OneVirginia2021 Executive Director Brian Cannon speaks at a news conference on Feb. 12 in support of a constitutional amendment on redistricting reform. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
This is Part 2 of a two-part series on how Virginia’s new redistricting system is impacting this year’s high-stakes General Assembly elections and the future of the state legislature. Part 1, “How redistricting reform is launching the General Assembly into a new era,” ran yesterday, May 16.
When Brian Cannon and other advocates for reforming Virginia’s redistricting process were trying to come up with a name for their campaign to convince voters to support their cause, they settled on a generic but straightforward summary of what they were after.
“The salient question you got asked was, ‘What are we actually telling Virginians this thing was going to do?’” said Cannon, the former executive director of OneVirginia2021, a nonpartisan group founded in 2014 to advocate for systemic change to prevent future gerrymandering in Virginia. “That’s why the campaign was called Fair Maps. And that’s what we got.”
As Virginia enters a high-stakes General Assembly election year, the first playing out on electoral maps drawn by outside experts rather than incumbent legislators, many lawmakers, advocates and experts agree it looks like a fair fight, with neither party getting an undue advantage based on political geography alone.
The final maps look “quite balanced,” according to Sam Wang, a professor who leads the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which analyzes the partisan fairness of state redistricting plans and gave solid grades to both the new Virginia Senate map and the new map for the state House of Delegates.
“It looks like the outcome closely matched the intention of the law that was passed,” Wang said. “Bottom line is: It looks pretty fair.”
Despite fears that the new redistricting process could lead to backsliding in minority representation, a look at the field of candidates running this year indicates the legislature elected on the new maps will be more diverse, not less.
“It’s definitely fairer than the system was before,” said NAACP Virginia President Robert N. Barnette Jr. “One of our main issues was making sure our communities of color were prevented from being torn apart or divided. So I think we achieved that.”
Opponents of the new process still contend their concerns about fairness were well-founded, and some of their predictions did come to pass. Many Democrats in the House of Delegates argued in 2020 that the plan for a bipartisan map-drawing commission made up of eight Republicans and eight Democrats, a combination of both sitting legislators and citizen members, was bound to fail because of partisan quarreling. And it did, initiating a backup process in which the conservative-leaning Supreme Court of Virginia hired experts to draw maps with no direct involvement by legislators.
“I hate to say I told you so. But this played out exactly as I told you so,” said Sen. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, an opponent of the new redistricting process. “We knew the way that this process was set up that it was more about Republicans running the clock out and making the system benefit them.”
Bagby said he feels the court-appointed experts “tried to draw a 50-50 map.” And he’s not convinced that translates to an accurate reflection of the will of Virginia voters going forward.
“Outside of the 2021 race, Virginia has voted overwhelmingly for Democrats,” he said.
Cannon said the warnings from some Democrats that the state Supreme Court would produce a clearly biased set of maps were “flat wrong.” Unlike some other states’ experiences, he said, there have been no legal challenges yet claiming the new maps are tainted by partisan or racial gerrymandering.
“We were right on the Supreme Court doing the right thing,” Cannon said. “We always believed that.”
‘Worked out to be really competitive’
Calls to change Virginia’s redistricting process were arguably at their loudest prior to 2017, when Republicans had a massive 66-34 majority in the House of Delegates.
Because Democrats were on a growing winning streak in statewide elections at the time, the GOP’s overwhelming numbers in the House struck many reform advocates as a sign of a gerrymandering-prone system that was fundamentally out of whack.
That majority disappeared quickly in the suburban backlash against former President Donald Trump in 2017 and 2019, election cycles that propelled Democrats to a two-year period of full statehouse control. Those two years brought head-spinning progressive policy wins like raising the minimum wage, ending the death penalty, wiping away barriers to voting and decriminalizing possession of marijuana. With the momentum of demographic change at Democrats’ back, it looked like Virginia was headed toward blue-state status.
Then came November of 2021, when Gov. Glenn Youngkin led Republicans to a sweep in statewide races and a restored GOP majority in the House, campaigning on promises to end COVID-19 restrictions, cut taxes, banish perceived wokeness from public institutions and elevate the role of parents in K-12 schools.
After those sharp political turns, Virginia voters have another decision coming about which direction the state should go.
Republicans currently have a slim majority in the House, and Democrats have a slight majority in the Senate. Democrats controlling both chambers, Republicans controlling both chambers or another two years of divided control are all within the range of possible outcomes, depending on the electorate’s mood in November.
According to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, which assessed the new maps based on data from the 2022 midterm elections, the Senate map has 21 seats that favor Democrats, 16 seats that favor Republicans and three seats considered toss-ups.
The same VPAP analysis for the House shows 50 Democratic-leaning seats, 40 Republican-leaning seats and 10 toss-ups.
