Redistricting likely to shift congressional power to Northern Virginia

Correction: Earlier versions of this article about congressional redistricting in Virginia incorrectly said that the state’s General Assembly is controlled by Republicans. This version has been corrected.

March 13, 2011

Explosive population growth in Northern Virginia is sending political shock waves through the state’s congressional delegation, with several Virginia lawmakers running next year in districts strikingly different from those they currently represent.

With the results in from the 2010 Census, the General Assembly will meet in a special session next month to draw new lines for state legislative districts as well as Virginia’s 11 congressional seats. Republicans control the House of Delegates and the governor’s mansion, and Democrats hold the state Senate, meaning the two parties will have to compromise on a map.

Though the process is in its beginning stages, lawmakers and political operatives in both parties agree that the new congressional map is likely to make two districts safer for the incumbents — Rep. Gerald E. Connolly’s (D) 11th and Rep. Frank R. Wolf’s (R) 10th — while effectively moving another district, Rep. Rob Wittman’s (R) 1st, up into the Washington suburbs.

That shift will increase Northern Virginia’s clout on Capitol Hill as the region fights to secure federal funding for transportation and other projects at a time of budget austerity, and it will maintain a long-standing trend in Virginia politics, said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.

“I think we’ve seen over the past couple of decades a steady erosion of dominance by downstate legislators both in Richmond and on Capitol Hill,” Rozell said.

Increased clout on the Hill will be especially important for Northern Virginia, which relies on money from Uncle Sam for everything from the Dulles rail extension and highway improvements to the Pentagon and the federal contracting industry. Tens of thousands of government employees live in the region.

“Northern Virginia is always going to depend very heavily on what’s happening in the federal government, disproportionately so, compared to the downstate districts,” Rozell noted.

Equal tug-of-war

The current congressional delegation split is eight Republicans and three Democrats, after the GOP picked up three seats in 2010. While Republicans might want to pick off another seat and Democrats are eager to regain lost territory, the new map could disappoint both sides.

Mike Whatley, a redistricting expert at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College in California, wrote an extensive analysis of Virginia last month noting that “because neither party has complete control, neither can draw districts exactly how it wants.”

“A more likely possibility,” Whatley wrote, “is that leaders of both parties will realize that they are unlikely to create a map that would give them more seats and will instead attempt to protect their current incumbents.”

The statewide series of dominoes begins in Loudoun County, whose population grew by 84 percent in the past decade. Prince William County had the second-largest growth in the state at 43 percent.

That growth, combined with population losses in southern portions of the state, means that northern districts will have to get geographically smaller and southern ones bigger.

“It’s almost like the gravitational pull of Northern Virginia,” said Rep. E. Scott Rigell (R), whose 2nd District currently includes Virginia Beach and the state’s Eastern Shore. “Every district, in one way or another, is getting pulled north.”

Wolf’s trap

The changes will be particularly acute for Wolf.

Based on the 2010 Census, each Virginia congressional district going forward should contain roughly 727,000 people. Wolf’s 10th — which currently stretches from McLean to the West Virginia border — now exceeds that number by 142,000. So his district will shed territory.

It also may shed Democrats. Wolf has been reelected with ease for many years, but Republicans privately acknowledge that the district — which President Obama won by seven points in 2008 — could be competitive when the incumbent decides to retire.

There are multiple ways to make the 10th District both smaller and more Republican, but the most likely scenario, according to sources in both parties, would involve moving McLean into Rep. James P. Moran Jr.’s (D) 8th District, which needs to add population.

Part of the western end of Wolf’s territory, around Front Royal, could move into Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte’s (R) 6th District. Wolf also could give Herndon or another portion of Fairfax County to Connolly.

While Wolf would lose Democrats, Connolly’s district — which includes most of Fairfax and a portion of Prince William County — is likely to cede some Republican voters. The district currently is too large by 65,000 people.

After winning the seat comfortably in 2008, succeeding longtime GOP Rep. Tom Davis, Connolly got a scare in 2010, defeating Keith Fimian (R) in their second consecutive matchup by fewer than 1,000 votes. Democrats want to make the seat more Democratic, which could be achieved by ceding some of Republican-leaning Prince William County to Wittman.

“You have to move a lot of people irrespective of whatever political goals you want to set,” Connolly said.

Factoring in race

Wittman’s district — which must shed 59,000 people — now stretches from Hampton in the south to Fredericksburg in the north. The Westmoreland County resident is likely to give some southern territory to Rigell, whose district needs to add more than 80,000 Virginians. By giving up that turf and taking some of Prince William, Wittman would add another lawmaker — and another vote — to Northern Virginia’s delegation.

Racial demographics are also a factor in mapmaking. Rep. Robert C. Scott’s (D) 3rd District, which snakes from Richmond down to Norfolk, is drawn as a “majority-minority” seat. While the district needs to add 64,000 people, it is also required by the Voting Rights Act to retain an African American majority if current demographics permit.

Because of the state’s past history of discrimination, federal law mandates that the Justice Department give “pre-clearance,” or federal approval, to Virginia’s new map.

An independent, bipartisan redistricting commission appointed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has begun sifting through possible congressional maps, ignoring issues of partisanship and incumbency, and has unveiled two maps this week that would draw multiple sitting lawmakers out of their current districts. But the panel is strictly advisory, and the General Assembly is under no obligation to consider its work.

Staff writers Aaron Blake and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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