These are the few competitive General Assembly races

I recently wrote that in most legislative districts in Virginia, the most important decisions will be made in May and June, not November. That’s because most General Assembly districts in the state simply won’t be competitive in the fall; they are either strongly Democratic or strongly Republican districts where the winners will be known as soon as parties nominate candidates, which is what’s happening now in districts where there are contested nominations. Based on the report that the court-appointed mapmakers who drew these lines filed with the Virginia Supreme Court, I concluded that no more than 17 seats in the 100-member House of Delegates were likely to be competitive in November, and no more than eight seats in the 40-member state Senate.

That observation prompted a question from a reader, Bryan Mitchell in Madison County. He was curious about two things: What’s the party breakdown of the seats that aren’t competitive — in other words, how many are Democratic locks and how many are sure-fire Republican wins? He also wondered where the competitive districts are.

Both good questions, and questions that aren’t quite as easy to answer as they might seem. 

Let’s do the easy part first, then we’ll get more complicated — that’s where the fun is.

Those two special masters who drew the lines — one nominated by Democrats, the other nominated by Republicans — based their analysis on the 2017 election returns. Why 2017? They said they wanted to use a statewide election year as the metric for General Assembly districts because turnout patterns vary so much in presidential years or congressional midterms, and 2017 was the most recent one available.

Specifically, the special masters said they used the 2017 attorney general’s race between Mark Herring and John Adams as their benchmark. They did not explain why they didn’t use the 2017 governor’s race. They did say that they also studied the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race between Justin Fairfax and Jill Vogel “to give a better view of how the districts perform with an African-American candidate.” 

While Democrats won both contests, you’ll see some slight variations in the results. Whether those are attributable to racial factors or something else, I’ll leave to others to figure out. The attorney general’s race may not be a perfect guide, either, because Herring was an incumbent, which might have given him an advantage. In any case, the special masters evaluated their new districts based on those two elections. 

I defined a noncompetitive district as any one where one party won with more than 55% of the vote. Anything where the winner’s vote share was under 55% I considered competitive. Based on those 2017 results (no matter which race you go by), I counted 48 seats that went Democratic by 55% or more and 35 seats that went Republican by 55% or more. That means of those remaining 17 competitive seats, Democrats just need to win three seats for a majority of 51 while Republicans need to win 16. (Republicans, don’t reach for the blood pressure medicine just yet.)

In the Senate, I counted 18 seats that went Democratic 55% or more in 2017 and 14 that went Republican 55% or more. That means of those remaining eight competitive seats, Democrats need to win just three for a majority, while Republicans need to win seven (or six for a tie, since Republicans have the benefit of a tie-breaking Republican lieutenant governor for at least the next two years). 

OK, that sounds like a playing field that definitely benefits Democrats. Now, here’s why I said Republicans should not gobble down that blood pressure medicine. 

2017 was an unusually strong Democratic year. It was the first state election year after Donald Trump took office, and many Virginia voters reacted very negatively to him, particularly suburban voters. In fact, it was the best Democratic gubernatorial year since 1985 — Ralph Northam won with 53.9% of the vote. You have to go back to 1985, when Gerald Baliles won with 55.2% of the vote, to find a stronger Democratic candidate for governor. Democrats also picked up a staggering 15 seats in the House of Delegates that year, the biggest pickup for either party since the 1800s. 

2017 may have been the most recent state election year for the special masters to use but it was not a normal year. The Virginia Public Access Project has computed the partisan lean of each district based on the 2021 gubernatorial election. However, 2021 may not be a normal election year, either. That was a very Republican year. Big picture: When Trump was in office, Virginia voters blanched at electing Republicans. Once Trump was out of office, they voted for Republicans with some enthusiasm. Whether there’s coincidence or cause-and-effect, feel free to debate amongst yourself; the implications seem pretty clear to me, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

Here’s how those two sets of election data (three, actually) differ. Let’s look at House District 41, which covers parts of Roanoke County and Montgomery County. In the 2017 attorney general’s race, the precincts now in this district voted 50.6% Democratic, making this the weakest Democratic district in the state. In that year’s lieutenant governor’s race, these precincts voted 51.2% Republican, making this the second weakest Republican district in the state. However, in 2021, these precincts voted 55.46% Republican, just out of my range for being competitive.

