How Virginia Governor’s Election Explains Republican U.S. House Edge

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Supporters celebrate Democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s lead in the polls during McAuliffe’s election night event on Nov. 5, 2013 in Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the most votes in the Virginia governor’s election on Nov. 5.

Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli won more votes in seven of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts.

The second statistic is irrelevant to the outcome of a statewide election McAuliffe won by 48  to 45 percent. Yet it helps explain why Republicans held their House majority in 2012 (and are favored to retain it in 2014) even as President Barack Obama won re-election last year by 5 million votes, carrying Virginia by about 4 percentage points along the way. Democratic candidates won more votes than Republicans in the 2012 House elections.

In Virginia and some other politically competitive and Democratic-leaning states, Republicans hold more House seats than Democrats for reasons related to Republican-led redistricting, an inefficient clustering of Democrats in population centers, the personal campaign skills of some Republican incumbents and the weaknesses of some Democratic candidates.

McAuliffe won 75 percent of the vote in Virginia’s 3rd District, a majority-black area where 11-term Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott is dominant. McAuliffe won 68 percent in Democratic Rep. Jim Moran’s 8th District in and around Arlington and Alexandria, and 60 percent in Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly’s 11th District, which also takes in northern Virginia suburbs of Washington.

Now compare McAuliffe’s super-majorities to Cuccinelli’s more modest victories in the seven districts he won. Cuccinelli won Rep. Morgan Griffith’s southwestern 9th District with 61 percent of the vote and Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s 6th District with 58 percent of the vote, while carrying five other districts with between 48 percent and 52 percent of the vote.

So there are three overwhelmingly Democratic districts in Virginia, while most of the rest of the districts lean Republican.

The pattern plays out in other states. In Pennsylvania, where Republicans redrew lines and Democrats are concentrated in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, House Republicans won 13 of 18 seats in 2012 even as Obama carried the state by 5 points.

In Virginia, Republicans represent all seven pro-Cuccinelli districts plus the Virginia Beach-based 2nd District, which backed McAuliffe by 47 percent to 46 percent and is represented by two-term Rep. Scott Rigell.

Rigell, who holds one of 17 districts that voted for Obama and a House Republican in 2012, isn’t in Congress as a result of favorable redistricting. He’s distanced himself from party leaders on occasion, attracting support from some voters who aren’t Republicans.

Rigell “has been a centrist, particularly on economic issues,” according to the 2014 edition of the Almanac of American Politics. The reference book noted Rigell’s criticism of a “no new taxes” pledge promoted by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform organization. In 2012, as Obama won Virginia’s 2nd by 1.5 percentage points, Rigell prevailed by 7.7 points.

Rivaling Rigell’s 2nd as Virginia’s most competitive district is the 10th, which includes Loudoun County and some other outer suburbs of Washington. It backed Cuccinelli by 48 percent to 47 percent, comparable to Republican Mitt Romney’s 1-point victory there in 2012. Virginia’s 10th isn’t a safe Republican district, though it is a stronghold for the particular Republican incumbent who’s represented the area in Congress since 1981. Frank Wolf has won at least 57 percent of the vote in each of the past 15 elections, including in good Democratic years like 2006, 2008 and 2012. Democrats probably won’t win that district until the 74-year-old Wolf retires.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report presently rates 10 of the 11 Virginia House districts as “safe” for the incumbent party in 2014, with only Rigell’s 2nd in the mildly competitive category of “Likely Republican.” Republicans have a 232-200 majority.

Here are the results of the Virginia governor’s election by congressional district, according to data compiled by Political Capital from the state board of elections. A third candidate, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, won about 6.5 percent of the statewide vote. The McAuliffe-Cuccinelli calculations below exclude write-in votes. Click here for district maps.

1st District: Cuccinelli 52%, McAuliffe 42%

2nd District: McAuliffe 47%, Cuccinelli 46%

3rd District: McAuliffe 75%, Cuccinelli 19%

4th District: Cuccinelli 48%, McAuliffe 45%

5th District: Cuccinelli 51%, McAuliffe 41%

6th District: Cuccinelli 58%, McAuliffe 35%

7th District: Cuccinelli 52%, McAuliffe 38%

8th District: McAuliffe 68%, Cuccinelli 27%

9th District: Cuccinelli 61%, McAuliffe 32%

10th District: Cuccinelli 48%, McAuliffe 47%

11th District: McAuliffe 60%, Cuccinelli 35%


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