A federal court redrawing portions of Virginia's House of Delegates map in a long-running racial gerrymandering case has picked a new configuration that could help Democrats retake control of the chamber this year and imperil the re-election campaigns of two top Republicans.
Judges in the Richmond-based U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia revealed their decision Tuesday night, ordering University of California-Irvine political science professor Bernard Grofman to finalize the district lines the court preferred.
Republicans currently have 51 seats and Democrats have 48 pending the outcome of a Feb. 19 special election. All 100 House seats are up for election in November. If the map survives Republican legal appeals and takes effect, it could tilt five to six GOP-held districts toward Democrats.
"It would nearly guarantee a Democratic takeover of the House of Delegates," said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
In the Richmond area, the most significant partisan swing would occur in the district occupied by House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights. By removing rural areas and shifting the lines north into the Chesterfield County suburbs closer to Richmond, the speaker's district would see a Democratic shift equivalent to 32 percentage points under past election results, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, would face a similarly large Democratic swing, 27.4 percentage points, under the court's order.
In a statement, Cox said Republicans will continue their legal battle to defend the existing House map, and "are prepared to defend and rebuild our majority in the House" regardless of the outcome.
"The Eastern District Court selected a series of legally indefensible redistricting modules that attempts to give Democrats an advantage at every turn," Cox said. "The modules selected by the Court target senior Republicans, myself included, without a substantive basis in the law."
Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who brought the case in 2015 naming a group of African-American voters as plaintiffs, celebrated the decision on Twitter.
"In Virginia, the Federal Court in the long-running state house redistricting case has ordered the special master to adopt the alternative-map configuration we advocated," Elias said. "We are one important step closer to the end of the GOP's racial gerrymander."
Gov. Ralph Northam's office also welcomed the court's action.
"Virginians are one step closer to having fair, constitutional maps for elections this year," said Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel.
Sabato said the new lines don't necessarily ensure Cox and Jones would lose. Cox is a seasoned campaigner, he said, and Jones has worked closely with Democrats on issues like the budget and Medicaid expansion.
"You don't count these veterans out," Sabato said, but if the map takes effect, others in the GOP caucus look "very vulnerable."
Because the entire General Assembly map will be redrawn in 2021, the court-ordered House map would only be in effect for the 2019 elections. House members serve two-year terms.
Republicans have appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear new arguments in the matter this spring. But the high court refused a GOP request to halt the lower court's map-drawing, allowing Virginia's primary cycle to begin under the lines chosen by the court.
Tuesday's order was a blow to House Republicans facing the real possibility of losing a majority that seemed unassailable before the election of President Donald Trump. Republicans lost 15 seats to Democrats in 2017 and preserved the majority only by winning a luck-of-the-draw tiebreaker in a deadlocked Newport News race.
That district, represented by Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, would shift Democratic by 13.6 percentage points, according to VPAP. In the Hampton Roads area, the districts held by Dels. Gordon Helsel, R-Poquoson; Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach; and Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, would also see significant Democratic shifts.
Several Democratic districts would become more Republican. Those changes likely won't be enough to create new pickup opportunities for Republicans, but the GOP will be looking to take back several of the suburban districts it lost by thin margins in 2017.
In June, the district court ruled that lawmakers unconstitutionally used race to pack additional African-American voters into 11 majority-minority districts during the 2011 redistricting process. Republicans argued they considered race in order to comply with civil-rights protections meant to preserve majority-minority districts.
The court gave the General Assembly a chance to redraw the district lines on its own. Northam made it clear he would not sign the Republican map proposals, leaving it up to the court and Grofman, a special master in court parlance, to redraw the districts.
Not all Democrats were thrilled by the map the court chose.
Del. Stephen Heretick, D-Portsmouth, who sat in on a court hearing in the case earlier this month, said there would've been more "stability" if the General Assembly and the governor had handled the issue. Even though the map only makes his district slightly more Republican, Heretick said, roughly 80 percent of his constituents would be new.
"This has been a particularly frustrating process for me," Heretick said.
Northam pulled out of a fundraiser with Heretick last year after Heretick criticized his own party’s redistricting proposal and expressed willingness to work with Jones to craft an alternative map.
The court asked Grofman to finalize the map by Jan. 29. Parties in the redistricting case have until Feb. 1 to respond.
Grofman gave the court several map options for each region. In Tuesday's order, the court picked the map it prefers in the four regions.
In a filing last week, Republicans told the court which map option they preferred in the four regions. In all regions, the court chose a different option.
The maps chosen by the court are below: