Suffolk stays competitive in state redistricting maps 

Published 11:53 pm Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Suffolk would remain a General Assembly battleground under a redistricting plan the Supreme Court of Virginia released on Dec. 8.

Currently, Suffolk is split between the 64th and 76th House of Delegates districts. The 64th, which also includes Isle of Wight, Surry and Prince George counties, is nearly 70% white and has consistently elected Republicans since 2011, when redistricting last occurred. The 76th is also majority-white but has a higher percentage of minority residents and flipped from Republican to Democratic representation in 2019.

Per federal and state constitutional requirements, state legislature and congressional voting districts must be redrawn once every 10 years based on the latest census data.

Under the map created by two court-appointed special masters, Suffolk would be re-split between newly drawn 84th and 89th House of Delegates districts. Republican Del. Emily Brewer, who won reelection in November to her 64th District seat with roughly two-thirds of the vote, would reside in the 84th District, which would encompass Northern Suffolk and most of the downtown area.

The 84th would be nearly evenly split between white and Black voters and is expected to swing five to 20 points in favor of Democratic candidates based on an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project of its share of the votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. A memorandum by special masters Bernard Grofman and Sean Trende also has the 84th leaning Democratic based on its share of votes cast in the 2017 Virginia attorney general election.

Democratic Del. Clint Jenkins, who unseated Republican Chris Jones in 2019, would be placed in the 89th District. The 89th would be composed primarily of Chesapeake voters, with Suffolk residents accounting for just over 30% of the district’s population. The racial breakdown of the voting-age population, according to VPAP, would remain nearly identical to the current majority-white 76th District, with the number of Black voters increasing by less than 1%.

According to VPAP’s analysis, the 89th could swing up to five points toward Republican or Democratic candidates based on its share of the 2016 presidential election votes. However, the special masters’ memo has the district leaning slightly in favor of Democratic candidates based on its share of the 2017 Virginia attorney general election votes.

According to VPAP’s analysis, the map gives House Democrats a slight edge statewide, reducing the number of solidly “red” Republican seats and “purple” districts that could swing either way. The special masters’ memo, however, states Republicans “may find it slightly easier to win a majority” but “Democrats will have a tendency to enjoy larger majorities when they win.”

A congressional battleground

Suffolk would also become more competitive in the upcoming 2022 congressional midterms under the proposed maps, which move the city out of U.S. Rep Bobby Scott’s 3rd and Rep. A. Donald McEachin’s 4th districts, both safe Democratic seats, and into the 2nd District, which Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria won with 52% of the vote in 2020. Under its new boundaries, the 2nd District would encompass the Eastern Shore, all of Virginia Beach, part of Chesapeake, all of Suffolk, Isle of Wight County and the city of Franklin, and part of Southampton County.

The special masters’ analysis of congressional elections spanning 2016 through 2020 shows the district leaning Democratic by a slim margin. However, VPAP’s analysis has the district leaning Republican by five to 20 points based solely on its share of the votes from the 2016 presidential election.

“In a very good Republican year, Republicans could win a majority of the seats in Virginia’s delegation,” but “we would expect to see a 6-5 Democratic edge,” the memo states. In a very good Democratic year, “Democrats might perhaps achieve the same 7-4 advantage that they now enjoy from having won two highly competitive seats in 2020.”

Luria herself, however, would be displaced from the 2nd District, her Norfolk residence now located in Scott’s district, according to an analysis by VPAP. As a result, the newly-redrawn 2nd District would be left without an incumbent member of Congress living within its borders.

A similar displacement of incumbents would occur in the 7th Congressional District, located in Virginia’s Piedmont region, and in the 9th District, which spans Virginia’s Kentucky and Tennessee borders — resulting in Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger and Republican Rep. Rob Wittman each living in the 1st District, and Republican Reps. Ben Cline and Morgan Griffith both residing in the redrawn 6th District.

Spanberger, who narrowly won reelection to the 7th Congressional District in 2020, would likely find reelection difficult given that the 1st is expected to swing Republican by a margin of five to 20 points based on VPAP’s analysis.

According to the special masters’ memo, Grofman and Trende “maintained ignorance about the residences of incumbents” since the federal and state statutory criteria for redistricting “make no mention of protecting incumbents.” As a result, no current state senators would live within the boundaries of Suffolk’s newly-created Senate district either, according to VPAP’s analysis.

A total of nine state Senate districts and 24 House of Delegates districts would be left without an incumbent legislator, according to VPAP, while in other cases, this lack of taking incumbency into account would result in two or even three legislators — some from opposite parties — all living within the boundaries of a proposed House or Senate district.

Suffolk is presently split among three Senate districts, two held by Republican Sens. Tommy Norment and John Cosgrove, and the third by Democratic Sen. L. Louise Lucas.

Under the proposed map, Suffolk would move entirely into the 17th District, which would also include the city of Franklin, Isle of Wight and Southampton counties, and part of Portsmouth. The district would be just over 50% white and would lean five to 20 points in favor of Democratic candidates based on VPAP’s analysis of its share of votes from the 2016 presidential election. The special masters’ memo also has the district leaning in favor of Democrats.

Lucas, the state’s first African American and the first female to serve as the Senate’s president pro tempore, would be placed into the same district as state Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., another African American Democrat.

According to the memo, each party would need to win an election in an “unfriendly territory” in order to control the state Senate.

Per a 2020 change to the state constitution, Virginia’s Supreme Court took control of the redistricting process after a bipartisan committee of legislators and citizens deadlocked in October on how to redraw the state’s Senate, House and congressional districts.

The state Supreme Court scheduled two virtual public hearings on the proposed maps on Dec. 15 and Dec. 17. According to a Dec. 8 press release from the state Supreme Court, there will be no in-person hearings.

More than 40 people spoke during the Dec. 15 hearing, several of whom cautioned against moving Spanberger and Luria out of their districts, citing a perceived bias.The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, an effort by Princeton University to evaluate redistricting maps for partisan bias, however, gave the special masters’ proposed congressional and House of Delegates maps an “A” for fairness and the proposed Senate map a “B.”

Written comments may also be submitted by emailing remarks to Redistricting@vacourts.gov by 1 p.m. Dec. 20. Written comments will be published to the “public comments” link on the court’s website.