So which is it? Is this district one of the most competitive in the state? Or is it not competitive at all? 

We won’t really know until November, but this district illustrates quite well how the numbers are so different — a district competitive in a Democratic year was not really competitive in a Republican one. For now, the two parties and the two candidates here (Democrat Lily Franklin and Republican Chris Obenshain) should assume this district is competitive until proven otherwise, but this doesn’t help me answer the reader’s question. On the contrary, it just makes more work for political analysts (yes, I know you’re not feeling much sympathy right now).

Let’s take those 17 House districts that are competitive based on 2017 numbers and see how their 2021 numbers look. The first thing I notice is that even the 2017 results don’t agree, because some districts that were just out of the range of being competitive in the attorney general’s race were competitive in the lieutenant governor’s race, and some that were competitive in the AG’s race were slightly out of range in the LG race — so we really have to look at 19 districts, rather than 17. Now look what happens when we evaluate those 17, er, 19 districts against the 2021 gubernatorial results:

District Incumbent, if any 2017 Attorney general’s race 2017 Lt. Gov.’s race 2021 governor’s race
HD 84: Isle of Wight to Chesapeake None 55.8%  D                   54.5% D                    50.9% D
HD 94: Norfolk      None 56.55% D             54.2% D                       51.3% D
HD 21: Prince William County                        None  52.8% D               52.3% D                       51.4% R
HD 97: Virginia Beach                                    Karen Greenhalgh (R)  52.6% D                 51.3% D                       50.6% R
HD 65: Fredericksburg, parts of Spotsylvania and Stafford counties                                       None 51.2% D                 50.7% D                       50.9% R
HD 89: Parts of Chesapeake and Suffolk                                     None 51.1% D                     50.3% D                     53.4% R
HD 41: Parts of Roanoke County and Montgomery County None 50.6% D                    51.2% R                       55.5% R
HD 58: Henrico County                                    Rodney Willett (D) 50.3% R                        50.3% R                      51.9% D
HD 86: Poquoson, parts of Hampton and York County                                        A. C. Cordoza (R)  51.0% R                        51.9% R                         54.2% R
HD 71: Williamsburg, parts of James City and New Kent counties                                     Amanda Batten (R)  51.3% R                          51.5% R                        53.6% R
HD 22: Prince William County                                 None 51.5% R                         52.4% R                            53.2% R
HD 83: Brunswick County to Isle of Wight County                                       Otto Wachsmann (R) 51.6% R                        52.1% R                        56.6% R
HD 30: Parts of Fauquier County and Loudoun County                 None 52.1% R                            54.6% R                     56.5% R
HD 66: Parts of Caroline and Spotsylvania counties                              Bobby Orrock (R) 52.1% R                           52.6% R                          55.8% R
HD 75: Hopewell, parts of Chesterfield and Prince George counties                                 Carrie Coyner (R) 52.5% R                            52.8% R                         53.6% R
HD 57: Parts of Goochland and Henrico counties                                   None 52.7% R                               52.4% R                    51.2% R
HD 34: Harrisonburg and part of Rockingham County                                   Tony Wilt (R) 53.8%  R                                 53.9% R                 58.6% R
HD 100: Accomack County, Northampton County and part of Virginia Beach Rob Bloxom 54.2% R                                  55.6% R                   57.9% R
HD 69: Parts of Glouester County, James City County, Newport News and York County                                     None   54.4% R                                 54.9% R                    55.8% R

Here we find that seven of those 19 districts (shown in bold) no longer fit my definition of competitive because one party (Republicans) won with 55% or more of the vote. I’m not sure we can definitively say that those seven districts are truly noncompetitive for the reasons I cited above — we don’t know what kind of year this will be, Democratic or Republican or somewhere in between. Still, the math shows only a dozen districts that we can be certain of calling competitive.  

Meanwhile, there’s one district that wasn’t competitive in 2017 in either race, but was in 2021. In fact, it swung from being a noncompetitive district that Democrats won in 2017 to a competitive district that Republicans won in 2021. So that means we might have 20 competitive districts this year — or maybe just a baker’s dozen.

