So Virginia is essentially a purple state: It has a GOP controlled legislature, featuring a madly lopsided majority in the lower House of Delegates and it controls 8 of the state’s 11 Congressional districts. Meanwhile, in recent years every time the Old Dominion gets to vote as an entirety, like say in presidential elections or for statewide office, the Democrats have won, which has led to the former capital of the Confederacy helping to elect the nation’s first African American President… twice, as well as both U.S. Senators the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor and the Attorney General.
Virginia has large “red” sections including pretty much all of the Southside, the western part of the state, the Shenandoah Valley, much of the I-95 corridor between the Northern Virginia suburbs and Richmond. The Democrats control the cities and the inner suburbs. There is a name for this sort of thing: Blue islands in a Red sea, and there are all sorts of reasons for this. The country and the ex-urbs are a lot whiter than the cities, education levels and cultural richness tend to cluster around the urban areas. It is no secret that the cities tend to be more progressive than the outlying countryside with the sometime exception of the beach, Hampton, Tidewater and Newport News where the large number of military personnel can impact elections generally and particularly where defense based jobs are at stake.
So this raises the question: How is it that there are enough Democrats to elect Barack Obama… twice, and make Democratic political fixer and Clinton bag man Terry McAuliffe governor and yet not control the legislature and in fact not have much of a hope of controlling the legislature for years to come?
The answer is complex for sure. It involves certain oddities of Virginia government like the off-year election cycle that has the Commonwealth electing statewide offices the year after national elections which in turn affects voter turnout, the great bugaboo of the Democrats who won the state in the 2012 election when 71% of registered voters came out to give Obama a second term, but often struggles in down ticket races where likely Democratic voters, minorities, students and the working poor tend to stay home. Part of the problem is that the Democrat’s voter base is simply less motivated to come out than the ethnically homogenous, culturally and religiously similar Republican base who are often whipped into action by a media based, talk radio fueled, get out the vote apparatus that over the last couple decades has become very effective. It is an old saw that low voter turnout leads to Republican victories and vis versa. Toss in some attempts at legislative voter suppression, vote “caging,” Citizens United and the lack of any real campaign finance reform, super pacs and the tendency for incumbents to win, and we can begin to see why the GOP can rather easily resist what appears to be a majority statewide Democratic vote.
Going into the election, Republicans held a razor thin margin in the State Senate, 21-19. If they lost a seat to the Democrats the 20 -20 tie would have been broken by the Democratic Lieutenant Governor who would have cast the deciding vote. While several seats changed hands on November 3rd, in the end the split remained 21-19 and Republicans will decide on important committee appointments, budget priorities and judgeships for the next few years. It bears noting that of those 40 seats, the 19 seats the Democrats defended, none was lost. In the 12 races where Democrats actually faced an opponent, the margin of victory was an average of 60.9%. Of the 21 GOP controlled seats, 11 were contested and a Republican candidate won every seat by an average of 59.39%. In the House, where the GOP went into the election with a robust 68-32 seat supermajority the Democrats managed to drag 2 seats back into their column to bring the margin to 66-34, but once again it was the visible lack of any real movement among the legislators that catches the eye.
The Dems started election night with 32 seats, 21 of those seats were uncontested. Of the 11 contested seats, 1, the open second House district just north of Fredericksburg, was lost when Republican Mark Dudenhefer defeated Democrat Josh King by 125 votes in one of the few close elections of the night. While the GOP did lose 2 seats altogether, in neither the House nor the Senate for that matter did an incumbent who was actually on the ballot lose. Just over half the Seats in the Senate were contested, while in the House that number was just over 1/3.
At the Congressional level, where an otherwise purple swing state is represented by 8 Republicans and only 3 Democrats, a look at a map shows just how out of whack the system is.
Three small districts, 2 in the far north and 1 in the east of the Commonwealth serve to represent a Democratic electorate that routinely defeats Republicans at the statewide level, which brings us to the elephant in the voting booth, so to speak.
Gerrymandering, “to manipulate the boundaries (of an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class” is a problem that has existed in one form or another as long as there have been discreet, location-based elections. Democrats have and in some places may still use this time-honored recourse when the option is available. And there is little to no real argument that here in Virginia Republicans have been using the gerrymander to first establish and then maintain their massive lead at the local level.
In the case of Congressional District number 3, which is represented by Rep. Bobby Scott, the only African American Congressman from Virginia (African Americans make up around 20% of the state’s population), recent court rulings have acknowledged (as has the GOP), that that district was basically built to guarantee a safe seat for Scott, and more importantly several safe districts around 3 for Republicans. In other parts of the state, districts appear to have been spread, elongated and otherwise manipulated to create a few very blue districts, ensuring Republicans large majorities everywhere else. At the level of the State legislature in 2010 the GOP-controlled body produced a district map that virtually delivered the GA to the GOP for the next decade, if not longer.
Now these actions are under court scrutiny, and the Justice Department has attempted to invoke elements of the Voting Rights Act (although Republicans managed to cripple much of the enforcement sections of the law in recent Supreme Court rulings) in regard to Scott’s district on the basis that the gerrymander was based – as it most certainly was – on race, which is illegal. Unfortunately, we will have to wait and see if the gerrymandering for less racial and more politically practical reasons can survive the courts.
We at APV believe that at least part of the solution to the political games being played over redistricting would be a bipartisan commission that drew the lines based on population, proximity and other factors without input from politicians on either side of the aisle. Safe districts that look like political Rorschach tests only serve to depress an electorate that is already historically cynical about the democratic process. We will be watching the courts since the Republican GA has made it clear it has no interest in fixing this problem.
Here are some recent articles and resources:
-by Scott Price, APV President