After Virginia, the Democratic Party is breathing a sigh of relief. The rather easy victory for Governor-elect Ralph Northam stems the tide of recent hemorrhaging of key positions across the United States to Republicans, and continues Democrats’ control over a blue-ish state. Northam’s victory, and that of Justin Fairfax, the second black official elected in a statewide race in Virginia, also offers a sign that virulent and race-baiting white-identity politics—politics that characterize the Trump era and the late portion of Republican Ed Gillespie’s campaign—are beatable, even in the cradle of the old Confederacy.
Those signs are reason enough for Democrats to celebrate. But the true national significance of Northam’s victory, as well as of major gains by the party in the General Assembly, might not be in the message they send, but the fact that those gains constitute the first big victory for Democrats in the political mapmaking game in at least a decade.
Republican hegemony in the decennial political-redistricting game is well documented. The competition to control just who draws each state’s political maps has taken shape as an arms race, with Republicans capturing the advantage over the past 20 years through a combination of technology, big data, expertise, and electoral strategy. The result has been a set of some of the most contentious—and legally challenged—racial and political gerrymanders in history. But despite the controversy, Republican strength has also increased, as target states where Republicans gained control of the mapmaking process in 2010 saw their share of legislative seats steadily grow, even as their actual vote shares decreased. In other words, these maps helped Republicans retain majorities even when they earned substantially fewer votes.