District Incumbent, if any 2017 Attorney general’s race 2017 Lt. Gov.’s race 2021 governor’s race
HD 82: Petersburg, Surry County, parts of Dinwiddie and Prince George counties Kim Taylor (R) 55.8% D     55.6% D                   50.6% R

If we take the most generous definition of competitive, and to stay on the safe side we should, that means the number of Democratic locks is probably reduced by three, to 45. That still seems an advantage for Democrats — they begin closer to a majority than Republicans do — but now consider this. Of those 20 competitive districts, only three went Democratic in 2021 (and one of those had, oddly enough, gone Republican four years before. I don’t know why the results there bucked the trends). If this year is a Republican year the same as 2021 was, then Republicans would seem to have the advantage even if they give up that odd-flipping district — 52-48. For Democrats to win back the House, they need to win three seats that they won in 2017 but lost in 2021. There are six districts that meet that definition: 21, 97, 65, 89, 41 and 82. Based simply on math, those should be the most hotly contested House districts this year, the ones where the majority will be determined. Other districts will surely come into play based on candidate strengths and weaknesses and various local conditions but those six seem certain battlegrounds.

Those six districts are in Prince William County, Virginia Beach, Fredericksburg and environs, Chesapeake/Suffolk, Roanoke County/Montgomery County and Petersburg and environs.

Of those six, only two have incumbents: Republican Karen Greenhalgh in the 97th in Virginia Beach and Republican Kim Taylor in the 82nd in Petersburg. 

Now let’s move on to the Senate. By my definition, we have eight competitive districts based on the 2017 attorney general’s race but only seven based on the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race and the 2021 governor’s race (the exception is shown in bold).

District Incumbent, if any 2017 AG winning %     2017 LG winning %  2021 Governor winning %
SD 30: Manassas, Manassas Park, part of Prince William County                                  None 54.9% D                 54.6% D                        51.5% D
SD 31: Parts of Fauquier and Loudoun County                                                   None. 54.2% D             52.0% D                        50.03% R
SD 17: From part of Dinwiddie County to part of Portsmouth                                                    None. 53.2% D                     52.3% D                    52.3% R
SD 16: Henrico County                                                     Siobhan Dunnavant (R) 52.3% D                      52.2% D                   52.7% D
SD 24: Poquoson, Williamsburg, York County and parts of James City County and Newport News                                                     Monty Mason (D) 51.6% D                51.2% D                         51.3% R
SD 4: Roanoke, Salem, parts of Montgomery County and Roanoke County               David Suetterlein (R) 52.0% R                   54.0% R                      54.7% R
SD 27: Fredericksburg, parts of Spotsylvania and Stafford counties                                    None 52.2% R                      52.6% R                     53.8% R
SD 20: Accomack County, Northampton County, parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach                                                      Bill DeSteph (R) 53.8% R                    55.7% R                             57.1% R

We also find one district that wasn’t competitive in 2017 but was in 2021:

District Incumbent, if any 2017 AG winning %     2017 LG winning %  2021 Governor winning %
SD 22: Part of Virginia Beach                                           Aaron Rouse (D)   57.4% D                         56.4%      D                             52.2% D

If we shave that off the Democratic column, then Democrats have 17 seats that are locks and need to win four for a majority. There are three competitive districts that went Democratic in 2017 and Democratic, by reduced margins, in 2021. That would get them to a tie, but a Republican lieutenant governor wields the tie-breaking gavel in the Senate right now. For that fourth seat, Democrats need to win one of those three seats that flipped from Democratic in 2017 to Republican in 2021: 31 in Loudoun/Fauquier, 17 in Southside and 24 on the Peninsula. Of those three, only one has an incumbent: Democrat Monty Mason in the 24th. The 17th has a quasi-incumbent: Republican Del. Emily Brewer of Suffolk, although she has to win her primary against Hermie Sadler first. 

This is a long way to answer a simple question: What are the most competitive districts and where are they? My big takeaway is how many of these competitive districts lack incumbents — which means that this fall’s elections, however they go, will be decided with first-time candidates. In sports terms, this seems akin to relying on rookies to win the championship game for your team. 

I don’t claim to be a prognosticator and it seems far too early for anyone to be making predictions — too much can go wrong for either side between now and November. Markets can crash, wars can erupt, scandals can break, gaffes will always happen. But I do feel confident enough to say that whatever happens, it will be close. And now you know where it will be close.

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