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One of the great works of theater is Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot.”
Those of us who follow Virginia politics are watching another great drama unfold. It’s called “Waiting for Hanger, Newman and Peake.”
More specifically, we’re waiting to hear whether those three Republican state senators — Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, Steve Newman of Bedford County and Mark Peake of Lynchburg — plan to run again and, if so, where.
When they decide, we’ll have a much clearer picture of just how extensive this year’s changing of the legislative guard will be, particularly in this part of the state. Every election year brings some retirements, and the first election year after a redistricting always brings more, but now Virginia is about to embark on something it’s never had before: legislative elections in districts that weren’t drawn by the majority party.
In the past, when the majority party in Richmond drew the lines, the mapmakers were always careful to keep in mind where incumbents lived — both to protect their own and disadvantage those on the other side. The court-appointed special masters who drew the maps we’ll be using for the rest of the decade did no such thing, which resulted in many legislators from both parties winding up paired with fellow legislators — and then many “new” districts being created without any incumbents at all.
The official tally:
In the state Senate, 20 of the 40 senators are paired with one or more fellow legislators while 11 districts have been drawn with no incumbent.
In the House of Delegates, 42 of 100 delegates are paired with one or more fellow legislators while 23 districts have been drawn with no incumbent.
If you’ve ever wanted to see what nonpartisan redistricting looks like, this is the result. Some incumbents from both parties have reason to be unhappy.
Democrats may be the unhappiest because had they held onto the power of redistricting, they’d have been in the majority and the lines would have looked quite different. One prime example of that is in the Roanoke and New River valleys: Democrats would have connected Democratic-voting Roanoke with Democratic-voting Blacksburg — with as few Republicans in between as possible — to create a safe seat for Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. Instead, the special masters drew a district that put Roanoke in with Republican-voting Roanoke County and Salem, plus the most Republican-voting parts of Montgomery County, to create a district that tilts 54% Republican. Edwards might have retired anyway, but now Democrats face the challenge of fielding a candidate in a district with a Republican incumbent (David Suetterlein of Roanoke County) and a Republican voting history. (One piece of election trivia that political junkies will like: That new state Senate District 4 overlaps with part of a House district with no incumbent. That House district is rated as competitive, and currently has nomination contests for both parties. However, the part of House District 41 that overlaps with Senate District 4 is the most Republican part, so this fall there will be a Republican House candidate helping Suetterlein gin up turnout there, another disadvantage for Democrats.)
Republicans have reason to fret, as well. If they had drawn the lines, they surely wouldn’t have put Newman and Peake in the same district, or Hanger in the same district as fellow Republican Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County. Hanger has already opted out of challenging Obenshain, so the question now is whether he will retire or move somewhere else in Augusta County that would put him in an open-seat district that runs south to Roanoke County (but also would put him in a nomination fight with Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, who announced last year he would run for that seat).
We’ll come back to all these scenarios but first let’s set the stage (to continue our dramatic theme).
The General Assembly that convenes next January will look very different from this year’s, no matter which party wins control. Michael Martz of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in an excellent account of the legislative turnover, calculates that, between retirements and redistricting pairings that will knock out other incumbents, at least a quarter of the state Senate won’t be back, and one-third of the House will be gone.
For those who believe in term limits (I am not one of those), this is a good thing. For those who worry about institutional knowledge, this is a big loss.
Some of the biggest names in the General Assembly will be gone.
At least four committee chairs in the House will be gone: Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, has been chair of House Commerce and Labor; Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County, has been chair of House Courts of Justice; Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield County, has been chair of House Finance; Del. Margaret Ransome, R-Westmoreland County, has been chair of House Privileges and Elections. That’s also a big loss of women in Republican leadership positions. On the Democratic side, former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax County is also leaving, although she may run for governor.
