By THE TIMES-DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD
With so much at stake on this Election Day — control of the House and Senate, political extremism veering toward violence, election denialism threatening American democracy itself — metro Richmond is largely on the periphery. Unlike more recent off-year elections, the battleground races are taking place somewhere else.
The redistricting of congressional seats approved by the Virginia Supreme Court last December has left Central Virginia largely devoid of competitive districts. The western suburbs of Chesterfield and Henrico counties — previously part of the 7th District that produced upset victories from Republican Dave Brat in 2014, who knocked off former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary and went on to serve two terms, and later Democrat Abigail Spanberger, who rode anti-Trump sentiment to unseat Brat in 2018 — have become an afterthought.
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While the 7th District’s northern shift benefited Spanberger politically, the moderate Democrat is nonetheless locked in one of the most expensive contests in the country. Spanberger and her Republican challenger have raised more than $11 million through Oct. 19, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, spending enormous sums on political advertising. Ditto for incumbent Democrat Elaine Luria’s 2nd District battle against Republican state Sen. Jen Kiggans, which has garnered nearly $13 million in political donations. (Campaign finance reports for the past few weeks won’t be available until after Election Day.)
By comparison, candidates running in the three districts that now cover the metro region — the 1st, 4th and 5th — have raised a comparatively paltry $5.4 million.
Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico are now split between the 1st and the 4th districts, the former leaning comfortably Republican and the latter solidly Democratic. The deep-red 5th District, which covers the more rural counties to the west, grabbing parts of Hanover and all of Powhatan and Amelia counties, is also anything but competitive.
While voters may appreciate being spared the usual inundation of political advertising, the lack of competition is unhealthy. Decades of political gerrymandering and the country’s growing partisan divide have increasingly led people to pack their bags for communities of the like-minded, explains Stephen J. Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.
This political sorting, a phenomenon outlined in journalist Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” leads to hardening political viewpoints and an unwillingness to compromise and solve problems.
“Blue areas get bluer and red areas get redder,” Farnsworth says, “and that can be discouraging for voters who find themselves outnumbered by the other party in their districts. It really means that candidates are going to focus on the extreme factions within their party.”
Indeed, districts without a clear Republican or Democratic advantage tend to produce more moderate candidates, such as Spanberger, who won in the old 7th by veering away from progressive ideas and campaigning on issues like health care, increasing pay for law enforcement and her ability to reach across the aisle and work with her colleagues in the GOP. She did so by running up large margins with less partisan-minded suburban voters in Chesterfield and Henrico.
In a country that is growing ever more divided, there’s increasingly little space left for moderation. “This is bad news for the country, which means there are very few persuadable voters, and very few persuadable politicians,” Farnsworth says.
Two years ago, the Richmond suburbs were considered a bellwether for the rest of the state. The region’s growing diversity, both demographically and politically, required politicians to seek out common ground. The issues mattered more. On this Election Day, however, the lack of competition has pushed us further into our political silos. As we look ahead to 2023 when all 140 seats of the General Assembly are up for election, the Richmond region must find a way to bridge the divide.