Home 2013 races Yes, Gerrymandering Sucks. No, It Did NOT Kill Virginia House Democrats in...

Yes, Gerrymandering Sucks. No, It Did NOT Kill Virginia House Democrats in 2013.


First off, let me just say upfront that I strongly agree with my friend Josh Israel – one of the most astute political writers around, also one of the most knowledgeable about Virginia – that “gerrymandering” is a major problem in our fine Commonwealth. For years, I’ve strongly supported a shift to nonpartisan and/or bipartisan redistricting, but obviously the incumbents have had different ideas. Thus, we had the Democrats in the State Senate drawing their preferred lines after the 2010 census, the Republicans in the House their preferred lines, and the Virginia Congressional incumbents making sure that they were safe in their districts. It’s bad for democracy, it’s bad for Democrats (e.g., we basically locked in an 8-3 Republican advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives despite Virginia being a purplish-blue state), and it needs to change. But it won’t anytime soon, let’s face it, given the desire of incumbents to protect themselves at all costs. Which means we just have to deal with it the best we can.

That brings us back to reality – specifically, the actual situation we face, not the situation we (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld) the situation we might want or wish to have at a later time. So we’ve got these awful, gerrymandered, incumbent-protection districts. Lots of ’em. And Republicans have taken advantage, beginning the 2013 cycle with an overwhelming, 68-32 advantage in the Virginia House of Delegates. Plus a huge money advantage that comes from incumbency, plus controlling the Governor’s Mansion, plus being total corporate tools (of the fossil fuel companies, Dominion, you name it). Yeah, it sucks, but them there’s the facts we need to deal with -or go home and curl up in fetal position. I prefer the former to the latter.

But here’s the thing: despite all the advantages gerrymandering gave the Republicans heading into this cycle, we still had 18 districts won by Tim Kaine (and 16 districts won by Barack Obama) in 2012 that were potentially winnable. How do I know this? Because Tim Kaine and Barack Obama just won them a year ago. Which means our voters are there and we know who they are.

The challenge, of course, is that Democratic voters tend to turn out in much lower numbers, relatively speaking, than Republican voters in odd-year, non-federal elections. But that’s not etched in stone or anything, it’s just a phenomenon we’ve observed for several years now. Which means we can/should/MUST work to change it. And what better year to do that than right after Barack Obama and Tim Kaine won Virginia (and with the reams of Obama campaign data available to Virginia Democrats this year)? Especially with a Democratic statewide ticket (and a super-well-funded gubernatorial candidate able and willing to pour money into the “coordinated” campaign) poised to sweep the Republican “extreme team?” I’d also point out that Democratic turnout in the non-federal years is highest in a gubernatorial year. In other words, if we couldn’t pick up a bunch of House of Delegates seats THIS year, with our well-funded statewide ticket sweeping, and with 18 “Kaine districts” (and 16 “Obama districts”) currently held by Republican delegates, when will we ever?

So why DIDN’T we pick up more seats in the House of Delegates this cycle? I’ve been talking to people and looking at the numbers. I have not reached any definitive conclusions at this point. But one thing is clear: Democratic House of Delegates candidates frequently underperformed compared to the statewide candidates in their districts. Part of the problem,  no doubt, was money. Several of our “targeted” candidates got outspent badly: Jennifer Boysko by more than 2:1 ($601k-$253k) in the 86th district general election campaign (despite this, she lost by just 54 votes!); Kathleen Murphy by more than $500k in the 34th district (despite this, she lost by just 422 votes); James Harder by a nearly 2:1 margin in the 12th; Elizabeth Miller by an incredible 20:1 margin a 2:1 margin in the 32nd (despite this, she lost by just 634 votes out of nearly 23,000 cast); Jeremy McPike by a whopping 4:1 margin in the 31st (despite this, McPike only lost by just 234 votes); Rob Farinholt was outspent by about $300k in the 94th district (yet lost by just 543 votes); Hung Nguyen by more than a 4:1 margin in the 67th (Nguyen lost 55%-45%); etc, etc. You think we might have won a few of these if the money had been a bit less lopsided than it was? Hmmm. (note: in this context, I should note that Democracy for America promised $750,000 to its targeted Virginia candidate, but only ended up spending a bit over $120,000 – #FAIL)

But it wasn’t just money. That’s often used as an excuse for everything, the be-all-end-all of politics. Well, sorry it, isn’t. Having worked on a race (Jim Webb for U.S. Senate in 2006) in which we were wildly outspent in the primary, then started the general election campaign absolutely broke and facing an entrenched incumbent (George Allen) with a huge warchest, I can attest first-hand to the fact that while money matters, there’s a LOT more to politics than that. It’s just laziness (and self-serving spin), frankly, among politicians, consultants, etc., to claim that all their problems stemmed from money, and that all their problems would be solved if they only had more of it. Not.

