State Sen. John Edwards’ announcement that he will not seek reelection after 28 years in the General Assembly may mark the end of an era, not simply for one of Roanoke’s most enduring political figures but for the Democratic Party in the western part of the state.
As recently as the early 1990s (which is still recent in geological time), you could travel from the Shenandoah Valley to the farthest tip of Southwest Virginia and never leave a Democratic state Senate district. If you wanted, you could even take a side trip to Lynchburg or into Southside and, for part of that trip, still be in a Democratic district.
Today, Edwards is the only Democratic state senator west of Charlottesville. (Creigh Deeds, long D-Bath County, no longer counts; he’s moved to become D-Charlottesville.) With Edwards’ retirement, the odds are good that when the new state Senate convenes next January, there won’t be any Democrats west of Charlottesville.
I base that on the analysis produced by the two court-appointed special masters — one Democratic, one Republican — who drew the new district lines: Based on the 2017 elections, they rated the district between 52% and 54% Republican. That’s not a slam dunk for state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, who was paired with Edwards in this district (the only slam dunk champion is Mac McClung), but it certainly gives Suetterlein an advantage over any Democratic challenger. I suspect those numbers are weighing on the mind of any potential Democratic candidate right now. One obvious candidate is Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who, like Edwards, is the only Democratic member of his chamber from west of Charlottesville. Rasoul, though, has a safe House district. He’d be ill-advised to give that up for the gamble of a state Senate run. I suspect even Roanoke Valley Republicans would tell him that; they understand that Rasoul’s House seat will go Democratic no matter what. Right now, he’s building up a lot of seniority that will be useful to the Roanoke Valley no matter which party is in power.
That transformation of the region’s legislative delegation is part of the larger realignment of American politics, marked by the precipitous decline of the Democratic Party in rural areas and the shift of many suburban areas away from Republicans. In those early ’90s, before Edwards arrived in Richmond, here’s how different Virginia’s political world was: Not only was the region from Augusta County to Lee County represented by Democrats in the state Senate, but Charlottesville and parts of Fairfax County were represented by Republicans. Now, of course, the political poles have completely switched.
That had started to change by the time Edwards took office in January 1996 — by then Charlottesville had elected a Democratic state senator and coal country had started to elect Republicans — but it has dramatically accelerated since then. Now it’s clear that the wisdom imparted by the great philosopher Taylor Swift applies to the breakup of rural Virginia and the Democratic Party: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” At least not for any foreseeable future, not when Republicans are taking 80%-plus of the vote in many places and Democrats are struggling to even stay in the teens. (In the 2021 governor’s race, the Democratic share of the vote in Lee County was just 12.1%; that’s a county where Democrat Mark Warner took 53.3% just two decades before.)
Edwards — and Rasoul — have survived politically because Roanoke is the proverbial blue island surrounded by a vast red sea. Rasoul benefits because House districts are smaller and his is entirely within Democratic-voting Roanoke. Edwards has survived, frankly, because of gerrymandering — and it’s the lack of gerrymandering this time that has put his seat at risk.
Some history is in order, because, in terms of legislative lines, we’re in a “Back to the Future” moment. Historically, the seat Edwards has occupied consisted of Roanoke and however much of Roanoke County was necessary to make the population numbers work out. From the 1970s and into the 1990s, that meant the district was the classic swing seat.
In 1979, Republican Ray Garland ousted Democrat William Hopkins, who had held the seat for two decades. (Here’s how different things were then: Garland took nearly 54% of the vote in the city.)
In 1983, Democrat Granger Macfarlane defeated Garland and was reelected four years later.
In 1991, Republican Brandon Bell defeated Macfarlane.
Then in 1995, Edwards defeated Bell and was reelected four years later.
That’s four different state senators — two from each party — in a span of just 16 years. From 2001 onward, the district was drawn in such a way as to make it strongly Democratic, by connecting Democratic-voting Roanoke with Democratic-voting Blacksburg with as few Republicans in between as possible. Whether it was Republicans or Democrats drawing the lines, this was to both parties’ advantage: For Democrats, it gave them a guaranteed seat. For Republicans, it was a way to pack Democratic voters together to make sure other districts were strongly Republican.