The turnover in the Senate reaches even higher into the leadership ranks. Both party leaders in the Senate — Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County for the Democrats, Tommy Norment of James City County for the Republicans — are stepping down. So is the co-chair of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County. Her fellow co-chair, George Barker, D-Fairfax County, faces a primary challenge, so might not be back. If Republicans win control of the Senate, the same dynamic applies. When Republicans were last in charge, Norment was one Senate Finance co-chair and Hanger was the other. New party leaders and new people in charge of the budget — that’s kind of a big deal. Another important Senate committee, Senate Judiciary, might see new leadership, too, even if Democrats stay in power. Edwards is retiring and his co-chair, Creigh Deeds, faces a primary challenge. State Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth and the Senate president pro tem, also faces a primary challenge. Martz points out that “if Lucas, Hanger and Newman join Howell, Saslaw, Norment and Edwards in leaving the chamber, the Senate will lose its top seven members in seniority.”
Two of those three whose futures are still in doubt are in our coverage area, so let’s take a closer look.
Newman and Peake were both drawn into Senate District 8, which covers Lynchburg, Campbell County and most of Bedford County. To say that this is a strongly Republican district is an understatement. The Virginia Public Access Project says that this district went 72% for Republican Glenn Youngkin in 2021. The special masters who drew the lines rated it the third most Republican state Senate district they drew. The only two rated more Republican — based on prior election returns — are those now held by Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County. None of that is gerrymandering; that’s just a reflection of the voting habits of the western part of the state outside a few Democratic strongholds such as Roanoke and Blacksburg.
Senate District 3 is more interesting, politically. The special masters aimed to draw compact districts but they also refused to draw districts that crossed the Blue Ridge, unless it was absolutely necessary (a good rule, in my book). That meant an elongated district that includes Staunton and Waynesboro and then stretches south to the Hollins and Catawba portions of Roanoke County as well as neighboring Craig County.
It’s also a district with no incumbent — and yet ironically could draw two sitting legislators. Head, who was drawn into the same House district as Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, decided last year to run for the state Senate nomination — a wise and obvious political move. In the district just to the north, three legislators were drawn together — Republicans Hanger and Obenshain and Democrat Deeds. Deeds solved that problem by moving to Charlottesville, although he now faces a primary challenge there by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. The question now is whether Hanger will move into the “new” district. We should find out sometime between March 20 and April 6 (if not sooner) — that’s the filing window for the June 20 primary.
Politically, there are some arguments in favor of Hanger moving. He’s represented much of the district in years past in previous mapping configurations — his district once went as far south as Buena Vista, Lexington and Rockbridge County. At one point or another, he’s represented 51.3% of the voters in the district. (The Virginia Public Access Project has locality-by-locality breakdowns.)
On the other hand, it’s been 16 years since he’s represented Lexington and Rockbridge, 24 years since he represented Buena Vista. In a time when attention spans aren’t much longer than a TikTok video, does that electoral history really matter?
Meanwhile, Head has only represented a small part of the redrawn Senate district — two precincts in Botetourt County and part of Roanoke County. Still, he’s made headlines in the Roanoke media market and 39% of the voters are in the southern end of the district. By contrast, 35.3% are in Hanger’s true home base in Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro. The rest are somewhere in between. Head also has the advantage of a) campaigning for the past year and b) being closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party than Hanger, who has departed from party orthodoxy on some high-profile issues, such as Medicaid expansion. (He was for it long before other Republicans were.) My point: Hanger’s seniority may not matter in a primary contest against Head, just as Deeds’ seniority may not matter in his primary contest against Hudson.
Politics, like life, is often circular. Deeds was first elected to the General Assembly in 1991 when he defeated Hanger — after Democrats chopped up Hanger’s district to make it more difficult for him to win. Four years later, Hanger made a comeback, winning a state Senate seat. Deeds followed him into the state Senate in 2001 (in a different district) and they served alongside each other for more than two decades. Now both of them face serious challenges to their legislative futures, brought on by redistricting that neither one of their parties had any say over.