Second, my own personal observation is that Democratic candidates didn’t use all the tools at their disposal in the year 2013, and absolutely essential at this point. I’m talking, first and foremost, about social media.  For instance, many of our candidates had only minimal Twitter followers (Qarni had 136; McPike had 98; Murphy had 291; Harder had 44; Nguyen had 215; Boysko had 304), and relatively small Facebook followings as well.

As for Democratic House candidates’ presence on the blogs…uh, WHAT presence on the blogs? Here at Blue Virginia, for instance, we offer a community blog, which means that any of these Democratic campaigns could have registered an account (and their supporters could have registered many more), then posted every day if they wanted – pictures, videos, press releases, whatever they wanted to talk about – on this blog, which received 91,000 visits (reporters, Democratic activists, political insiders, etc.) last month. Given that the traditional media barely covers these races, if at all, and certainly not in a “friendly” way, that one’s a no brainer, as it costs nothing but a bit of time. I’d add that if these campaigns just made the least bit of effort to let Blue Virginia bloggers know about their events and invite them to come cover them, they might get some free, positive publicity out of it. But that rarely happened. What on earth?

I’d say the same thing for YouTube, by the way; how many of these campaigns were doing the basics in the year 2013, which includes recording everything (you can buy an easy-to-use, digital video camera that fits in your pocket for $150 or whatever on Amazon) and posting up good stuff about your candidate/bad stuff about your opponent? Uhhhh.

I mean, seriously, this stuff should be the absolute basics by now – no excuse not to do it, or more to the point ask your volunteers to do it (again, costs nothing). Yet in a recent email by Democratic House leader Toscano, summing up the main findings from this election, there was not ONE mention of social media at all. Zero. I really like and respect Toscano, but what on earth is THAT all about? Again: at this point, the vast majority of likely voters use social media of all kinds (from Facebook to Twitter to blogs to Pinterest to YouTube to…), which means campaigns have got to make the maximum use of them. Especially since they cost basically nothing, and especially since the traditional media has essentially imploded/collapsed.

The point of all this is not to be critical, certainly not just for the sake of being critical (although I’m very frustrated, and I’ve heard a lot of anger/frustration from Democrats about how badly we underperformed in the House of Delegates compared to the optimistic scenarios being painted just days/weeks from the election). Instead, it is simply to highlight that money isn’t everything these days; that there are tons of tools to get your message out (particularly via social media; I mean, what percentage of likely voters are NOT on Facebook OR Twitter OR the blogs? miniscule is my guess), and that we have to use them. The broader point is that if we effectively use ALL the tools we have at our disposal to get our voters out to the polls in these “odd year” elections, I believe we can win – in SPITE of gerrymandering. Again, there are 18 “Kaine districts” and 16 “Obama districts” currently held by Republican delegates in Virginia; what’s our plan, exactly, for winning them back?

Finally, I’ve just gotta say that if you’re going to make the argument that gerrymandering killed us in 2013, then you ALSO have to explain why just 1-2 weeks before the election, House Democrats were going around telling everyone that there were up to 14 seats potentially competitive, 10 getting money or some other form of “love” from the caucus, and a definite shot at picking up 5, 6 or more net House of Delegate seats? Gerrymandering was there at that point, same as it was on election day, so nothing changed in that regard in a couple weeks. Which means…spare me the lame excuse of gerrymandering (supposedly) killing us, when there are 16-18 districts that Kaine or Obama won just a year ago, and when winning those would get Democrats to 48-50 House of Delegates seats (out of 100). At this point, I really just have no patience for this line of argument anymore.

  • That VPAP link on my race has the wrong numbers. Here’s what I raised and spent as of the last report: http://www.vpap.org/candidates

    And I’m pretty sure we spent almost all of that last bit that was left over on that report.

    So I was out raised, but it wasn’t 20:1.  

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    For the life of me, I can’t understand why campaigns fail to use free social media, especially when than is where so much of communication action is today. I do have some questions I don’t have an answer to:

    1. How much of the problems stem from The DPVA and local committees not training potential candidates in how to make use of online resources when a candidate knows he/she will be outspent.

