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Control of Virginia Redistricting Hinges on Races Far Under the Radar

Many millions of dollars are being spent in Virginia this year in order to affect the primary election being held there five days from now as well as the general election being held in November. The battle royal that’s attracting the vast majority of attention right now is the red-hot, three-way Democratic gubernatorial primary between Terry McAuliffe, Creigh (pronounced “Cree”) Deeds and Brian Moran. Deeds had been trailing but now has caught up to the other two (see the most recent three way horse race primary poll from PPP). We’ll have more on the general election race against Republican Bob McDonnell after the primary.

But underneath all the thunder and lightning and money being hurled around in the gubernatorial primary, there is pitched battle for control of the State House, and with it a significant stake in the coming redistricting. How it shakes out below the break.

Operating far below the public awareness levels of the three statewide elections (Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General) are the one hundred races for the Virginia House of Delegates, which is what the lower chamber of the state legislature is called in Virginia. Why should anyone outside of Virginia care whether the Democrats or the Republicans control the Virginia House of Delegates? Collectively, the House of Delegates comprises one leg of the three-legged stool (the other two are the governor and the state senate) that will determine the lines that demarcate all the new 2010 census-based congressional districts and state legislative districts in the state of Virginia for the next decade. (Because Virginia is one of the rare states that holds elections in odd numbered years, the new post-2010 census lines actually go into effect in Virginia in 2011, before everywhere else in the country implements new lines in 2012.) The 2009 elections are the last for the House of Delegates before redistricting.

As things currently stand, control of Virginia redistricting is wide open, which would have been a surprise to anyone after the 2001 elections. Republicans seized full control of Virginia government leading up to the 2001 redistricting, and drew aggressive new lines. Despite Mark Warner winning the Governor’s race and collecting broad support throughout the Commonwealth, Virginia Democrats dropped from a 49 seats out of 100 all the way down to 34.

But Virginia Democrats are on a very strong victorious streak. They’ve won two governors’ races in a row and picked up Jim Webb’s U.S. Senate seat in 2006. In 2008 came an across-the-board triumph with Mark Warner easily picking up the other U.S. Senate seat for the Dems and the defeat of two incumbent U.S. House Republicans — not to mention the first Democratic triumph in the presidential race in Virginia since 1964. Today, the House of Delegates sits at 55 Republicans (including two independents who regularly caucus with the Republicans) and 45 Democrats.

Bob McDonnell, the Republican nominee for governor, leads all three possible Democratic candidates in trial heat polling, although not by enough to enable a prediction with much confidence. So that leg is up for grabs.

Virginia state senators are elected to four-year terms, with all 40 senators being elected at once. The next election for them will not be held until November of 2011. In theory, Democrats control the Virginia state senate over Republicans 21-19. But the Democrats’ margin is even more tenuous than it appears. That’s because the Virginia State Senate Republican Caucus had successfully lured Democratic State Senator Ralph Northam to join them, which would have created a 20-20 tie and terminated Democratic control over the State Senate. But Virginia Democrats had been blessed with inept opponents: Jeff Frederick, then the Virginia state Republican chairman, sent a premature tweet boasting to all and sundry that the Democratic hegemony in the Virginia State Senate was about to be overthrown. The tweet allegedly gave members of the Virginia State Senate Democratic Caucus sufficient time to whisper their own counter lures in Northam’s ear and so the announced defection never actually transpired. But if Republicans can seize control of the governorship and the state House of Delegates, Northam and other individual conservative Democrats in the state Senate would have tremendous leverage to extract concessions from either side in order to either consolidate or foil Republican control or redistricting. So control of the senate leg of the redistricting stool is also in serious question.

The House of Delegates is the leg of the stool whose control appears most likely to be held by Republicans. The key questions in determining the outcome of the Delegate elections are:

1. Is Obama’s victory last November a harbingers of a changing Virginia — or a unique result unlikely to be replicated in a 2009 election with no federal offices on the ballot?
2. How good are the Democratic candidates in these “Obama seats” currently held by Republicans?
3. Can the Democrats overcome not having candidates in some of the most closely-fought districts from 2008?

As he did nationally, Obama ran ahead of typical Democratic performance in the vast majority of Virginia — essentially the entire state outside of Appalachia.

There are 22 House of Delegates districts in Virginia where Obama won more than 63.5% of the vote (NOT shown below on the chart), all of which are all currently held by Democrats. There are also 38 districts of the 100 where Obama received less than 47.0% percent. That leaves 40 districts in which you might expect a competitive contest:

But in some of these districts, one or the other party hasn’t managed to field a nominee. Rather, there are 26 districts out of these 40 with both a Democratic and Republican candidate. Throw in the three additional off-chart districts with competitive races in places Obama underperformed and you’re left with 29 competitive races — 16 seats defended by Republicans, 13 seats by Democrats. Democrats would need to win essentially two-thirds of these seats to take the chamber, a very challenging but not insurmountable task. Recent projections as well as “deep background” briefings I’ve received indicate a mid-range scenario where the Democrats would pick up two or three seats in the November 2009 general election, leaving them just two or three short of capturing a majority in the body. Just one or two more candidates in (the right) currently uncontested districts could provide some cushion to their efforts this fall.

Many of the districts where Obama won or came very close and that are currently uncontested by the Democrats in 2009 are in key swing areas in Virginia where the Democratic tide washed farthest in 2008. These districts are in Virginia Beach and the far exurban reaches of the Washington D.C. Metro (Fauquier, Loudoun, the farthest reaches of Prince William Counties).

Virginia Democrats (I know, because I’ve spoken to them) come up with cogent reasons as to why this or that Republican incumbent is too tough to be taken down. But the fact of the matter is you can’t win the fight if you’re not in the fight. If a scandal involving a Republican incumbent should arise in one of these districts between now and the November election, the Democrats won’t even have an alternative on the ballot whom people can turn to. (And of course it’s also bad for the democratic process to have unchallenged elections.)

There are a few days left for both Democrats and Republicans to at least get a warm body on the ballot in the House of Delegates districts that aren’t currently being contested, in case a sudden scandal blows up in a member’s face or some act of God removes the unopposed incumbent.

Of course, it’s not all on the shoulders of the Virginia Democratic Party that there are a dearth of Democratic candidates in these districts. These are geographic areas lacking in a recent rich tradition of Democratic Party activism. The hundreds and hundreds of people who volunteered for Barack Obama in these areas are still catching their breaths or have otherwise moved on with their lives. The lack of ongoing participation by Obama supporters in local Democratic Party electoral politics — not just in Virginia, but elsewhere in the country too — is something worthy of a whole post unto itself.