Breaking Down The House GOP Redistricting Plan

Guest Post by Christian Heiens

The House Republican Caucus just released their new proposed map for mid-decade redistricting in the Richmond, Southside, and Hampton Roads regions of Virginia. The redistricting proposal was brought on by a court order issued earlier in the year that mandates redrawing as many as a third of Virginia’s House of Delegates districts before October.

I’d like to take a look at the potential impact this new map could have on the geography and political composition of the Virginia House of Delegates should it be enacted. Credit goes to the Princeton Gerrymander Project for their excellent collection of redistricting maps which I will be using below.

The Breakdown

Let’s get into the politics, shall we? At first glance, Roxanne Robinson’s seat in HD27 is likely taken off the table for Democrats under this map. Her seat nearly flipped in 2017 and Northam actually just barely won the district, but under this new proposal, some of the more liberal parts of Chesterfield along the Richmond City border are now removed in favor of more conservative-leaning parts of the county.

Overall, her seat doesn’t change too much, it mostly just shifts south a bit. There’s about a 1-point swing in favor of the GOP in this new seat, which should give Delegate Robinson much-needed breathing room in future elections.

Meanwhile, in the dual-competitive seats in western Henrico, Republicans have gone from making HD72 about a half-point more Democratic leaning, in exchange for HD73 becoming just over 1-point more Republican leaning. This is a fair trade-off for both parties in my opinion (though not for Delegate VanValkenburg). Democratic chances of holding both seats indefinitely are up in the air unless they try to gerrymander both in their favor like the Bagby plan did. Under this compromise, it becomes a bit more likely that Republicans retake the 73rd, but in doing so, they effectively cede the 72nd to the Democrats for the time being. Considering these two seats are among the most competitive in the Commonwealth, this may not be a bad idea for both parties unless one is overly confident in its ability to hold both for the long-term (which I suspect Democrats are, though they should be very weary of such optimism. “Dummymanders” exist and one needs to only look at the maps Dems drew in Georgia in the early 2000s, or the very map Republicans drew for the Virginia House in 2010 to find out that being overly aggressive when it comes to redistricting does not pay dividends in the long-run).

Meanwhile, Dawn Adams’ seat in the old Richmond suburbs becomes about a point and a half more Democratic than before…which is very good news for Delegate Adams and the Democratic caucus because her seat was one of the most competitive on election night 2017. This new map likely guarantees Delegate Adams a seat she can count on holding for many years to come.

Delegate Ingram’s seat, though not exactly the nicest looking district in the new map, is much more compact than its previous iteration. The district moves just under a point to the right, which is fantastic news for Republicans as Ingram nearly lost his seat in the 2017 Democratic wave, while Northam actually narrowly carried this once-solid Republican seat. While it would remain challenging, especially in light of Delegate Ingram’s likely retirement next year and the race for the open seat which will ensue, the change should give a slight leg-up to whoever the Republicans nominate to succeed Delegate Ingram. This improvement comes at the price of acquiescing two of the three competitive west Richmond suburban seats to the Democrats though, a deal which as explained before, likely benefits both parties.

Perhaps the biggest Republican loser in this map is House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, who sees a seat which already voted for Northam in 2017 become nearly a point more Democratic than before…though it certainly looks much more visually appealing than the massive “U” shaped district he currently occupies. If it weren’t for the fact that Jones will have boat-loads of cash to rely on during any re-election bid thanks to his position as Chairman of Appropriations, I would say the seat would be leans Democrat. With Jones in the seat, this would be a real tossup (provided the Democrats actually field a candidate, which they remarkably failed to do in 2017 despite finding candidates to run in seats as alien to them as Terry Kilgore’s in SWVA).

Across the James River, we see HD91 shed some of the Democratic-leaning parts of the City of Hampton in exchange for dark red parts of York County. This puts a seat which leans Republican at worst completely out of play for Democrats, though they failed to come more than 4-points of taking the district statewide during the 2017 wave, meaning they likely won’t miss much there.