    2. How much pressure is put on candidates by DPVA to use “approved vendors”?

    3. Has anyone in the DPVA ever trained potential candidates on how to communicate concisely and in ways that are likely to get positive attention?

    4. Exactly what excuses are given for failing to field candidates in districts won by Obama/Kaine? (Any and all excuses are an automatic fail.)

    Yes, challengers do face the tendency – especially in Virginia – to simply re-elect incumbents. That’s not an excuse.

    (By the way, as a long-time contributor to Democracy for America, I agree that Howard Dean’s promise of $750,000 in contributions – with an actual total of about $127,000 – is not excusable. It’s a disgrace.)

  • DJRippert

    I live in the 34th and I follow Virginia politics religiously.  Kathleen Murphy never hit the right note during her campaign. You have to understand the priorities of the voters – in order of importance.  Gun control in the 34th is about number 12 on a 10 item list.  You have to be careful how you ask the question.  If you ask someone, “Would you favor closing the gun show loophole?” people will say, “Yes, that’s a very good idea”.  However, if you ask people to write down their top 10 priorities for the state government there will be no mention of the gun show loophole.  The 34th is hard to predict.  It’s trending blue but still is part of Frank Wolf’s perennial strength.  What will be mentioned, over and over again, is transportation.

    Barbara Comstock voted AGAINST Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan.  That vote should have been her political death certificate in the 34th.  Murphy could have won the election on that issue alone.  Instead, Kathleen Murphy scatter shot a whole bunch of issues.  She really only needed to say one thing over and over and over again – Barbara Comstock voted against Bob McDonnell’s increased transportation funding plan.  In fact, she should have stood on Georgetown Pike at rush hour holding a sign that said exactly that.

    Finally, Comstock pulled a bit of a dirty trick.  She aired TV commercials claiming that Murphy has been repeatedly fined for not paying taxes in Fairfax County and on Staten Island.  It was dirty because the commercials aired so late in the game and so often that they made an impression in a generally lackluster race and left no time for Murphy to effectively respond.  To this day I don’t know if the accusations had any merit.

  • FreeDem

    You should link to this diary on Daily Kos looking at the investment decisions of the Democratic House Caucus in Virginia:


    The writer isn’t familiar with Virginia campaigns and running mail through the state party, so the post is a little off. But it does highlight districts like the 6th where the Democratic Party was entirely off in prioritizing the race.

    It also ignores that in order to get to the levels of sending out mail, the campaigns had to attract significant campaign funding and a lot of that was steered by the party, or from other delegates.

    Horrible decisions were made. The coordinated campaign ran very well, you can see that in how much closer Herring ran to Terry than expected. The problem was with the House Caucus and the leadership at the top needs to answer for their failures.

  • FreeDem

    Lowell, you make a very, very good point on social media. As Virginia shifts blue, it’s primarily occurring in Northern Virginia where other methods of communicating just aren’t viable. I was down in Tidewater the first week in October and saw TWO TV ads for the local Republican delegates on the Peninsula. Being able to go up on TV like that just isn’t a real option for most campaigns in Northern Virginia. You have to find other ways of reaching voters.

  • heardsman

    Agree with your assessment re: social media. Youth vote down as you would expect yet they are on social media and care about progressive issues. Progressive groups might want to look at putting more emphasis on these races, as well as, raising awareness of the importance of the House in creating progressive change in VA. Thanks for continuing to help illuminate.  

  • YelowDawg

    Our last real Congressman, Rick Boucher, was successfully gerrymandered out of office. Delegate Joe Johnson was, too.

    Democrats in Southwest have been abandoned. We had no choice on the ballot for GA. I wrote in Bill Clinton because any Dem was better than not voting at all. Maybe the caucus was working elsewhere in the state, no evidence of it here.

    I am afraid we will be stuck with our joke of a Congressman until he topples over from natural causes in old age.

  • wolfrunner

    One more factor.

    The party has given NO support to long-shot candidates to encourage them to learn from a starter race, then come back and run a 2nd time.  As a result, almost EVERY ONE of the close races you cite (with the exception of John  Bell in the 87th, who ran previously in the `13th) involved rookie candidates.  

    If we treat our candidates who take on the tough races as dirt, no wonder they don’t run again, and we start every new cycle with unknown, inexperienced candidates.  

    We have to DEVELOP candidates, not hope that they will fall out of the sky.  

  • YelowDawg

    This delusional hick from the netherlands has learned well that the state really does end at Roanoke.