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Posted at 12:05 PM ET, 01/31/2011

Could GOP grab control of redistricting in Virginia?

By Aaron Blake

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This is the ninth in an occasional series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it "Mapping the Future". The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on Virginia. (And make sure to check out the first eight installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, California and Nevada)

Virginia officially kicks off its redistricting process this week when the Census makes it one of the first states to receive detailed population data. (And, yes, we are very excited for this first round of announcements. NERD ALERT.)

The Commonwealth and three other states get their data first, since they hold state legislative sessions in 2011 and need to get their maps drawn fast.

But Virginia Republicans may be in no rush -- especially when delaying the process could reap some real benefits.

Control over the redistricting process is currently split in the Commonwealth -- a set of circumstances that often leads to compromise between the two parties. But some Republicans say there may be a way for the GOP to gain full control of the process, and all it requires is a little time and a successful 2011 election.

Virginia's state Senate is still controlled by Democrats and is the one thing standing in the way of total Republican control of redistricting.

With the governorship and the state House firmly under GOP control, Republicans will be gunning for the state Senate in November's election, when they will have a good shot at taking three of the Democrats' 22 seats and grabbing a majority.

The question is whether Republicans try to push off the redistricting process until after the election.

They can definitely wait to draw the congressional map, since no federal elections will be held in 2011. Whether they can wait to draw the state legislative districts is an open question.

The Virginia constitution appears to require the state to draw new state legislative districts in the odd-numbered year, and a state guide to redistricting notes that the law "has been understood to require redistricting in advance of the November 2011 elections for districts electing representatives at that time."

But the guide goes on to note that such a requirement provides a very tight timetable for the state legislature to get things done.

And therein may lie Republicans' opportunity.

With the two chambers controlled by different parties, it's going to be difficult for lawmakers to reach an accord on the new district lines. Virginia is also a Voting Rights Act state, which means its plans must be pre-cleared by the Justice Department. The process, in short, could take a while under any circumstances.

If the legislature can't come up with a plan in 2011, the matter would have to go to court.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a veteran of redistricting who oversaw the GOP's national efforts during the 2002 election cycle as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, noted that the courts are generally reticent to infringe on the state legislature's right to draw the map.

What's more, the courts may not even act until the end of the year, since the law doesn't specifically say anything about doing redistricting before the November elections.

"Even if the legislature's late, the courts I think would be reluctant to impose their plan over a legislative plan," Davis said.

Democrats disagree.

"The majority of the precedent you'll see is the courts stepping in when the legislative process starts bumping up against a hard deadline," said one Democrat, speaking anonymously in order to discuss strategy.

So far, reports indicate that Republicans haven't shown much interest in working with the Democrats on redistricting, which could lead to a (convenient) slowdown.

Democrats are dubious about the possibility and say the law requires that state legislative redistricting be done in 2011 -- period.

But even if they do have to redraw their state legislative districts in 2011, there is nothing in the law that says they can't wait to draw congressional districts. Even Democrats acknowledge that Republicans could put that off until 2012 and still be in the clear.

"Theoretically, the legislature could push off congressional redistricting," said another Democrat who works on redistricting. "But it would set a new precedent and would be another Tom DeLay-like situation."

(DeLay led a re-redistricting last decade in Texas.)

Gamesmanship aside, it's important to look at the actual implications of such a move. And, the reality is that the timing of the line-drawing might not have that much effect on the partisan breakdown of the congressional delegation.

Right now, Republicans control eight of 11 seats in Virginia, including three districts that went for President Obama in 2008 and three districts that were held by Democrats last cycle. That means Republicans will want to shore up their newest members.

If the map is a compromise between the two parties, it would likely result in lines that make all 11 incumbents safer -- along the lines, ahem, of what happened in California during the 2001 redistricting.

If Republicans control the entire process, they can shore up their eight members and potentially go for a ninth seat.

But given the current state of play, that ninth seat would be pretty hard to get, and could put other Republicans at risk.

Here's what the GOP would be shooting for, district by district (and be sure to follow along on the congressional map here.):

* 2nd district: Republicans could shore up freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R) in his Virginia Beach-based swing district by adding some of Rep. Rob Wittman's (R) strongly Republican 1st district running up the east coast of the state. Wittman's seat needs to shed about 50,000 people, while Rigell needs to pick up about 60,000, so it's a relatively easy call.

* 5th district: Despite going Democratic for one cycle in 2008, freshman Rep. Robert Hurt's (R) district in south-central Virginia is pretty conservative. He could be made safer, though, if his district takes in some Republican territory from neighboring districts held by Reps. Eric Cantor (R) and Bob Goodlatte (R). There are lots of options here, and lots of conservative territory.

* 9th district: Freshman Rep. Morgan Griffith's (R) district is very conservative, and it's hard to see Democrats winning it back, barring a repeat bid from longtime former Rep. Rick Boucher (D). But the district needs to add lots of population. The easiest and most likely solution is to draw in Salem, which would have the dual benefit of adding Republican-leaning population and putting Griffith's home into the district (he currently lives in the neighboring 6th district).

* 10th district : Rep. Frank Wolf (R) is a survivor -- big time. His northern Virginia district went for Obama by seven points in 2008, but he still won by 20 despite being outspent by his opponent. That said, Wolf just turned 72 years old this weekend. And if he can't serve 10 more years, Republicans will have to defend the seat at some point. His district has grown a lot and needs to shrink, but since he is from the eastern part of the district (closer to D.C.), it's going to be hard for him to pick up territory in the GOP-leaning Shenandoah Valley to the west. He could grab some more Republican parts of the two other Northern Virginia districts -- the 8th and the 11th -- but that might ruin GOP attempts to reclaim the 11th.

* 11th district: This seat is really the x-factor in the redistricting process. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) narrowly survived 2010, but his district as it stands is pretty safe for a Democrat. If Wolf gets shored up, Connolly could benefit by taking on some of the Democratic territory from Wolf's district. If Republicans control the process and want to get ambitious, though, they could try to add some more Republican parts of Wittman's 1st district to at least keep the 11th competitive. With Wittman already ceding some ground to Rigell, though, it could be a tough balancing act.

Republicans control every other competitive district in the state, so the 11th is the final frontier.

Rep. Bobby Scott's (D) Richmond- and Norfolk-based 3rd district is majority-African American, and Rep. Jim Moran's (D) suburban Washington 8th district is also very Democratic.

The most likely result of a compromise map is that everyone gets safer -- including Connolly -- and the map stays at 8-to-3 with a handful of somewhat competitive districts. If Republicans control the process, though, they could potentially stretch for a 9-to-2 map.

But that's risky, said Mike Whatley, the editor of the Rose Report at Claremont-McKenna College. (Whatley in recent days has done a great in-depth series on how the districts can be redrawn in Virginia.)

"Republicans need to keep in mind that they need to keep 10th district Republican," Whatley said. "They'll struggle with that if they want to make 11th a Republican district."

The practical implications of a GOP power grab might not be great. But if you're a Republican member of Congress, you'd be much happier to have your party drawing all the lines.

The question for the GOP is whether it wants to push the envelope.

By Aaron Blake  | January 31, 2011; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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