While Massachussetts Democrats are panicking about the possibility of an upset in next Tuesday’s Senate race, their Virginia counterparts got some excellent news last night: They picked-up a state Senate seat in a special election, thus expanding their tenuous majority.
The vacancy was created by state Senator Ken Cuccinelli’s victory in last fall’s Attorney General race. Cuccinelli had to resign from his seat, setting up a special election in his Northern Virginia district (SD-37). The race was bound to be highly competitive: While SD-07 voted for Bob McDonnell by 15% in 2009 and for George W. Bush by 4% in 2004, it also gave Barack Obama and Tim Kaine double-digit victories. In short, this district is representative of Virginia’s drift leftward between and 2004 and 2008, and its dramatic return to the GOP fold last year.
Virginia Democrats’ setbacks did not start with McDonnell’s triumph. In early 2009, a series of Northern Virginia special election already signaled that something was amiss: After Democrats suffered a couple of unexpected close calls, they lost a race for Fairfax County Commissioner to an underfunded Republican: the GOP base was more excited, the Democratic base did not show up and independents were no longer behaving like Democrats - a pattern that held last November, when McDonnell’s stunning victory in Fairfax County confirmed that Northern Virginia isn’t as reliable a motor for Democratic progress as the party had been hoping.
With Democrats across the country plagued by similar fears about turnout patterns and energy levels, the stakes became all the higher heading into last night’s race; and while on paper the GOP nominee (Fairfax County School Board member Steve Hunt) looked weaker than what Republicans should have fielded, most would probably have given him a slight edge because of the national environment. Yet, it is Democratic Delegate Dave Marsden who eked out a victory, prevailing by 321 votes out of 23,500 cast.
The victory is all the sweeter for Democrats because it does go against the (poll-supported) conventional wisdom that that weak turnout races will mean a disproportionate number of Republicans show up to the polls. Indeed, turnout in yesterday’s election was only 18%, so Marsden was able to ensure that his party’s base show up in a low-interest election. (Note that SD-37 is in Gerry Connolly’s VA-11, which some Republicans argue is vulnerable based on McDonnell’s results; Marsden’s victory makes Connolly breath easier.)
The pick-up of SD-37 expands Democrats majority in the state Senate to 22-18; it stood at 21-19 before Cuccinelli’s resignation.
With the GOP firmly in command of both the Governor’s Mansion and the House of Delegates, only the Senate allows Democrats to maintain a foot in state government. This is consequential not just for Virginians, but also for national politics: Control of the state Senate is crucial for the next round of redistricting, a power probably worth at least 2 U.S. House seats.
When Virginia’s map was last drawn in 2001, Republicans entirely controlled the process; they passed a gerrymandered map that gave them control of 8 of the state’s 11 seats. (Mark Warner came in power in January 2002, but by then it was too late: Virginia’s maps have to be completed within the first few months following the census’s completion to be ready for the odd-year legislative races.) Even though Democrats now control 6 of the seats, it is only because Republicans had miscalculated demographic evolutions and spread themselves thin in numerous places; this state of affair (which could change as soon as 2010 as the GOP is fielding up strong challengers in at least 2 of these districts) doesn’t contradict the fact that the map is a rough one for Democrats.
In 2011, Democrats have the opportunity to undo some of the damage caused by 2001’s gerrymandering.
The 2009 disaster already cost Democrats any hope they might have had to control the entirety of state government thus forcing a gerrymander of their own. (They would have had to defend the Governor’s Mansion and pick-up 5 seats in the House of Delegates. Instead, they lost the governorship and it is the GOP that picked-up seats in the House of Delegates - 6, to be exact!) Yet, Democrats were saved by the fact that no state Senate seats were up before 2011; had the upper chamber also been up for re-election, and McDonnell’s coattails would almost surely have given Republicans a majority. In fact, the state Senate is not up for re-election until November 2011, after the new redistricting map has to have been completed.
That means that the current state Senate, in which Democrats have a 22-18 majority, will be the one in office when the new map is drawn.
You’ll surely object that Democrats already had the majority, so they were already certain to have a voice in the redistricting process and yesterday’s special election is unimportant. But that is not exactly true: Democrats’ 21-19 majority was extremely fragile. In 2009, state Sen. Ralph Northam was on the verge of joining the GOP; Democrats only managed to prevent him from doing so because a Republican tweeted about the coming switch before Northam had announced it, giving Democrats time to convince him not to jump ships. There are still persistent rumors that some legislators are considering switching parties and there is speculation McDonnell might appoint a couple of Democrats to governmental positions in the hope that the special elections give the GOP the opportunity to wrestle power away from Democrats. (This is a strategy Governor Beshear has used effectively in Kentucky.)
Had Democrats failed to pick-up SD-37 and kept a 21-19 majority, they would have been at the mercy of a single senator switching parties or McDonnell forcing a single special election in a tough-to-hold district. (In case of a 20-20 tie, the Republican Lieutenant would have a deciding vote.) As of now, however, they have some breathing room: To control all levels of state governments and thus be able to draw yet another gerrymandered map in 2011, Republicans will need to come up with inventive ways to pick-up two districts before they are up.
Otherwise, Democrats will have some veto power over redistricting. A bipartisan map should mean good things for Rep. Glenn Nye in particular, as he could find himself with a friendlier district. Democrats could also impose that VA-11 and VA-09 be made bluer (to ensure they get no bad surprises in the former, to give them a chance to defend the latter once Boucher retires); and they could prevent that the GOP make VA-10 more Republican (as it is designed now, this Northern Virginia district once Rep. Wolf retires).