Both maps look better for Republicans when measured against the GOP-friendly election results of 2021.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, a critic of the new redistricting process who served on the unsuccessful map-drawing commission, said the math suggests partisan control could swing either way, depending on whether Virginia’s electorate looks more like the one that overwhelmingly backed President Joe Biden in 2020 or the one that elected Youngkin a year later.
“The overall map has arguably worked out to be really competitive,” Simon said.
Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker, an opponent of the new redistricting system, said she’s still frustrated about the process being handed over to “a Republican Supreme Court.”
She pointed to the 2022 midterm defeat of former U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, a Norfolk-area Democrat who lost her seat in Congress to current Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, running in a redrawn congressional district made redder by the same experts that drew the General Assembly maps. Still, Democrats beat expectations on the new congressional maps last year by defending two other seats Republicans were heavily targeting in Northern Virginia.
Swecker said she’s more interested in positioning her party to win than focusing on the “good, bad or ugly” of redistricting.
“That was then and this is now,” Swecker said.
‘Got to go out and hustle’
The redistricting reform amendment was approved at a unique political moment, with both parties incentivized toward change because it was unclear which party would have the power to draw maps in its favor.
The General Assembly first approved the amendment in 2019, the start of an election year when partisan control of both the Senate and the House was seen as up for grabs. After Republicans lost their House majority that year, dozens of House Democrats who previously voted for the amendment flipped to opposing it. Some House Republicans who were once skeptical of reform embraced the issue with new urgency after being demoted to minority status.
Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Rich Anderson said he doesn’t see how anyone could deny the new system, particularly the built-in backup of sending the process to the Supreme Court if the commission couldn’t agree on what fair maps would mean, performed as advertised.
“The law worked exactly like intended,” Anderson said.
Some of the strongest opposition to the new redistricting process came from members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, who argued the plan needed clearer protections against the type of racial gerrymandering that led to two successful legal challenges after the 2011 redistricting.
The new maps have had clearly detrimental impacts on some Black incumbents, most notably by pitting Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, against each other in a Hampton Roads-area primary. That means one of the two senior Black lawmakers will see their service cut short, an outcome many Democrats see as unfortunate and avoidable if the district lines were drawn differently.
Philip Thompson, a supporter of Virginia’s new redistricting system who serves as executive director of the National Black NonPartisan Redistricting Organization, said the new process means some Black incumbents are simply going to have to work harder to get elected instead of relying on safe, “stacked” districts.
“A lot of these incumbents have this entitlement mentality that ‘that’s my seat,’” said Thompson, who called the new maps “very good” overall. “And it’s not your seat, it’s the people’s seat. Now Louise and Lionell got to go out and hustle.”
Other Black candidates are seeing new opportunities to rise.
Either former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy or former delegate Hala Ayala — both prior Black Caucus members who ran for statewide office in 2021 — will most likely join the Senate next year representing a diverse new district in Northern Virginia, a region that currently has an entirely white Senate delegation. Ayala was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor two years ago, while Carroll Foy was the runner-up to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the five-way Democratic primary for governor that year.
Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Suffolk, is the Democratic nominee in a potentially competitive Senate race in a racially mixed district covering parts of Hampton Roads and Southside Virginia. Adele McClure, the executive director of the Black Caucus, is also in the running for a strongly Democratic House seat in Northern Virginia. And former delegate Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg, formerly a progressive contender to lead the House Democrats, is challenging Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, in a closely watched Democratic primary.
Bagby said that according to his read of the electoral lineup, the membership numbers of the Black Caucus will either stay the same or grow after this year.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure, despite the redistricting, that we increase the number of Virginia Legislative Black Caucus numbers in this next Virginia General Assembly,” Bagby said.
The Senate, where Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears recently became the first Black woman to preside over the chamber and cast tie-breaking votes, is expected to diversify in other ways.
Either Indian American Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun, or Palestinian American former delegate Ibraheem Samirah are expected to win another Northern Virginia seat being vacated by Sen. John Bell, a Loudoun Democrat who is stepping down after a cancer diagnosis.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, one of the first Latinas elected to the General Assembly, is challenging Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, in a primary expected to be competitive.
Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, the first transgender lawmaker in the General Assembly, is the Democratic nominee in a swingy Northern Virginia district drawn without an incumbent.
“It appears that this is the most diverse group of candidates seeking office that Virginia has ever had,” said Cannon, the former redistricting reform advocate who is now focusing on expanding the use of ranked-choice voting systems.
Jay Jones, a former Democratic delegate who unsuccessfully sought his party’s nomination for attorney general in 2021 and is widely seen as a likely future candidate for statewide office, said it’ll take years to fully judge whether the new process has produced a fair result.
“The answer is TBD,” Jones said. “I think we’ve got to get through a cycle to make a real assessment of it.”
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