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GOP group’s apparent influence on Virginia redistricting map stirs mistrust on commission

Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) in 2016 during a meeting of the Privileges and Elections subcommittee at the Capitol in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)

Trust broke down further on the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Commission on Monday after one member revealed the National Republican Redistricting Trust had been working behind the scenes to help a former Virginia congressman submit his own congressional map proposal — one that now closely resembles the map that the commission is debating.

The discovery by Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) sent the meeting into a tailspin as Democratic members feared the GOP group had managed to push through what Simon called a “Republican dream map,” while Republicans accused Democrats of bias as well. Simon wanted the map scrapped.

“I’m sure the National Republican Redistricting Trust was just popping champagne when they saw this map go out,” Simon said.

The commission was meeting Monday to debate the proposed congressional map that combined facets of both the Republican and Democratic proposed maps. The commission must meet an Oct. 25 deadline to submit a congressional map to the General Assembly for approval, with the possibility of an extension, or else the redrawing of districts will be left to the state’s Supreme Court. But disagreement about even a starting point puts a swift resolution in doubt, as some Democrats did not want to even tinker with a map partly mirroring one drawn by the NRRT.

Virginia’s bipartisan redistricting effort breaks down over accusations of partisan stalemate

The political makeup of the map under consideration Monday offered five seats considered safely blue, five safely red and one purple competitive district anchored in Virginia Beach, now held by U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria (D). As is, the proposal would represent a gain for Republicans, who now only hold four of the state’s 11 seats.

The commission accepts map submissions from members of the public to serve as a resource for its Republican and Democratic map-drawers — but one citizen map in particular, submitted by former Republican congressman Tom Davis, got the spotlight.

“It seems like the only citizen who had his map considered was Congressman Davis,” Arlington resident Sam Shirazi said during the public comment period.

Following up on Shirazi’s concerns, Simon said he asked staff to look into how Davis’s map was submitted, and learned that the NRRT, the GOP’s main redistricting arm, helped draw it for Davis. The NRRT’s Jason Torchinsky submitted the map to the redistricting commission on Davis’s behalf, and it appears online under Davis’s name. The commission’s GOP lawyer Bryan Tyson said Torchinsky asked via email for assistance uploading it, but that he and the Republican consultants had no other communication with him.

He said Republican map-drawers reviewed Davis’s map and others, but the close resemblance to Davis’s was largely a coincidence.

“We looked at the citizen maps that were there. And there’s not a whole lot of ways you can draw Southwest Virginia,” Tyson said. “The idea that we conspired with the NRRT to come up with this secret map is just patently untrue.”

Reached by phone Monday, Davis said he contacted the National Republican Redistricting Trust and asked them for help drawing a map because he was not savvy at using the map software himself. “Frankly because I’m an analog guy in the digital age,” he said.

Though the group’s stated goal is to “fight back against the Democrats’ nationwide power grab,” Davis said he trusted the group to create map that avoided partisanship based on criteria he provided: more compact districts that didn’t take into account protecting incumbents.

“They were helpful in getting me some options to do that. That’s how I arrived at it. I didn’t know who else to call,” said Davis, the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who represented the 11th district until 2008.

He said he planned to present his map on Friday and take questions — but doubted the commission would be able to break its political impasse and reach a deal on any map.

Simon ultimately said he accepted Tyson’s explanation for what happened, though he argued that doesn’t change the fact that a heavy NRRT footprint remains on the map that the commission is now considering.

“I think that if their goal was to get as much of their map into the commission process as possible, with as few changes as possible, they’ve got to feel like they did a successful job of that,” Simon said in an interview. “Even if it was a relatively benign process, if it’s just a coincidence that the Republican map-drawer picked Tom Davis’s map to draw the three southwest districts, the result is the same.”

Republicans on the commission brushed aside Simon’s concerns and urged commissioners to view the proposed map as merely a starting point. “I don’t think we get anywhere trying to impugn the motivations of those we can’t really know about,” Richard Harrel said.

A spokeswoman for the NRRT declined to comment.

Virginia’s bipartisan redistricting commission struggling with partisan pressures

Like many aspects of the bipartisan commission, its chosen process for drawing the maps seemed primed for disagreement.

The Democratic map-drawers were put in charge of the three districts in Northern Virginia considered safely blue — the 8th, 10th and 11th districts — while Republicans took the three red districts in the southern and western parts of the state, the 5th the 6th and 9th. Both sides agreed to leave the Democratic 3rd and 4th districts largely intact, with minimal adjustments for population changes, since those districts were approved by a federal court to protect majority-minority voting populations under the federal Voting Rights Act.

That left the map-drawers to stitch together the remaining battleground 7th and 2nd congressional districts, plus the coastal 1st district represented by Rep. Rob Wittman (R).

Some of the most significant changes from the current congressional map were made in the proposed 7th and 5th districts and in the western Richmond suburbs, where historically red areas such as Chesterfield and Henrico counties have been trending blue.

The 5th district, represented by Rep. Bob Good (R), currently stretches from the North Carolina border to as far north as Warrenton, flirting with Northern Virginia while anchored in Southside. To make the district more compact, the proposed map only takes the 5th district as far north as Fluvanna County. But the 5th would also stretch eastward to into the Richmond suburbs, picking up southern parts of Henrico County and the western half of Chesterfield County that are now represented by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D) in the 7th. Northern parts of Henrico would also be in the 1st district.

The 7th, in turn, would move dramatically north and completely out of the Richmond suburbs, making it largely unrecognizable and far more friendly to Republicans. The 7th would stretch from the northernmost tip of Virginia, in Frederick County, east to Stafford County and parts of Prince William County. According to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, Donald Trump would have won the district by 16 points in 2016; President Biden won the current 7th district by one percentage point last year.

How redistricting works in your state

A number of Henrico residents urged commissioners to rethink splitting the county into so many different districts, as it is also already part of the 4th district as well. One said she feared map-drawers were trying to gerrymander Spanberger, who faces a tough campaign for reelection next year, out of her seat.

The 2nd district, which is also expected to be hotly contested, would not change drastically under the proposal. But according to VPAP it would lean Republican under the proposed map.

“It’s a terrible map for Democrats, and it’s probably a nonstarter for the commission’s Democrats,” said Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor at the Cook Political Report who tracks redistricting. “Democrats are not going to vote essentially for a 5-5-1 map in a state that they believe has become blue. The choices that this map makes, to put Charlottesville in with the Shenandoah Valley, to essentially dismantle the current 7th district, that is the very opposite of what Democrats would support.”

While Republicans on the commission said they hoped to fiddle with the edges of the proposal, co-chair Greta Harris said she believed much larger changes would be necessary. But because there was no quorum at the meeting Monday, commissioners could not vote or direct the map-drawers to do anything ahead of the next meeting Wednesday.