Over the past two weeks, two recounts in Hampton Roads confirmed that the Republican Party had done the previously unthinkable: retake control of the Virginia House of Delegates. For their success in this increasingly Democratic-leaning state, they owe controversial Democratic super-lawyer Marc Elias and defeated, outgoing state Attorney General Mark Herring (D) fruit baskets for their crucial support in that effort.
To explain that incongruous statement, we need to do a bit of Virginia political history. After the 2009 Virginia state elections (going into the 2010 Census and redistricting cycle), Republicans led by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell held the Virginia House of Delegates but not the Virginia Senate. Given the split, the chambers agreed to draw incumbent-protection gerrymanders that protected the Republican positions in the state house and congressional seats and the Democratic position in the state senate.
Through the decade, much would change. Barack Obama won the state for a second time, showing his 2008 triumph was not a fluke but a harbinger of a Democratic-leaning Virginia. Gov. McDonnell left office in 2013 under a cloud of scandal, and former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Terry McAuliffe defeated Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) to win the governorship for Democrats. Hillary Clinton comfortably secured the state’s electoral votes over Donald Trump in 2016. Virginia was turning “blue.”
By the 2017 state elections, “resistance” energy fueled Democrats to huge gains in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) trounced Republican challenger Ed Gillespie for the governorship. Herring won reelection by 7 points, and Democrat Justin Fairfax easily retained the lieutenant governor’s seat for the party. Democrats came within a single vote of sweeping the contests: Republicans retained control of the house of delegates on a tie-breaking draw.
House of Lawfare
In advance of the 2019 elections, Virginia Democrats were taking no chances on taking the house of delegates and the state government “trifecta.” Marc Elias, the Democrats’ leading election-law lawyer (perhaps best known for his involvement in hiring Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele to produce the factually challenged Trump-Russia “collusion” dossier on behalf of the DNC) led a lawsuit against the state’s legislative lines, which led to a federal court redrawing the maps to be more favorable to Democrats. When state house Republicans appealed the ruling, Attorney General Herring declined to intervene. In a case argued by the Herring-appointed solicitor general and Elias for the Democratic side, the U.S. Supreme Court threw the House Republicans’ appeal out for lack of standing.
Friendly maps and resistance energy in hand, Virginia Democrats finished their Long March in 2019, storming to control of both houses of the state legislature—control few observers expected them to relinquish at any point in the foreseeable future.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Road to the Emerging Democratic Majority
The redrawn districts centered on the Richmond and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas; most of the Northern Virginia seats were largely unchanged. So as the 2021 state elections grew tighter and Republican Glenn Youngkin became more competitive with former governor McAuliffe, psephologists wondered if the Virginia House would be competitive. Those who thought it could flip or Republicans could force a tied chamber thought the Republicans would need to take at least one ancestral Republican-drawn seat in Northern Virginia—in either Loudoun County and Fairfax County—to make a majority. No “NoVA” meant game over.
Come election night, they had not. But the game was not over because two seats both substantially redrawn as a result of Elias’s suit unexpectedly flipped red: the Petersburg-based 63rd district and the Hampton Roads-based 91st district.
Ashes to Ashes
There is a lesson in all this, one older than Robert Burns’ famous lines “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/Gang aft agley” or former Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan’s “the more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.” No matter how sophisticated or technical the act of drawing districts to advantage a party may be, if the political shifts are big enough, a “gerrymander” can be swamped.
When Elias and Herring heard the Supreme Court had let the redrawn maps stand, they must have secretly thought they had secured Democratic dominance for a generation in Virginia. But then the political landscape shifted so much that the author of the Emerging Democratic Majority himself (Center for American Progress senior fellow Ruy Teixeira) felt it necessary to warn that Hispanic voters were not as solidly blue as he once thought.
Herring will now leave office in defeat, and Elias will vainly vow to sue against the state’s new, court-drawn, fairly proportional map. Thus passes the glory of (a very brief) age.