The Virginia Supreme Court on Tuesday finalized the state’s new redistricting maps, bending to criticism that congressional representation for the Richmond region was split too many ways by keeping together the western Richmond suburbs.
The change incorporates Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s 7th District base of western Chesterfield County and western Henrico County into a new, more competitive 1st District, potentially pitting Spanberger in a contest with Republican Rep. Rob Wittman. The 7th District still moves out of the Richmond suburbs to Northern Virginia.
The maps are effective immediately and will affect all regularly scheduled primaries and general elections moving forward.
As for upcoming special elections, like the January contest for the seat of Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, the court said it would leave it up to the State Board of Elections and the Virginia Department of Elections to determine whether the old or new maps should be used.
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The court took over control of the state’s redistricting process after a new commission of citizens and legislators failed to come up with maps for the state’s legislative and congressional districts, a messy process that was bogged down by partisan politics.
The court issued its preliminary maps earlier this month, which were the product of amicable debate between the justices’ two experts — Bernard Grofman, nominated by Democratic legislators, and Sean Trende, nominated by Republican lawmakers.
In addition to the vanishing of the 7th from the Richmond suburbs, the maps the experts initially proposed faced criticism for disadvantaging the three women in Virginia’s congressional delegation — Spanberger, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-2nd, and Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th — and for pitting about half of the state’s legislators against fellow incumbents in primary or general election match-ups.
The new congressional map lessens the split of the Richmond region.
The sprawling 1st District will now extend from western Chesterfield, western Henrico and eastern Hanover County northeast to Westmoreland County on the Northern Neck and south to York County and Poquoson.
It’s unclear if Spanberger, who was gearing up for a run in the new 7th in Northern Virginia, will instead remain in the Richmond area and vie in the new 1st. If she stays, Spanberger would be running against a 14-year GOP incumbent in a district that leans slightly toward Republicans. According to composite election results for 2016 to 2020, the newly configured 1st profiles as 53.2% Republican to 44.8% Democratic, the experts said.
Spanberger, reached through a spokesman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The rest of the greater Richmond area will be split among two congressional seats. Northern Hanover, as well as Louisa, Fluvanna, Goochland and Powhatan counties, move into Republican Rep. Bob Good’s 5th District, which extends southwest from Richmond’s outer suburbs to Pittsylvania County and Danville.
The city of Richmond, eastern Chesterfield and eastern Henrico remain in Democratic Rep. Don McEachin’s 4th District.
Wexton again appears to be in a safely Democrat seat, based in Prince William and Loudoun counties. Luria is still in a toss-up district — based in Virginia Beach — that adds a swath of Chesapeake and becomes more competitive for Republicans.
The new congressional map still moves the 7th district from the Richmond area to Northern Virginia, but in a new configuration that makes it less safe for Democrats.
The reconfigured 7th includes three counties Spanberger represents but has never won — Culpeper, Orange and Spotsylvania. The new district extends from Caroline County west to Greene County and north to Stafford County and Dale City. Past election results indicate it leans 52.3% Democratic and 45.7% Republican.
The experts tasked with drawing the maps said in a memo that public comment on their first drafts helped drive the changes, in particular “frustration” about the removal of Spanberger’s 7th District from the Richmond area. The experts said they could not keep a district akin to the current 7th without unwelcome ramifications for other districts, such as splitting the Shenandoah Valley.
Grofman and Trende said that the growth in Northern Virginia demanded that they create an additional district there, the new 7th. They described the consolidation of the western Henrico and Chesterfield suburbs into the 1st as an effort to at least keep those communities with similar interests together.
“Although we were unable to identify a global resolution to this complaint that would not set off a cascade of secondary problems,” the experts wrote, “we did feel it incumbent upon ourselves to pay extra care to specific complaints in this region.
“We have identified a series of changes that do not give these residents what they are ultimately seeking, but that do address some of the valid points that they raise regarding communities of interest.”
In a normal year, Democrats would have a 6-5 majority in the congressional delegation, according to the court’s experts.
Democrats’ current 7-4 advantage would mark a good year, and would likely have been cemented if Democrats had not ceded control of the redistricting process to the new Virginia Redistricting Commission and now the state Supreme Court.
In the first draft of the court’s redistricting maps, about half of the state’s delegates and senators faced the prospect of either running against a colleague, moving or retiring.
In the memo they released with the final maps, the court’s experts said the “severe” effect of ignoring incumbents when drawing the legislative maps was proof of the “redistricting process working as intended.”
The experts argued that failing to protect incumbents by simply remaining ignorant about where they lived allowed Grofman and Trende to instead focus on keeping localities and communities together.
Notably, they said they decided in consultation with the court’s justices to proceed without addressing the issue of paired incumbents.
Protecting incumbents “would seem to be at odds with the overall redistricting scheme enacted by Virginia voters,” they wrote, referring to the 2020 statewide referendum in which Virginians backed the idea of a redistricting commission.
“Having established compact districts that respect communities of interest, however, our hope is that future redistricting utilizing the same criteria will be less severe.”