How different district boundaries make the Va. election more unpredictable

Virginia’s pivotal election on Nov. 7 is just one week away, and it remains highly unpredictable due in part to the fact this will be the first general election in Virginia under new district boundaries.

Candidates are running for the first time under maps that were overhauled during the redistricting process that concluded in late 2021.

“They completely erased the maps and started from scratch,” said Alex Keena, a political-science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

After a newly created bipartisan redistricting commission failed to agree on maps for either Congress or the General Assembly, two court-appointed special masters completed the task.

Their maps were drawn without regard to protecting incumbents, which led to overhauled districts, with legislators paired in many of them.

“Virtually every single incumbent is faced with new constituents,” Keena said. “What that means is you have to try to forge relationships with voters who may not recognize you like your previous constituents did.”

Some of the boundary changes made districts less favorable to Democrats or Republicans than they had been previously.

In one example, Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant is facing a tough challenge from Democratic candidate Schuyler VanValkenburg in Senate District 16 in Henrico County.

Before redistricting, Dunnavant had represented what was then the 12th District, which was generally more friendly toward Republicans.

“Members who are already in office have name recognition and they get a little boost, but when you have a redistricting, it adds a lot of unpredictability to the whole landscape,” Keena said. “It’s really, really hard to tell how this is going to pan out.”

The Virginia House of Delegates is currently controlled by the GOP, with 49 Republicans, 46 Democrats and five vacancies in the chamber.

Of the 40 seats in the state Senate, 22 are held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans.

Every state lawmaker will be on the ballot, meaning the election will determine which party controls the General Assembly.

Redistricting led to numerous members of the House and Senate retiring or deciding not to seek reelection.

That list of lawmakers included the long-serving Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment, Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw and Democratic Del. Ken Plum, the House’s longest-serving member.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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