During the redistricting process in 2021, Democrats wanted to preserve that arrangement, which makes the new district a classic example of nonpartisan redistricting (and one that, in this case, disadvantages Democrats). The special masters aimed to draw more geographically compact districts, without regard for their politics or where incumbents lived. That meant reverting to the “old” arrangement of putting all of Roanoke and most of Roanoke County (sans the Hollins and Catawba areas) in the same district. To get the required population, the special masters drew the district to include parts of Montgomery County — but those are the Republican-voting parts of eastern Montgomery County, not Democratic-voting Blacksburg.
That’s the political difficulty that any Democrats thinking about running now face. Once they leave Roanoke, they’d be running in localities that produce Republican landslides. In the 2021 governor’s race, Glenn Youngkin took 65.7% of the vote in Roanoke County, 64.3% in Salem — and 70% or more of the votes in most of the precincts in Montgomery County that are now in this state Senate district. (Some of those Montgomery precincts topped 81% of the vote for the Republican candidate.) To win, a Democrat will need to either rev up the Democratic turnout in the city and/or cut into those Republican margins outside the city. The Virginia Public Access Project says that only 42.6% of the voters in this district are in the city, meaning most of them are in heavily Republican areas. This is the math problem any potential Democratic candidate must reckon with. It’s also the math problem that Democrats statewide must consider as they try to hold onto their 22-18 majority in the state Senate: Here’s a Democratic seat that may be off the boards.
There are some philosophical questions to ponder as Virginia (not to mention the nation) splits so sharply along geographic lines. What would it mean for this part of the state if there’s not a single Democrat representing it in the state Senate? And if there’s only one Democrat — Rasoul in the House — in the entire General Assembly from west of Charlottesville?
Republicans may think that’s a fine thing, of course, but there are some repercussions, particularly if Democrats retain control of the state Senate. Even with Edwards in office, I’ve heard Republicans grumble that it’s been hard to get Senate Democrats to pay attention to projects in this part of the state because those Democrats allegedly didn’t see any political benefit in funding them. Put more bluntly, why should Democrats vote to send money to a Republican-voting part of the state? I take no position on which party should control state government but I do believe that it would be better if we had more competitive districts — or, put another way, if we had more Democrats from Southwest Virginia and more Republicans from Northern Virginia. Of course, I also believe we’d be better off if we had unicorns prancing through the forest.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point to one of many “what-ifs” in politics: What if Edwards had won the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2001? That year saw a four-way race for the Democratic nomination, between Edwards, Whitt Clement of Danville, Sylvia Clute of Richmond and Don McEachin of Richmond.
McEachin won with just under 34% of the vote, Edwards was second with 29.5%, Clement third with 26.9% and Clute a distant fourth with 10%.
Edwards ran especially strong in the western part of the state — he took 88% of the vote in Galax, 85% in Bristol. He also won by smaller margins in Northern Virginia, taking Fairfax County with 33.8% to 28.2% for Clement. In looking at the shape of the vote, it appears that Clement took votes away from Edwards (winning mostly communities in Southside). Where Clement ran strongest, Edwards was often weakest. That leads to this “what if”: What if Clement hadn’t run? It seems logical to conclude that Edwards would have won the nomination. That year was a Democratic year — Mark Warner won the governorship with 52% and Tim Kaine won the lieutenant governorship with 50%. McEachin, though, lost the attorney general’s race with just under 40% of the vote. Would Edwards have been able to beat Republican Jerry Kilgore, a rare battle of two candidates from west of the Blue Ridge? If he had, how would that have set him up for future statewide runs? (You can also ask the same question a different way: What if Edwards hadn’t run? Would Clement have won and become the first Democrat from Southside to win statewide office in the modern era?)
We’ll never know, of course, but it’s the kind of question that keeps political junkies awake at night. For now, they can ponder a more recent question: What if Democrats had held onto the power of redistricting and not ceded it to a bipartisan commission, which deadlocked and eventually threw the power to the Virginia Supreme Court? We can more easily guess the answer to that: Democrats would have drawn a Senate district that included Roanoke and Blacksburg. Edwards might still have retired — he is, after all, 79 — but Democrats right now would have a better chance of holding onto his seat than they presently do.