Recent elections in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District show that Republicans can win when they construct district lines to bring together a mixture of suburban and rural voters — but that creative line-drawing is no guarantee of success. The problem for Republicans these days is keeping their party in power as the years go by and as both issues and populations shift.
Make no mistake about it: Republicans shaped Virginia’s 7th District to elect a GOP member of Congress. Republican Rep. Dave Brat, who lost his re-election campaign last month, won the district two years ago with nearly 58 percent of the votes cast and was first elected to Congress in 2014 with roughly 61 percent of the vote in the district (which then had slightly different boundaries).
Not that long ago, in other words, the 7th was a comfortably Republican district. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump carried it by 6 points, even as he lost Virginia as a whole by 5 points.
But the efforts at gerrymandering can only accomplish so much, particularly the further the elections are from the last U.S. Census.
Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic victor in the district, is an experienced national security and law enforcement specialist who was part of a “blue wave” of women who ran for office in the wake of Trump’s election.
She, like many other Democratic congressional candidates seeking to represent districts with significant suburban populations, also had the benefit of timing. The combative, divisive president was toxic to many suburban voters, who turned out in droves to give money, to knock on doors, to make calls, and, finally, to cast their ballots against the GOP.
In Virginia, where Democratic candidates took three congressional seats away from Republican incumbents this year, the challengers also benefited from the presence on the ballot of Corey Stewart, a poorly funded and divisive Republican Senate nominee.
If Republicans had had a stronger Senate nominee, Brat might have been able to use the gerrymandered district’s favorable borders to survive the unfavorable conditions for Republicans this year.
The left side of the illustration that accompanies this column is a traditional map, which colors blue the areas Spanberger won and red where Brat won a plurality of votes.
Other than a few scattered precincts here and there, Spanberger’s support was concentrated in the suburban parts of the district — outside Richmond on the southern end (Henrico and Chesterfield) and outside Fredericksburg (Spotsylvania) on the northern end.
The power of the suburban vote in this congressional district is best illustrated by a cartogram, such as the one on the right side of the illustration, which adjusts a traditional map to take account of where the votes are.
Unlike a traditional map, where the sizes of precincts represent the number of acres they contain, a cartogram adjusts the sizes of jurisdictions to correspond to the number of votes cast there. Remember, people vote, acres do not.
The resulting image, according to one of our students, looks like a snail climbing up a tree. The suburban precincts and the northern and southern ends of the district, which are geographically small, take on their proper relevance when illustrated this way.
The huge swath of conservative red that marks the Republican preferences in the largely rural areas that comprise most of acreage of the district shrink as the cartogram adjusts those sparsely populated precincts to correspond to the small size of their electorates.
So what are Republicans to do? The answer is simple: Adapt to a changing commonwealth by changing their message. In today’s 7th District of Virginia — and even more so in the 2020 version of this district — economic, health care, and educational concerns loom large and the traditional Republican emphasis on socially divisive politics do not.
What worked for the GOP a quarter century ago — or even two years ago in this gerrymandered district — is no longer working so well. To succeed going forward, Republicans in the 7th District and in Virginia generally have to nominate candidates who can do a better job of campaigning where the voters are.
That means an intense focus on suburban voters and suburban concerns, the part of the state (and of the district) where the population is growing fastest.