Home 2017 Races Virginia Voters Dropped Their Mic: Elbridge Gerry Shakes His Head in Disbelief

Virginia Voters Dropped Their Mic: Elbridge Gerry Shakes His Head in Disbelief

Or, What the Legislative Drawing Pen Hath Not Wrought

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by Cragg Hines

Almost 40 years ago, the savvy political scientist Thomas E. Mann, who would go on to lead governance studies at the Brookings Institution, surveyed the Congressional election landscape. He observed that despite the vaunted value of incumbency, the overwhelmingly local nature of U.S. House races introduced an element of uncertainty, and he wrote “Unsafe at Any Margin.”

Mann’s was a knowing turn on the title of Ralph Nader’s 1965 dismemberment of the auto industry, “Unsafe at Any Speed.” No less an academic star than Richard F. Fenno declared Mann’s work “a pathbreaking study.”

What would such glitterati of the world of realpolitik (Mann and Fenno, I’ll stipulate, are friends of yore) make of the Virginia tsunami?

After the merest bit of analysis of raw, publicly available data on VPAP.com from Tuesday’s voting in Virgnia, I suggest, a further twist on Nader: Unsafe at Any Gerrymander.

Perhaps understandably lost in the breaking coverage of Tuesday night and Wednesday was one important consideration: most of the House of Delegate seats lost by Republicans had been drawn by Republicans in control of the House of Delegates in the redistricting after the 2010 Census to be, well, pretty much invulnerable to any sort of partisan depredations. That was thought by some to include even significant waves of constituent discontent (or, a more likely description of what happened Tuesday, outrage). That the Republican drafters of earlier in the decade had not considered the effect of a President Trump must be left for another, more conscientious treatise.

Flip quickly through the VPAP maps of the outlines of the districts of the luckless Republicans and you’ll see contortions that would have brought a hint of blush to the cheeks of Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor who signed a districting bill in 1812 with one map so contorted it resembled a giant, raging salamander. Quickly, a Boston newspaper christened the rampant behemoth, looming on the Bay State’s North Shore, the Gerry-mander.

How gerrymandered were the Virginia districts up for grabs Tuesday? So gerrymandered that in five of the 15 Republican Delegate seats that clearly had been lost by Thursday afternoon, there was no Democratic challenger to the incumbent in the 2015 election just two years ago. Zero, zip, nada. Republicans Rich Anderson, Jim LeMunyon, Jimmie Massie (who did not seek re-election), John O’Bannon and Scott Taylor (who in 2015 held the seat Rocky Holcomb lost this week) ran just 24 months ago without a Democratic challenger. Partisan loss of such seats is a neat trick under even the dictum of the great rapscallion Democratic former governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards: “I will win unless caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.”

And of the 10 remaining districts lost by Republicans, the R-to-D swing from 2015 to Tuesday in nine of them was a mammoth double-digit one, more than 10 percent. Only Scott Lingamfelter, of blobbish District 31 in Prince William and Fauquier counties, managed to hold the vanquishing Democrat, Elizabeth Guzman, to an 8.75 percentage point swing. (District 31 actually looks a bit like a Scottish Terrier heading toward the Potomac.)

The R-to-D swing in the other nine districts ranged all the way up to 14.15 percentage points in District 41 in southeastern Fairfax County where Democrat Kathy Tran won the seat given up by 23-year veteran representative Dave Albo. (No wonder Albo dropped the mic after announcing to fellow Delegates in April his decision not to seek re-election?)

This sort of massive swing in almost any parliamentary democracy would have brought down a government. And, depending on the final recounts, that could be the effective result of Tuesday’s voting. (What did Bill Howell know that Kirk Cox didn’t?) Plus, it’s a cautionary tale for Republicans on the limitations of even the craftiest redistricting pen. (Or, as it is now, a gerrymandering supercomputer.)

The Voters Dropped Their Mic
Here’s the R-to-D swing between the 2015 and 2017 in selected House of Delegate districts lost by Republicans incumbents in Tuesday’s voting, using figures from Virginia Public Access Project: