 2017 election analysis doesn’t mean it’s still that way in 2023
We’ve just finished an election (well, sort of; they’re still counting some votes out West) that produced surprising results. Campaigns do matter. Candidates matter. The political environment matters. Right now, we can guess at some things for 2023 but we don’t know a lot of others. Given the lay of the land, the General Assembly elections could go either way. I’m sure not rushing down to the Bristol Casino to lay bets, even if they took wagers on such things.
The only thing we can say for certain is about this year’s election: Virginia’s new redistricting system cost Luria her seat, and in a closely divided House of Representatives where on Wednesday Republicans finally hit the 218 votes they need for a majority, that right now makes the difference.