Looking back at Virginia’s 5th District Congressional Race, by the numbers: Promising Signs for Democrats Outweighed by Gerrymandering

What is the 5th District, and what happened here in 2018?

On November 6, Republican Denver Riggleman (R) won the election to represent Virginia’s fifth district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Riggleman, a businessman, beat journalist Leslie Cockburn (D) by a margin of 165,339 votes to 145,040, or 53.2% to 46.7%. (All election statistics analyzed in this article, and all statistics used to create these maps, come from the Virginia Department of Elections, unless otherwise noted.) Riggleman now replaces former Republican representative Tom Garrett, who decided not to pursue reelection after announcing he had struggled with alcoholism.

The race garnered some national attention because many commentators saw it as an opportunity for Democrats to pick up a win in a historically Republican district. On election day FiveThirtyEight classified the district as a “toss-up” while the Cook Political Report classified the race as “Lean Republican.”

Virginia’s fifth district stretches from Fauquier County, on the fringes of Northern Virginia, all the way southwest to Henry County, on the North Carolina border. The district is comprised of 23 localities — 21 counties or portions of counties, as well as Charlottesville City and Danville City. The district in its current form was drawn by Republicans during the 2012 wave of redistricting that accompanied the 2010 census. Votes are tallied cumulatively across the district. I created the following map, which shows each locality in the fifth district shaded according to each candidate’s margin of victory in the November 6 election.

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Cockburn won decisively in the Charlottesville-Albemarle metro area, as well as winning narrowly in counties on the east of the district on the outskirts of the Richmond and Virginia Beach metro areas. Riggleman dominated in the rural communities in the center, south, and west of the district.


Was there a “blue wave” in Virginia’s fifth district?

Across the country, Democrats gained 40 house seats in total; in Virginia, a seven to four seat advantage in favor of Republicans flipped to become a seven to four seat advantage in favor of Democrats. Despite Riggleman’s win, a closer look at the numbers reveals that the fifth district did in fact feel the effects of the “blue wave.”

This election was closer than any midterm has ever been since the district was drawn into its current form in 2012. That year, Republican Robert Hurt won a 55.4%-41.9% victory against his Democratic challenger. Hurt won 60.9% of the vote in 2014, and fellow Republican Garrett won 58.2% of the vote in 2016. Cockburn’s seven-point loss is by far the best result a Democrat has had in the last four elections.

Additionally, voter turnout in the 2018 election represented a massive increase in turnout compared to previous midterm elections. The 2018 election saw a little more than 310,000 people cast votes in the fifth. The 2006, 2010, and 2014 elections saw roughly 212,000 voters, 235,000 voters, and 204,000 voters, respectively. Conventional wisdom about American politics, as echoed by Bernie Sanders and others, says that high turnout tends to mean Democrats perform well. The tremendous increase in turnout in the 5th district is in line with the nationwide success of Democrats in the 2018 midterms.

The “blue wave” struck Virginia’s fifth, even if Cockburn didn’t win. The election results should give Democrats hope for success in this region in the future.


What is Charlottesville’s role in the 5th district?

Charlottesville-Albemarle is the largest population center in the 5th district, and also the most Democratic region. The above map is a little misleading, actually, because it understates just how blue Charlottesville voted. Cockburn beat Riggleman 85.0% to 14.7% in Charlottesville City.

I created the following map, which shows Cockburn’s dominance more clearly. Note the scale: the most closely contested precinct in the city was the Alumni Hall precinct, where Cockburn secured 78.8% of votes to Riggleman’s 20.6%.

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The chunk missing from the city’s left side is the University of Virginia. Students who live on-grounds vote in Albemarle County. Students who live off-grounds generally vote in the Venable, Buford, or Alumni Hall districts.

Charlottesville, like the rest of the state, experienced unusually high voter turnout. 61% of eligible voters made their voices heard in the city. In the 2014 elections, by contrast, Charlottesville had 33% voter turnout. The 28% increase was the largest increase of any locality in Virginia.

I created the following map, which illustrates Charlottesville-Albemarle’s influence within the district. The map depicts each locality in the 5th re-sized according to the amount of votes cast in the 2018 house election. The map shows how each locality voted, while simultaneously showing roughly how many people voted in each locality.

