In Virginia, redistricting matters
In 2021 Virginia redrew its congressional and state legislative maps. And while Governor Glenn Youngkin’s “parent’s matter” slogan may not have won him the majorities he wanted, elected officials and political analysts are saying it’s those newly implemented district lines that really mattered up and down the ballot.
Former Republican Delegate Greg Habeeb was particularly harsh in his 2023 election assessment.
“Money didn’t move races, messaging didn’t move races, hard work didn’t move races, mail didn’t move races,” Habeeb, who now runs Gentry Locke’s lobbying arm, said. “The districts are just what they are, at this point, in Virginia.”
He clarified his complaints were less about any one party or campaign, but after the most expensive legislative election in Virginia history, he'd hoped to see more of an impact.
"Both sides spent millions. Both sides worked their tails off," Habeeb said. "And we ended up right where the maps were drawn."
When the maps were drawn by special masters at the request of the Virginia Supreme Court, compactness and keeping localities together were the primary goals. Partisanship was not supposed to be included, but by the time the state’s high court got involved Youngkin had upset Democrats’ state-wide winning streak.
In a memo released with the new maps, the two map makers, one selected by each party, noted “a balanced map should give each party a realistic chance to control… each of the branches of the legislature when that party has a good year, even if the overall partisanship of the Commonwealth makes it substantially easier for Democrats to do so in most years.”
Virginia Public Access Project, or VPAP, is a nonpartisan election watchdog group. They indexed all 140 districts on their partisan lean based on election data from 2022 and 2021 and broke down the lean from strong to competitive. They found new maps slightly favored Democrats, and after Tuesday, the handful of districts they indexed as competitive flushed out nearly along their assessed lines.
“The electorate is staying consistent,” said VPAP’s executive Director Chris Piper. “When you get to the competitive seats, the margins are near five or lower. All of these seemed to have lined up.”
Falls Church-area Democratic Delegate Marcus Simon agreed in part with Habeeb’s assessment: “You probably could have called this result on the day the special masters dropped their maps,” he said.
But Virginia’s history as a Republican gerrymander needs to be included when examining the new maps and this year’s results, says Virginia Tech politics professor Nicholas Goedert.
“We saw competitive districts in a lot of places where we might not have seen them in the past,” Goedert said. He noted, as did others, that Democrats also lost a Senate seat, meaning they may have control of the chamber in line with map maker’s reflecting recent state-wide wins, but that power was diluted thanks to the new lines.
“It was a good night for Democrats, but not overwhelmingly good,” Goedert said. “You have a lot of cases where there’s close races, with Democrats winning more than expected, but it's not clear one way or the other.”
Among those who have been obsessing over the outcomes of this year’s races is director of the nonpartisan state legislative elections tracker CNalysis, Chaz Nuttycombe. A Virginia native and Virginia Tech student, Nuttycombe was among the first to accurately call a competitive Senate seat, Schuyler VanValkenburg beating Siobhan Dunnavant. A prognosticator by trade, he’s on his way to having predicted the outcomes in nearly 100% of Virginia’s legislative elections.
He said he uses state level data from Virginia elections going back to 2019, cross referencing it against the newly drawn district lines, and found early on Democrats were more likely than not to gain control of the legislature.
“The maps matter, for sure,” Nuttycombe said. But he also noted his final analysis was heavily influenced by campaigns.
And nowhere was the impact of campaigning more present than in local races for school board and Board of Supervisors seats.
Traditional Republican strongholds like Chesterfield County and Henrico County saw their BOS flip for the first time in decades, if not ever. In Spotsylvania and Montgomery counties, where book banning and concerns about outside influence in the local school system made headlines, both saw their school board flip from right to left.
“The public objections were particularly vehement,” said University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth, who lives near the Spotsylvania school district and saw some of the politicking firsthand. In his eyes, Youngkin’s early success with the “parents matter” movement hit a ceiling and what remained was disgruntled parents who supported their teachers over political claims of indoctrination.
“Education is now something of a balance,” he said.
Habeeb also questioned the future of the “parents matter” movement in light of Wednesday.
“You can take that message to a point where it stops being about empowering parents and it starts being anti-public education,” he warned.
But the message worked in districts out west, including Roanoke and Pulaski counties where conservatives picked up school board seats.
And that energy around school board meetings could have also been influenced by Virginia’s redistricted maps, says John Bisognano, President of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Bisognano and his team helped the state pass its redistricting constitutional amendment, and he said their goal has always been to make legislative races more competitive. And with that increase in competition comes a renewed interest in the political process.
“Voters have a tendency to be more enthusiastic and excited when they think they can change an election, " he said. “When people believe their vote matters, they’re going to turn out in higher numbers.”
Southside Senator Bill Stanley noted the legislature moved those now-controversial local elections to November which brought them more into Virginia’s annual election cycle in the first place. And he pointed to local Republican gains in his neck of the woods as evidence that Youngkin’s culture war claims were working.
“They’re a part of the discussion and I think that’s important for the localities,” Stanley said.
He also praised the maps for creating genuine opportunities for both parties to lead.
“You want redistricting to reflect the mood for the state and how it votes,” he said. “Unfortunately for us in the Republican party, it reflects that for the time being.”
But he also hoped that tight races, and the single seat majorities held by Democrats, would reflect improved bipartisanship.
“What I’m hopeful is we get back to doing the people’s business in the 2024 session,” he said.
But Simon, back in Falls Church, fears redistricting may have increased partisanship. Both he and Stanley won their elections this week by over 75%. Simon said it wasn’t uncommon for more districts with safer partisan leanings to elect candidates that reflect their base more and believe they’re sent to Richmond with a mandate.
“You had more conservative and more progressive candidates win primaries,” he said. “And now they’re more concerned about their issues for the next election.”