Proposed congressional maps give Dems an edge in Virginia

Top map shows the new draft, while the bottom is how the district lines currently are. (WSLS 10)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. – Draft maps for new congressional districts in Virginia would provide Democrats a strong chance to win a majority of the state’s 11 seats, but they also draw Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger out of her Richmond-area district.

The maps released Wednesday were prepared by two special masters - one each nominated by Democrats and Republicans - in accordance with an order from the Supreme Court of Virginia. The court has stepped in to draw the maps after a new bipartisan redistricting commission failed to agree on maps for either Congress or the General Assembly.

Spanberger represents the 7th District in central Virginia, a swing district. Under the new maps, the 7th District becomes significantly more Democratic, but it is redrawn to have its main voting bloc in Prince William County in Democratic-leaning northern Virginia, rather than the Richmond area.

In a memo to the court, special masters Bernard Grofman and Sean Trende say six of the 11 districts have a Democratic lean, and four of the 11 lean Republican. The 2nd District, which covers Virginia Beach and parts of Hampton Roads, would be swing district, as it is now. It is currently represented by Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria. Under the draft map, the 2nd District has a very narrow 50-48 Democratic edge, based on election results from 2016 and 2020. Some analysts say the proposed district would be tougher for her to win than her current one.

“In a very good Republican year, Republicans could win a majority of the seats in Virginia’s delegation,” the special masters wrote. “Generally, however, we would expect to see a 6-5 Democratic edge in Virginia’s delegation. In very good Democratic years, Democrats might perhaps achieve the 7-4 that they now enjoy from having won two highly competitive seats in 2020.”

Grofman and Trende said they paid no attention to incumbent residences when they drew the maps and did not plan to take it into account unless the court directed them to do so.

Spanberger’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. Members of Congress do not have to live in the district they represent, so Spanberger could seek reelection in the revised 7th District if she chooses.

The maps proposed by the two special masters are, on a partisan basis, perhaps better than the map Democrats sought on the failed redistricting panel. Democrats had supported a map that created five safe Democratic districts and two swing districts. The maps drawn by the special masters create five safe Democratic districts, one that leans Democratic and one swing district.

The Democratic-leaning district, the 10th District, is currently represented by Democrat Jennifer Wexton. Under the proposed maps, it would still be based in Loudoun County, but would lose a number of Democratic precincts in Fairfax County. It would have a 7-point Democratic edge.

As a result, Democrats’ chances of maintaining their current 7-4 edge would hinge on Wexton and Luria winning reelection in districts that would provide neither the cushion they currently enjoy.

The proposed General Assembly maps would have a 53-47 Democratic edge in the House of Delegates and a 23-17 Democratic advantage in the state Senate.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who served on the redistricting commission, said the Democratic advantage in the maps may not be what it seems. He noted that in some cases, the partisan tilt of the districts was taken using the 2017 elections as a base point, a particularly strong year for Democrats.

“I’m a little skeptical that the maps are as good for Democrats as initial assessments would suggest,” said Simon, who under the proposed maps is put into a district with another incumbent Democrat, Mark Keam.

The special masters said they could not use the 2021 election results, which were strong for Republicans, as a baseline measure of partisanship because many absentee ballots cannot be traced back to their original precinct.

A bigger potential concern, Simon said, is whether the boundaries respect local communities of interest. The map drawers opted to draw “nested districts,” meaning the state senate districts are drawn to largely fit inside congressional districts, and House districts are drawn to fit within state Senate boundaries. Doing so is difficult, though, and relegates other considerations like neighborhood boundaries to less significance.

Simon said he’s hopeful the court will take the public feedback it receives on those issues seriously and be willing to redraw lines as needed to accommodate them.

Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus, said members are still reviewing maps and will provide feedback to the court through the public comment process.

Two public hearings on the maps will be held later this month.