One of the big concerns for both parties going into this election year was the effect the election would have on redistricting, an inescapably partisan process where the House, Senate and Governor re-draw the electoral districts to reflect population changes and ensure roughly equal representation. The concern of both parties was that if the other party controlled the process it would make it harder for the loser in this process to win elections. NLS gives a fascinating analysis today that argues that Republicans, who are pretty much in control of the process at this point, can afford to be fully bipartisan and not game the system to their advantage because all of the population shifts favor them anyways. He’s mostly right about the House, but that’s simply cover for what’s really interesting here.
Prince William is adding one and a half new seats in the House of Delegates. But it’s not in the south part of the county where Luke Torian just picked up Jeff Frederick’s seat or where Paul Nichols almost survived against Rich Anderson. It’s not even around Manassas where Jackson Miller was just re-elected. The entire pickup is in Northern Prince William county in Bob Marshall’s district. After returning the extremely right-wing Marshall by double digits in every election this decade against well funded opponents- does anyone think a less controversial Republican in an open seat will have any problem winning here?
Apart from the whine about Bob Marshall here typical of the left that is terribly frustrated they can’t figure out how to take on a principled conservative, it doesn’t take all that much insight too figure out that Marshall represents a house district that has three times as many people in it than most other house seats. Yes, this district is unavoidably going to split in three, creating two districts in Prince William County and one in Loudoun. The population growth in generally Republican-leaning ex-urban districts has far outpaced the growth, or actual contraction, seen in more urban Democrat-leaning districts, and no matter how you draw the lines for the House of Delegates, you’re going to get more Republicans. That’s essentially the argument for Republicans to take the moral high ground here and make the redistricting process bi-partisan, because it generally doesn’t make a difference. Republicans will hold the house no matter how the lines are drawn here.
The House districts aren’t the only ones being changed, though. Forty Senate districts will be redrawn as well. Since these are larger, and the Senate is barely controlled at this point by the Democrats, not only are the stakes higher but the opportunities for creative line-drawing are dramatically more enticing. It’s much easier to gerrymander a big district than a smaller one, and all the process needs to do is concentrate more Democrats in a few “safe” districts in order to make the others more competitive for Republicans. If you also shift a district so that the incumbent is now representing a lot of voters who haven’t cast ballots for that incumbent, it makes it easier for a challenger to knock off that incumbent in the first election after redistricting.
Since Bob Marshall’s district is pretty much the size of a Senate district already, it stands to reason that Prince William is going to get one new Senate district and likely portions of another, and the split will happen in the vicinity if not within the 29th Senate District, currently represented by Chuck Colgan. Colgan is ready for retirement anyways, and that seat is the lynchpin of Democrat control of the Senate right now. It’s a very Republican District that couldn’t be held by anyone but Colgan, and since the lines are being redrawn anyways it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Manassas could become part of the 36th District represented by Toddy Puller, who also is ready for retirement. Colgan could conceivably move in order to stay within the 29th, but seeing Chuck Colgan leave Manassas would be nearly unthinkable. That one change would probably set Republicans to have a two seat majority in the Senate. Are Republicans going to give that opportunity up? That’s a hard advantage to forego in the name of being “bipartisan”, especially when Democrats haven’t been at all interested in the notion until it was clear they weren’t going to get a majority in the House.
That being said, it would make sense in the long-term for this to be a more bipartisan process than it has. Past attempts to apply game theory to redistricting have often resulted in unintended consequences. The last time this was done, and Republicans were in charge then, was to squeeze every advantage possible from the process and it ended up making so many districts competitive that Republicans actually ended up getting hurt. There are few ways to tilt a district towards Republican candidates but by sapping strength from a stronger Republican district, and in the end you trade one safe and one leaning district for what is closer to two leaning districts, and you could end up losing both. Sometimes it’s simply better for the majority to not play so many games, allow each party to have their safe seats, and the rest of them become the electoral battleground.
The temptation to apply a little bit of game theory in Prince William County in the Senate districts is going to be too strong to pass up, however, since it could really change things. The utterly abysmal Ken Stolle is out of the Senate, you demote Dick Saslaw to minority leader with a two seat Republican majority, and suddenly all sorts of things become possible. The Senate has been the only roadblock for E-Verify in the Commonwealth, and we actually could put the brakes on businesses and government unlawfully hiring illegal aliens. The Senate has been determined to fix any and all budget problems with tax increases, and that would likely stop. The constant refrain from legislators interested in passing some pretty important priorities has been that they’d never make it through the Senate. Remove that logjam, and the shift would be dramatic.
Is that worth some marginally creative redistricting efforts in Prince William County where a lot of lines are being redrawn anyways? You bet. It wouldn’t take much to shift the Senate, and Democrats know it. That’s why they’re clamoring for a bipartisan process now, because they realize just how their fragile control of the Senate is and how little it would take to seize it from them. That’s also the reason why they’re not talking about Senate redistricting, and instead focusing on the House of Delegates, where “it doesn’t matter.”
In the Senate, it does.
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