Many Incumbents Would Face Off in 2022 Primaries Based On Proposed W.Va. House Redistricting
West Virginia Republicans have chipped away at Democrats’ foothold at the statehouse for nearly a decade. In 2014, the GOP took the majority for the first time in more than eighty years. Since then, their grasp has only strengthened.
Following the 2020 general election, Republicans took a supermajority in both the House of Delegates and state Senate. Political scientists here called it a “Red Tsunami.”
Now, thanks to a bill passed in 2018, redistricting in West Virginia has a new dimension this go-around. And it’s one that some think could benefit the majority party.
The West Virginia House of Delegates is moving from 100 members across 67 districts to 100 single-member districts — giving each member their own unique set of geographies and constituents.
“Right now, we've got 14, multi-member districts. All of those have to be reconfigured. Now, a lot of those multi-member districts are held by Republican incumbents, should they choose to run again,” said Marshall University political science professor Mary Beth Beller. “But five of those districts have Democrats and Republicans in them. And some of those districts are going to be pretty controversial.”
A map proposed by a Republican-led committee in the House of Delegates, would pit many incumbents of the same party against one another in the 2022 primaries. Some of those lawmakers currently share a multi-member district, including Democrats like Del. Kayla Young and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff.
There are also more than a dozen newly proposed districts that would be wide open — meaning no one currently at the statehouse occupies a seat within those boundaries.
Skaff said the current proposed redraw disproportionately affects his party’s incumbents — putting his members at a disadvantage when primary tickets get set.
“You have areas where they have people running against each other and you try to work hard to keep communities of interest together — without consideration of who may represent them,” Skaff said. “But when you see blatant disregard for communities of interest and cities and towns — and even counties -- so to speak, sticking together, it just didn't make sense.”
While there is no set deadline for West Virginia lawmakers to complete the redistricting process, the state constitution calls for candidates to live in their district one year prior to a general election — creating a de-facto deadline of Nov. 8.
Such a date complicates things for politicians like Young, who told West Virginia Public Broadcasting she’s moving from her current residence — in part so that she’s not running against the top member of her caucus. But, she says, all of that depends on how the lines are drawn.
“It's gonna play a huge role because I want to continue being in public service,” Young said. “So, I want to live in a district that I can hopefully win or at least be competitive in, because I want to continue serving people.”
Delegate Gary Howell is chair of the West Virginia House committee tasked with redistricting this cycle. He argues he hasn’t considered incumbents in offering a proposed map.
“I repeatedly have told staff when we're preparing these, I don't want to know where any of the incumbents live,” Howell said. “We may have an idea because you know some of them and we know where some of them live — because we've served with them and they've told us. But we didn't actively look on a map.”
Howell said that Democrats tend to live in more densely populated areas, which puts them at a higher chance of being next to one another. He also points to election results since the last redistricting cycle.
“Because of what the Democrats did 10 years ago — and previous ones where they had these multi-member districts, you ended up having a lot of Democrats elected from the city centers and a multi-member district.” Howell said. “As a result, they live very close to each other.”
Howell said the proposed House map will change before being voted on next week. But he and other lawmakers are well aware of the timetable they’re up against, given the one-year residency requirement. He doesn’t dismiss current, or future, lawmakers looking to move to be elected.
“Is it an absolute?” Howell asked rhetorically about the residency requirement. “No, but it is kind of overshadowing what we're doing — and that’s an unofficial deadline, I guess I would say.”
A 1992 decision from the state Supreme Court leaves some wiggle room on the one-year residency requirement. The state’s high court said running for office is a fundamental right — and candidates have to know their district before getting in the race.
With litigation a familiar part of the redistricting process, and the potential for the map’s implementation being delayed, candidates like Young may be able to hop into a different district after Nov. 8 and still keep a seat.