Proposed Virginia maps put rising-star House Democrats at risk

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (R-Va.) is seen after a after a grassroots campaign event for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at Lubber Run Park in Arlington, Va., on Friday, July 23, 2021.
Greg Nash

Congressional district maps proposed by two special masters working for the Virginia Supreme Court would put two rising-star Democrats at risk of losing their seats in the U.S. House of Representatives next year, though the maps appear unlikely to significantly alter the balance of power there.

The proposals would dramatically redraw districts in and around Richmond and the Virginia Beach areas, cementing Democratic control of Northern Virginia while putting a Tidewater-area district in play for the GOP. They would lump Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s (D) home into a Republican-leaning district currently held by Rep. Rob Wittman (R), while shifting a district held by Rep. Elaine Luria (D) more substantially to the right.

The maps would create a new district based in Prince William County, long a Republican bastion that has swung increasingly to the left in recent years, potentially giving Spanberger a new district in which to run.

Prince William County voted for Republican presidential candidates in every election between 1968 and 2004. But the county, among the fastest-growing as Northern Virginia’s population has surged, is now solidly Democratic; President Biden carried nearly 63 percent of the vote there in 2020, the best Democratic performance since Lyndon Johnson carried the same margin in 1964.

The resulting map would make few changes to Appalachian districts held by Reps. Ben Cline (R) and Morgan Griffith (R), both of whom added some areas — Cline around Winchester, Griffith around Roanoke — to account for shrinking populations in their rural regions. Rep. Bob Good’s (R) district would lose areas of Northern Virginia and expand east into the Richmond exurbs, becoming more strongly Republican in the process.

The maps make two strong Democratic seats, held by Reps. Gerry Connolly (D) and Don Beyer (D), more compact in and around Arlington and Fairfax counties. And Democratic districts held by Reps. Donald McEachin (D) and Bobby Scott (D), centered around Richmond and Norfolk, respectively, would remain largely unchanged.

But the seat held by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D), in the suburbs west of Washington, would become more competitive. Calculations by the special masters appointed by the court estimate that her district would average a 52.6 percent Democratic vote share, based on election results over the last three election cycles.

The end result is a map that would likely give Democrats at least five seats in Congress over the next decade and Republicans at least four. The districts currently held by Wexton and Luria would be  competitive — the special masters estimate that the Democratic vote share over the last three elections would outpace Republicans by just over one percentage point.

In a memo to the court, the special masters said they anticipated that in an ordinary year they would expect Democrats to carry six of the commonwealth’s 11 districts but that in a strong year for the GOP, Republicans could carry a majority.

The special masters said they arrived at their new maps by ignoring where incumbents live — in fact, they wrote, they maintained ignorance about where incumbent members of Congress live even as they submitted the maps to the state court.

The Virginia Supreme Court took over the redistricting process last month after a newly appointed redistricting commission broke down amid partisan acrimony. Both Democrats and Republicans nominated special masters who would draw new lines, though those people were to work as representatives of the court, rather than of the parties themselves.

The high court ultimately tapped Sean Trende, an election analyst at RealClearPolitics nominated by Republicans, and Bernard Grofman, a political scientist and economist at the University of California, Irvine who had previous experience mapping Virginia lines and was nominated by Democrats.

In a memo to the court, Trende and Grofman wrote that they worked well together to come up with the new lines.

“These maps reflect a true joint effort on our part,” they wrote to the court. “We agreed on almost all issues initially, and the few issues on which we initially disagreed were resolved by amicable discussion.”

The two special masters drew district lines governing the Virginia House of Delegates that would ordinarily give Democrats an edge in 53 of the chamber’s 100 seats, a slightly lower vote share than Democrats have enjoyed statewide in recent years. Republicans reclaimed the chamber in a strong election performance last month, and they will take control in January with a 52-48 majority.

In the state Senate districts proposed by the special masters, 23 of 40 seats would lean toward Democrats. Eight seats would be considered swing areas, where neither party enjoys an advantage of more than 5 percentage points. Democrats currently hold 21 of the 40 seats in the Senate, which will come up for election in 2023.

The state Supreme Court must now give final approval to the maps before they take effect. Spanberger and Luria did not make public comments on the proposals immediately after they were released.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Ben Cline Bobby Scott Donald McEachin Elaine Luria Gerry Connolly Jennifer Wexton Joe Biden Morgan Griffith Rob Whitman Rob Wittman Virginia

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