Elsewhere, David “the Cannister” Yancey finds himself in a district about a point more Republican than before. Maybe Yancey won’t have to appear at a name-drawing every two years to determine if he keeps his seat under this new map. He certainly has reason to support this map, as it makes his extremely competitive district (it doesn’t get more competitive than a tied race folks!) slightly more Democratic. Should the seat ever flip blue however, these new lines would be considered a waste as Northam still won the new map handily.

An honorable mention for the peninsula write-up is that HD93 sheds any pretense of being competitive for the GOP. Delegate Mullin can rest easy in this Williamsburg-centered district.

Elsewhere in Hampton Roads, Delegate Turpin’s district goes from being one of the most competitive in Virginia to a solid Democratic seat she can rely on to re-elect her as many times as she wishes. The seat moves nearly 5-points more Democratic from before, and I believe actually flips from voting for President Trump in 2016 to backing Hillary Clinton. If I’m Delegate Turpin, I’m seriously considering backing this map as it would remove the prospect of having to run grueling campaigns every other year just to hold the seat. Other changes are mostly cosmetic at first glance. Delegate Stolle’s seat gets about 0.1 points more Democratic, which only matters because HD83 voted narrowly for Northam in 2017, but Stolle likely has the power and influence in that part of Virginia Beach to survive what is a negligible change in his district. The other remaining seats in the region are unlikely to change much politically-wise, though some of the Chesapeake seats do lose tails and other odd lines which can be found in the existing map. (Above map- current. Bottom map-changes)

General Observations

The court order mandates changes that could affect as many as 1/3rd of all districts in the Virginia House of Delegates. The proposed Republican-drawn map would change 30 districts, including all 11 the court ordered. Most of these changes also benefit the party which currently holds each seat effected. According to Speaker Cox’s office, the GOP-held seats on average become just under a point more Republican from their 2017 results, while the Democratic-held seats become nearly a point and a half more Democratic compared to last year.

This is both good politics and good strategy in my opinion. Republicans were decimated in 2017 and it’s very unlikely they will retake all 15 seats they lost last year while also holding all 51 seats they currently possess. Rather than ambitiously aim to retake as many seats as possible, the political consequences of the Republican map instead makes it more likely that each party will hold onto the current seats they have. While this may disappoint some proponents of competitive elections, I personally have never liked using competitive races as the criteria for determining redistricting. Arizona for example requires congressional districts to be drawn in a way that will maximize competitiveness, and the result has been a series of districts in the Grand Canyon State that look more like paint splatters than legislative districts.

Furthermore, the Republican map makes most seats much more compact than they currently are, and certainly more compact than the sham map the Democrats recently proposed, which had such oddities as placing the town of Ashland in Lamont Bagby’s seat (as if Hanover County has anything in common with central Henrico). To be sure, there are certainly seats such as Districts 69 and 66 which are certainly not compact, but I doubt few can argue that this map (the House Republican proposal for the Richmond area)

is geographically worse-off than this map (the existing districts).

Indeed, the three districts that suffer the most from being made less-compact in the new GOP proposal vs the existing map, are all districts which the courts ruled to be unconstitutional!

In addition to being (mostly) compact, the new map also keeps many communities of interest within one district. There are exceptions of course, such as parts of Mechanicsville being drawn into HD74, Suffolk being split between two districts, and Short Pump and Lakeside being included in the same HD72, but overall, you can see that communities are largely put into the same district, as can be seen with Tuckahoe being firmly seated in HD73, central Chesterfield making up HD27, Hopewell no longer being split between two districts, and HDs 81 and 78 no longer reaching into the northern edges of Chesapeake City. While advocates of communities of interest may be disappointed in some respects by this map, I think it’s an improvement over the status quo, an certainly an improvement over the monstrosities the Democrats proposed recently, which gave us scribbles such as this…

This…

And this…

.