Incumbent-centered, partisan redistricting has all but guaranteed that Virginia progressives will be lost in the legislative wilderness for the next decade or more even as the majority of the Virginia voting public becomes more centrist, or even left of center.
The reality is that, as the Virginia Senate moved to a fragile Democratic majority, progressives actually lost ground on progressive issues, in part because the partisan ground gained by Democrats was at the expense of moderate Republicans. The erosion of moderation on one side of the aisle and the fragility of the majority on the other deprived progressives of the ability to build a bi-partisan issue majority in the Senate on which to move an issue into the much more conservative and more partisan House. Positive legislation progressives were able to get through the Senate on party-line votes was dead on arrival in the House.
With the Democratic majority, progressives were able to hold the line on some issues (notably immigration) by wielding the partisan power of the majority in committee. At the same time, however, the line broke on others because a partisan majority isn’t necessarily an issue majority (e.g., on choice issues) or because fears about the loss of the majority or desires to gain the majority allowed fractional interests to control. Thus, progressives entered redistricting with the best hope for the future being a plan that allowed more contested elections to take place, i.e., a plan that devalued incumbency and set aside party for purpose. That hope was not to be realized.
Now, the outlook for a continued Democratic majority in the Virginia Senate is increasingly bleak, and that outcome, even if it could be achieved, will come at the expense of the further erosion of the possibility of gaining an issue majority on progressive issues. Republican centrists are increasingly rare, having previously been ousted in primaries (like Senator Marty Williams), redistricted out of their seats (like Senator Fred Quayle) or scared “right” by threatened nomination challenges. In the future, so-called “safe,” partisan-drawn districts will elect candidates at the extremes of both parties, and the few swing districts likely will elect candidates focused first on preserving their ability to get re-elected. This is a prescription for a fractious and fragile majority whichever party achieves it.
Looking at the Virginia Senate races, the Republican path to a more conservative majority in the Senate than previously held sway is relatively clear. The path to a continued Democratic majority of any description less so. So far the contested elections in the Senate are all in districts currently held by Democratic Senators except one.
As of now, thirteen (13) Republican incumbents are running without opposition or with only primary opposition within the party: Blevins, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Ruff, Stosch, Stuart, Vogel, and Wagner.
Republicans also currently are running without announced opposition in two redrawn open Senate seats (the 13th and the 19th) that lean Republican. Dick Black, John Stirrup and Bob Fitzsimmons are contesting for the nomination to run in the 13th. Incumbent Senator Ralph Smith is moving from the 22nd district to the 19th, where he is currently the only announced candidate. And, to date, Delegate Charles Carrico is the only announced candidate in the Republican leaning 40th Senate District to replace retiring Senator William Wampler.
The number of incumbent Democratic Senators currently running without Republican opposition is eight (8) : Colgan, Deeds, Locke, Lucas, Marsh, McEachin, Miller, Y.B., and Saslaw.
Incumbent Democratic Senators facing announced Republican challengers number twelve (12): Barker, Edwards, Herring, Houck, Howell, Marsden, Miller, J, Northam, Peterson, Puckett, Puller, and Reynolds. Of these twelve, nine (9) (Marsden, Miller, J, Northam, Houck, Reynolds, Herring, Peterson, Puckett, and Barker) are running in districts where more than 50% of the voters supported Governor McDonnell in 2009.
Democrats running in hotly contested primaries to replace Senator Patsy Ticer in the 30th and Senator Mary Margaret Whipple in the 31st will also face announced Republican opposition in the general election. The competition in the 31st will be driven by a self-funding candidate, increasing the expense of defending what should be a relatively safe Democratic seat.
There will be a contested election in the new Republican leaning 22nd Senate District, where Bert Dodson (D Lynchburg) has announced he will run against the winner of what is now a five way Republican primary.
Putting the map together, then, Republicans are currently on their way to electing 16 Senators without opposition compared to 8 Democratic Senators. In addition, the Republican candidate also must be considered the favorite in the new 22nd Senate District which voted almost 64% for Governor McDonnell. That means Republicans need to pick up just four seats in contested elections to take the majority from the Democrats. Of the nine Democratic incumbents running in districts that voted for Governor McDonnell, the most vulnerable incumbent Senators appear to be Senators Reynolds (who will be facing incumbent Senator Stanley), Puckett, John Miller, Houck and Herring.
Added to the dismal district demographics and current political trends is the money advantage Republicans already have, which will only be magnified by their ability to redirect funds from uncontested contests to the contested races.
The sum then is a scenario in which, without more announced competitive candidates (either Democrats or independents) surfacing before August 23rd to challenge incumbent Republican Senators and vie for the currently uncontested open seats, the possibility for a return to a Republican majority in the Senate becomes increasingly likely as we move from summer into fall.
The really sad news for progressives is that any new Republican majority will be decidely more conservative than the previous Republican majority, and a Democratic majority is likely to be preserved, if at all, by a continued shift to the right by threatened downstate and outer ring suburb Senators. Either way, the composition of the Senate in the 2012 General Assembly Session (and for the next decade because of way districts were drawn) will make the possibility of cobbling together a bi-partisan issue majority for any positive forward movement on issues like health care, immigration, civil rights, and eliminating poverty remote. The shift to the right will also challenge efforts to hold back hallmark legislation on the agendas of the Virginia Tea Party and the Family Foundation.
UPDATE: June 20, 2011
Good news: It appears that there will be a Democratic candidate in the 13th Senate District, Shawn Mitchell. It remains to be seen how competitive he will be or how progressive.
Bad news: The number of incumbent Senate Democrats running without opposition drops to seven. Robert Sarvis is challenging Majority Leader Dick Saslaw. It remains to be seen how competitive he will be, but just his presence in the race will keep some of the $$ Saslaw can raise from aiding others with contested races.