- Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 January 2010 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 20 January 2010 05:00
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The Democrats in Virginia took a drubbing last fall. In one of the worst routs the party has faced in more than 10 years, they lost all of the top jobs in Richmond, and suffered a devastating setback in the House of Delegates. However, last week, the Democrats managed to find a consolation prize. To the casual observer it might not seem like a big deal, but for the party it was important win.
The prize was a vacant State Senate seat in Fairfax County. What made it particularly sweet for the Democrats was that it belonged to the new Republican Attorney General Ken Cucinelli. In 2007, Cucinelli won the seat, but the margin was less than 100 votes, and when he resigned to take his new job, the Democrats saw an opening. But it was only a small one.
This was a special election, and almost without fail, elections that occur out of cycle, are low turnout affairs. The nomination process and campaigns only last a few weeks. So, everything turns on getting your vote out. Many wondered if the Democrats, particularly after taking serious losses in Fairfax last year, could muster the energy for the kind of effort required to win the seat. The betting, for the most part, was against them. But they defied the odds and their candidate, Dave Marsden, eked a narrow victory.
But this win for the Democrats was more than just the satisfaction of taking back a single seat in the state senate. While the House of Delegates is firmly in the hands of the GOP, with Republicans holding more than 60 seats, the Senate is another story. In 2007 the Democrats unseated several Republican senators and managed to get a one seat majority. The Democrats have 21 seats and the Republicans 19. This is a precarious edge, and almost anything, an illness, a senator getting elected to another job, or being appointed to a position in the state or federal government, could change the equation.
The Democrats were particularly frightened of a repeat of the strategy Jim Gilmore pursued after his election. He offered several Democratic State Senators, those in seats which had become progressively Republican over the years, jobs in his administration. For many this was too good a deal to resist, and in the process, the GOP picked up several seats. It’s a strategy that helped them take the majority away from the Democrats. It was even feared that this year Governor McDonnell, in a repeat of that strategy, might choose Ed Houck, a Democratic Senator from Spotsylvania, for a high level post. That would leave this GOP-leaning seat vacant. But so far, that hasn’t happened.
However, this year there is an even more important prize at stake, one where holding on to that modest majority really matters, and that’s redistricting. It’s too early for any substantive discussion about redistricting. That won’t happen until after the 2010 Census results are in. But, now, thanks to slightly improved majority, the Democrats, when it comes time for this prickly decision making process, should, if the math holds, at least have a seat at the table. Something they didn’t have during the last redistricting.
After the 2000 Census, during the special redistricting session, the Republicans held all three branches of the state government. With that kind of leverage they were able to control the redistricting process. This is an important prize in state government. Thanks to modern-day redistricting software, if one party or the other can control how the lines are drawn for house and senate districts, both at the state and federal level, it can be a powerful tool. Districts can be drawn to suit one party or the other and either help preserve or destabilize a party’s hold on the Assembly and in Congressional elections.
This year, with Democrats more or less guaranteed continued control of at least one body of the legislature, any redistricting proposal that comes out of the House, and with the support of the governor, will at least require the agreement of a Democratic Senate. There will, no doubt, be some feisty closed door meetings and dueling redistricting maps, but the process, with neither party completely in control, might result in some healthy compromises. Even in a lively year like 2009 only a handful of House of Delegates seats had competitive races. That’s a sad commentary. Hopefully, with both parties having to come to agreement, redistricting, might for the first time in a long time, yield a district map that is at the very least just a bit more competitive.