Virginia Democrats are Bad at this Politics Thing

by | Oct 11, 2018 | OPINION

While I’m teaching, I find myself restating the same point to my students over and over again: Republicans are better at politics than Democrats. We just saw it recently play out at the national level (welcome, Justice Brohim). And it’s certainly true in Virginia, especially after last week’s redistricting debacle.

Here’s the rundown in case you missed it:

A federal court ordered Virginia to redraw the lines of 11 state legislative districts, arguing that they sorted voters by race in violation of the U.S. Constitution. After the General Assembly called a special session to respond, Democrats offered a new map that seemed designed to help Democrats win more seats — Republicans called it a “partisan power grab.” They then responded with their own map. This plan garnered some bipartisan report, including from the aptly-named Portsmouth Democrat Steve Heretick, who criticized his own party for “corrupt gerrymandering.” The Governor vowed to veto the plan, so the Republicans cancelled the session.

While the Democrats get what they probably want anyway – the courts redraw the lines, probably in ways favorable to Democrats – the GOP gets to paint them as partisan hacks.

We can learn two big lessons from this mess:

First, redistricting remains an important battleground in the national Vote Wars between the two parties. Ever wonder why Republicans scream to the hilltops about voter fraud, despite the lack of any evidence that it’s occurring on a wide scale? Or why Democrats across the country are challenging a number of Republican-drawn district maps in the courts?

It’s the Great Game, played out at a national, state, and local level, in the courts, statehouses, and media, over the basic rules of our electoral system. It includes district lines, but also a number of laws and rules that govern access the polls, like voter ID and polling locations. And the Democrats have been getting their asses kicked in all these arenas for years.

Which brings us to Delegate Heretick, and the second lesson we learned last week; again: Democrats are terrible at politics.

Part of that is individual. Heretick may be a great person, and even a great legislator — but in criticizing his own party, he comes off sounding at best naïve and, at worst, a dupe for the GOP.

It’s great that Heretick supports an independent redistricting process. It’s also great that he wants to “work across the aisle” and find some bipartisan common ground. But he’s operating in a hyper-partisan environment, engaged in a fundamental battle over the rules of the game. Heretick sandbagged his own caucus in the middle of an important political confrontation, and acted like he was the hero of the story. In an interview with the Virginia Mercury’s, Ned Oliver, are Heretick’s own words:

“In other words, the federal court order ordered us to redraw the 11 affected districts … and yet [Democrats] were using this opportunity for a blatantly partisan purpose, and that is to try to weaken Republican incumbents.”

Oh my heavens! How shocking that your political party was practicing…politics (gasp)!  Heretick sounds like a Pollyanna in the middle of a red light district.

But this isn’t entirely the Delegate’s fault; it also doesn’t help that Democrats seemed to bungle the whole process of informing their own caucus. In his interview with Oliver, Heretick complained of a “mysterious” process, including caucus phone calls where he didn’t even know who was on the line. Worse still, the Democrats’ proposed map cut into Heretick’s district, likely reducing his possible margin of victory in the next election. If you want your people to take one for the team, you have to make sure they know why and what they’re getting in return.

The one thing the Democrats did do well was the thing which they were most criticized: offering a blatantly favorable map at the start. You don’t begin negotiations by giving away everything, and a “neutral” map would have meant they were starting the process from the middle — allowing the GOP to chip away at lines until they got something more favorable. Heretick’s complaints about his party’s own gerrymandering just gave political top cover to the GOP who, of course, were engaged in the same kind of gerrymandering on the other side.

It’s obviously not a good thing that this kind of political battle rages in our state legislature. The basic rules of our democracy should not be up for grabs in a power struggle among partisan forces. This is why good government groups like One Virginia 2021 have been so vocal in advocating for redistricting reform: the rules of the game are too important to be determined by the players, especially the ones who are winning.

And everyone who wants bipartisan reform and fair rules have to favor the losing side right now; Democrats have the incentive to change how district lines are drawn because they’ve lost so much ground to the GOP in that battle.

But Heretick was acting last week like the game had already been reset. The Democrats who run his caucus didn’t help him understand this very well. If the Democrats want to avoid even more political losses, they need to get their act together — or, to put it more bluntly, they need to get their heads out of their you-know-whats. I’m not holding my breath.

Rich Meagher

Rich Meagher

Rich Meagher teaches political science at Randolph-Macon College, and is the author of Local Politics Matters (Lantern Publishing and Media, 2020).

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