Ahead of Redraw, Virginia Republicans Jockey for Safe Seats
Virginia Democrats say their congressional map can’t get any worse.
In a state President Barack Obama carried twice, their party holds just three seats in the 11-member delegation. With a new round of redistricting coming up next month, the question now is which districts get rougher for Republicans. A federal district court has given Virginia until Sept. 1 to redraw the lines of Democratic Rep. Robert C. Scott’s 3rd District, which it has twice ruled is unconstitutionally packed with blacks . The district runs along the James River between Richmond and Hampton Roads and is currently 57 percent black, according to 2013 census data.
Democrats expect to pick up at least one seat from a wider distribution of black voters, which means one of the eight Republicans may be in for a tougher re-election.
The General Assembly is tasked with hashing out a new map. Last week, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for an Aug. 17 special session to begin the process. But in any redistricting — often called an “incumbent protection program” by both sides of the aisle — it’s the congressional delegation that has the most influence.
“There’s a lot of speculation about who goes, and lots of jockeying,” former Virginia GOP Rep. Tom Davis told CQ Roll Call. “Some will say throw Brat under,” he said, referring to freshman Rep. Dave Brat, who unseated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in last year’s GOP primary for the 7th District.
“Looking at the internal dynamics of the General Assembly, Brat doesn’t have the same level of commitment” as other members of the delegation, Davis said, especially given Cantor’s enduring connections in the state.
As one of the most junior members of the GOP delegation, Brat could be a palatable sacrifice for GOP leadership. But Virginia Republicans in Congress, led by 6th District Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, aren’t ready to ax one of their own.
That’s because they’re waiting on an appeal of the lower court ruling to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled General Assembly has asked the three-judge panel to push the deadline past this year’s November legislative elections to, in part, wait for that appeal.
When asked for comment outside the House chamber on July 16, Goodlatte said he doesn’t “take questions from the press on the floor.” His office has not returned a request for comment.
The conventional wisdom on both sides of the aisle has been that Scott Rigell’s 2nd District and J. Randy Forbes’ 4th District would be the easiest targets for taking on more blacks.
Rigell’s district, which is currently 21 percent black, went for Obama by 2 points in 2008 and 2012. Last cycle, the three-term congressman won re-election by nearly 18 points.
Having served eight terms, Forbes has more seniority. He won his district, which is currently 32 percent black, by 23 points in 2014, while Republicans have carried it by 1- and 2-point margins in the past two presidential elections. But Forbes’ district has been eyed since the original redistricting process after the 2010 census — state Senate Democrats pushed a map in 2011 that would have added blacks to the 4th District.
“It would be very easy to pull the 4th back to a tossup, if not a more Democratic district,” by shifting Petersburg and Portsmouth over from the 3rd District, said Susan Rowland, 4th District chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.
Flipping Brat’s seat, one Virginia Democrat said, would require a “wholesale” redrawing of the state’s districts, not just tweaking a few contiguous lines. Brat’s 7th, which Republicans have carried by low double-digits at the presidential level the past two elections, is 15 percent black.
A larger redraw isn’t out of the question. “In theory, every district is at stake,” Davis said. Even moving a few precincts around in Northern Virginia, Davis added, “could change entire districts.”
“If Picasso were alive today, he could get a lot of artistic fulfillment just by drawing congressional districts,” said Davis, who thinks the Supreme Court will take up the Republicans’ appeal.
But the high court declined to take up Virginia’s case earlier this year, sending it back to the lower court for review when it ruled on a similar case from Alabama.
“I don’t think that the three judge court will wait — or allow the litigants to wait — for a decision from the Supreme Court,” said Loyola Law School redistricting expert Justin Levitt, who doubts the court would hear it since it takes very few cases to begin with and it’s already passed on this one once.
Assuming the General Assembly does convene in August, the governor will propose a map, and Republican legislators, who fall just short of a veto-proof majority, will propose their own version. If they can’t agree, sources expect court involvement in redrawing the lines.
And what does all this mean for Scott? He isn’t worried about facing a more competitive re-election. In 12 terms, he told CQ Roll Call, “the worst I’ve done is 69 percent.”
Democrats point to the impending redraw in Virginia as the latest redistricting victory that could help them protect, and possibly gain, seats in the House. They must net 30 seats to win control of the chamber.
Last month, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s right to use an independent commission to draw its congressional districts, relieving Democrats who feared a GOP-controlled legislature charged with drawing a new map could cost them a seat. And in Florida, Democrats expect to pick up a seat after the state Supreme Court struck down part of the congressional map earlier this month.
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