Many Congressional Districts in Virginia Don't Look to Be That Competitive

Oct 27, 2016

When voters head to the polls on Election Day, most will be focused on the presidential race. But every seat in the House of Representatives will be on the ballot too — although you might not have heard much about that. Michael Pope takes us to one of the many congressional districts in Virginia that’s NOT in play this year.

Market Square in Old Town Alexandria has been the scene of canvassing for votes since the 1700's, and this week is no different.

“Actually I was wondering if I could get a button."

That’s Carlos Ibara. He’s originally from Ecuador, but he recently became a citizen and this is the first election where he’ll be casting a ballot in America. He’s voting for Donald Trump.

“Where I come from we have rigged elections. And so we know about when there’s no point about learning about a race or even finding out about what their points are because they are going to win anyway. So why even bother?"

Why even bother? That’s what many people here in the U.S.. have to say about races other than the presidential election. Like the race here in the 8th Congressional District. Freshman Democrat Don Beyer is running for reelection against a Republican named Charles Hernick.

“Most people don’t even know who he is."

That’s Jocie Kazanjian of Alexandria. She’s stationed at the Trump table handing out bumper stickers and lapel pins. She admits that the race for Congress is not attracting much attention.

“It’s so polarized that everybody has been focusing on the presidential race, especially this year."

“So when people come up here and say, ‘Who is Hernick?’ What do you say to them."

“Well nobody has come up to me to say, ‘Who is Hernick?’ How about that!” 

So why doesn’t anyone know about this race? Because it’s not competitive. Geoff Skelley at the University of Virginia Center for Politics helps put together the Crystal Ball, a website that analyzes races across the country. He explains how he determines which are competitive and which aren’t.

“A good place to start is just looking at the baseline partisan tilt of a district based on recent elections, and the most common number to look at is the presidential race."

Take the Eighth Congressional District, which was represented for many years by a Democrat, who retired in 2014. Then another Democrat was elected to represent the district. During the last presidential district, 68 percent of the voters here went for Democrat Barack Obama.

"It’s now basically tied with the third district down in the Tidewater for being the most Democratic district in the state."

Credit owlpacino / Flickr

That means this district, like most congressional districts in Virginia, are not considered to be competitive at all.

“There’s a zero percent chance that a Democrat isn’t going to win the eighth just as there’s a zero percent chance that a Republican isn’t going to win the ninth district down in the Southwest right now. It’s just the state of play."

Some districts are so lopsided that the party out of power doesn’t even try. Democrat Gerry Connolly of Fairfax County, for example, is running unopposed. That’s despite the fact that his seat was formerly a Republican seat. Quentin Kidd at Christopher Newport University says that’s a mistake.

“If you don’t have a candidate running, and the winds turn in your direction then you’ve got no way to take advantage of that. So I think it’s incumbent upon parties to put candidates up everywhere, not just in the safe seats that they know their candidates can win."

Kidd But, Kidd says, there’s a very important reason why neither party should ever give up an any seat, regardless of how hopeless it may seem.

“In 2008, the Second Congressional District was not considered that competitive and a Democrat named Glenn Nye ended up winning it because Barack Obama made Virginia competitive in Virginia to everyone’s surprise."

Back at Market Square, the folks at the other end of the square are campaigning for the Democrat. They’re confident he’s going to win, and they’re probably right. That’s because of another big factor at play, gerrymandering. This particular district was designed by Republicans to pack in as many Democrats as possible, helping Republicans be more competitive in the surrounding districts. Ellen Harmon is handing out stickers with Clinton’s familiar campaign logo.

“Republicans in this country have a disproportionate share of House districts that are gerrymandered in their favor, which does not reflect the population. And that’s why the House is predominately Republican at this point."

Virginia Democrats tried to press that point in court, bringing a legal challenge that said Republicans had acted unconstitutionally to pack black voters into one district to diminish their influence. The court agreed, and one Republican seat was redrawn and is now expected to become a Democratic stronghold.