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Charlottesville-Albemarle is the largest metropolitan area in the district. Again, this map actually underestimates Charlottesville’s influence. Charlottesville didn’t just vote >40% blue — the city voted >70% blue. The largest margin of victory for Riggleman in any locality was a 47.6% margin in Bedford County. Riggleman’s wins in the southern part of the district weren’t as definitive as Cockburn’s win in Charlottesville.

Charlottesville — an educated, wealthy, and diverse city — will continue to be a dependable Democratic stronghold for the foreseeable future.


What does the 5th District have to do with the national conversation about gerrymandering?

Despite the good signs for Democrats and the dense Democratic population in Charlottesville-Albemarle, Riggleman ultimately secured a relatively easy victory. The fifth district is drawn to make it very difficult for Democrats to win. The story of this election — as has been the case in elections across Virginia for years — is gerrymandering.

Let’s take another look at the map of the district weighted by population. The map gives a visual snapshot of how many Republican counties it takes to outweigh Charlottesville-Albemarle.

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In order to bury Charlottesville, the district has to reach down to the very bottom of the state. The district’s western boundary conveniently stops just short of Roanoke, another large, predominantly blue metropolitan area. In the North, parts of the red Fauquier County are included in the fifth district, while neighboring blue counties like Loudoun are excluded. The district reaches southwest to encompass relatively populous, strongly Republican localities like Franklin County, Bedford County, Pittsylvania County, and Danville City. The district lines stop short of seriously entering Richmond’s Democratic sphere of influence in the east.

The fact that Charlottesville will be represented by Riggleman, a Republican, is emblematic of Virginia’s sordid history of gerrymandering. A cursory glance at the last decade of election results makes this history clear. Virginia is now a blue state — including President, Senate, and Governor, Virginia has voted blue in 11 of 12 statewide elections stretching back to 2006. However, until November of 2018, Virginia was one of the nation’s two “flipped blue” states, in which a majority of votes for Congress went to Democrats, even though Republicans controlled more seats — in this case, by a seven to four margin. Partisan gerrymandering has historically given Republicans an advantage in Virginia’s House of Representatives elections.

The effect is even more pronounced at the state legislature level. In 2017, Ralph Northam (D) beat Corey Stewart (R) by 9% in the race for Governor. In the same election, however, Democrats won just 50 of the 100 seats in the Virginia House of Representatives, because the districts had been drawn by the Republican government in 2010 to favor Republicans.

Earlier this year, a panel of federal judges declared 11 of Virginia’s House of Delegates districts unconstitutional, because the districts had been drawn by the Republicans in 2010 to encompass as many black voters as possible. “Overwhelming evidence in this case shows that, contrary to . . . constitutional mandate, the state has sorted voters into districts based on the color of their skin,” wrote Judge Barbara Milano Keenan of the U.S. District Court. This is a common gerrymandering tactic — the Republicans sought to pack as many blue voters as possible into a small number of districts in order to safely win all the surrounding districts. The story isn’t over, though — Virginia Republicans appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, and in November the Court agreed to hear the case.

Comparing local results to statewide results isn’t the only way to spot gerrymandering. Evaluating a district’s “compactness” can quickly give a sense of how gerrymandered a district is. Gerrymandered districts, with tentacles that reach in strange directions to capture certain communities, are not compact. Measuring compactness shows that Virginia’s U.S. House districts are just as badly gerrymandered as Virginia’s controversial state legislative districts. In 2014, the Washington Post published an index assigning each House district a compactness score. A higher score means more gerrymandering. Virginia’s fifth district received an 85.23, and the state as a whole averaged an 84.2, making it one of the ten most-gerrymandered states in the nation at the U.S. House level.

Admittedly, Charlottesville’s geography puts it in an odd position, as a strongly blue city surrounded by rural red counties. It’s also important to be clear that gerrymandering isn’t the only reason Riggleman won the election. However, gerrymandering does help explain why Charlottesville, a city in which around 20,000 voters cast more than 17,000 votes for the Democrat, will nonetheless be represented by a Republican for at least the next two years.

Ben HitchcockComment