More than a few eyebrows were raised last November when Democrats running for the Virginia House of Delegates captured 53 percent of the overall vote (to 44 percent for Republicans). Despite that 9-point margin, Democrats failed to gain a majority in the Virginia’s legislature’s lower chamber. The GOP holds 51 of the 100 house seats to the Democrats’ 49.
Nobody should have been surprised at that outcome, however. On a congressional level, the same thing has been happening for years, even though Republicans haven’t won a statewide race since 2009. It’s because of a process known as partisan gerrymandering.
In the past 14 years, the commonwealth has morphed from mostly red to purple to solidly blue in contests for president, U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Nevertheless, for most of that time Republicans have maintained their dominance in Virginia’s congressional delegation.
Let’s take a look at what’s occurred:
- In the 2008 overall vote for Congress, Democrats took 54 percent of the two-party vote to Republicans’ 46 percent. The Democrats also ended up winning six of Virginia’s 11 seats, or 55 percent of the delegation. That was the same year Virginia voted in favor of Barack Obama as president, and it was the last time Democrats constituted a majority of Virginia’s congressional delegation.
- In the off-year Virginia congressional elections of 2010, Republicans took 57 percent of the overall congressional vote, versus Democrats’ 43 percent. Yet the Republicans picked up two seats in Congress that year; percentagewise that gave them a 73-27 edge in Virginia’s congressional delegation. The outcome wasn’t a huge surprise because the president’s party usually fares badly in the first election of his first term.
- In 2012, Republicans overall took just under 52 percent of the votes for Congress (Obama again won Virginia, but by a smaller margin than in 2008). Yet they maintained their 8-3 edge among the Virginia delegation.
- The results of the 2014 congressional elections were almost identical to 2010. Republicans took 58 percent of the vote, but kept their 73 percent majority in the congressional delegation.
- In 2016, Democrats won the overall congressional vote for the first time since 2010 — but barely. They took 50.2 percent of two-party votes cast in Virginia congressional races, and they picked up one seat. That left the GOP with seven of Virginia’s 11 seats in Congress, or 64 percent of the commonwealth’s delegation.
All of the above has come to pass because of partisan gerrymandering. Simply put, Republicans have dominated the Virginia legislature for most of the past 10 years, and they’ve used that dominance to draw congressional district lines that favored their own party. (Democrats did the same thing when they were in control, too.)
What does all the above mean moving forward? The answer to that depends on a number of different — and unpredictable — factors.
First, the U.S. Supreme Court is now in the process of deciding two different cases regarding partisan gerrymandering.
One’s from Wisconsin and involves the state legislature’s lower chamber. Early in this decade, Wisconsin Republicans redrew legislative maps that gave them a 60-39 edge in the 2012 elections for the state assembly — even though they took only 48.6 percent of the two-party vote that year. Some Democrats cried foul and sued.
The other case is from Maryland, and involves its Democrat-dominated legislature redrawing congressional district lines after the 2010 census. Democrats packed a bunch of Democrats into a western Maryland district that historically had voted Republican, and in 2012 picked up a Congressional seat in the process. Republicans, who now hold only one of Maryland’s eight congressional seats, are the plaintiffs in that case.
The Supreme Court could either invalidate partisan redistricting or toss up its hands and say there’s really no way around it. It’s unclear which direction the justices will go. But their decision to accept the Maryland case came as a surprise. That’s left court-watchers wondering if the justices are intent upon appearing nonpartisan whatever they decide in the cases.
Second, there are congressional elections in Virginia (and all the other states) this upcoming November, and President Trump’s unpopularity may be a factor in those. If the “blue wave” that almost gave Democrats a majority in the 2017 House of Delegates happens again, it could give Virginia Democrats their first substantial majority in the overall congressional vote since 2008.
However, the most recent ratings by the respected Cook Political Report don’t foresee a dramatic change in Virginia’s congressional delegation. The 10th Congressional District in northern Virginia — held by GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock — is the only one Cook even rates as a toss-up.
If that forecast is correct, Democrats couldn’t do better than picking up one congressional seat, which would leave Republicans with a 6-5 majority in Virginia’s delegation.
The next congressional redistricting is unlikely to happen until after the results of the 2020 Census are in. And if the Supreme Court punts on partisan gerrymandering, it’s likely to put drawing those lines in the hands of whichever party that wins the 2019 Virginia General Assembly House and Senate elections.
As President Donald Trump has been saying since the 2016 primaries, the system is “rigged.” But not necessarily in the way he meant.