Little recent attention has been paid thus far to a big change in Western Virginia’s political landscape as a result of decennial redistricting. Specifically, a new map’s in play for the upcoming 2023 Virginia Senate elections.
That has placed two incumbent local state senators — John Edwards, a Democrat from Roanoke, and David Suetterlein, a Republican from Roanoke County — into the same district beginning with the 2023 elections.
Virginia law requires state legislators to live in the districts they represent. And that creates the potential for a Roanoke Valley political clash in the fall that could have statewide consequences come January.
Suetterlein, 38, was first elected in 2015 and currently represents District 19, a Republican stronghold. On the current Senate map, it stretches from a section of Wythe County on the west to part of Bedford County on the east. It includes all of Salem, all of Floyd County, and parts of the counties of Roanoke, Carroll, Franklin and Montgomery.
Edwards, 79, was first elected in 1995, and has represented the current District 21 for roughly a decade. Staunchly Democratic, it encompasses all of Giles County and all of Roanoke, as well as parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties.
As a result of redistricting, Edwards and Suetterlein now each live in new Senate District 4, the seat that’s up for election in November. It comprises the cities of Roanoke and Salem, plus parts of Montgomery and Roanoke counties. Not only is it more compact than either of their current districts, it appears more competitive politically.
Looking into the near future, this suggests a few things.
First, no matter who wins the race for Senate District 4 in November, the Roanoke Valley’s going to lose half of its current Senate complement beginning next January. That’s merely owing to the way the new lines have been drawn. The old map gave the valley two senators; now it allows for only one.
Second, although the new district is neither as deeply red nor as staunchly blue as either Senate District 19 or 21, Republicans appear to have an advantage in the new 4th.
Voters in the city of Roanoke (who vote majority Democratic), comprise 45% of the new district’s electorate. Salem voters, who strongly lean Republican, make up 12%. Roughly 26% of the new district’s vote will come from Republican-leaning Roanoke County areas such as Vinton, Clearbrook, Glenvar and Cave Spring.
Eastern Montgomery County is where things get interesting. Its voters make up 17% of Senate District 4’s electorate, which includes Republican-leaning Christiansburg. But most of heavily Democratic Blacksburg has been cut out of the new Senate District 4. Those voters were a part of Edwards’ success running in District 21.
According to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project (which tracks elections, redistricting and money in politics), Donald Trump scored 50.1% of the votes in what is now Senate District 4, during the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton took 43.7%.
In the same area, Republican Glenn Youngkin trounced Democrat Terry McAuliffe by more than 10 points in the 2021 race for governor.
But it’s not impossible for Democrats to win Senate District 4, or for Republicans to lose it. In 2018, incumbent U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, won 51.5% of the district’s votes over Republican Corey Stewart, who garnered 46.5%. (Statewide that year, Kaine trounced Stewart 57% to 41%.)
Third, the stakes are high, because the outcome in Senate District 4 could help hand Republicans effective control of the upper chamber.
The GOP already controls the governor’s office and the Virginia House of Delegates. But currently, Democrats control the state Senate 22-18. That allows Democrats the power to stymie GOP initiatives on abortion restrictions, gun rights, election law and other matters.
A two-seat flip in November could leave both parties with 20 senators. In that case, Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, a Republican, would be the tie-breaking vote in the 2024 and 2025 legislative sessions. And that would pave the way for a lot of GOP-sponsored legislation that’s dying in the Senate right now.
Suetterlein told me in a phone call Wednesday: “I’m planning to be a candidate again. But I don’t think this is the time for announcements. We’re in the middle of a General Assembly session.”
A bigger question right now is whether Edwards will seek reelection. The filing deadline is April 6. He turns 80 on Oct. 6, roughly a month before the general election.
Both Edwards and Suetterlein have been raising money since 2020, though neither has a particularly fat campaign treasury.
As of Dec. 31, Edwards campaign account reported just under $172,000 cash on hand, while Suetterlein reported just under $155,000. Also in December, Edwards’ campaign reported spending $3,150 on printing and mailing holiday cards. A politician intending to retire might not bother with that.
In January, Edwards and Suetterlein engaged in a relatively rare clash on the Senate floor over a proposal to extend Daylight Saving Time year-round. Suetterlein favored the measure; Edwards was opposed. It failed.
But so far, Edwards has remained silent as to whether he’ll run for an eighth term. This week, he didn’t return messages I left seeking an answer to the question.
“This is a topic of conversation, this is still an unknown,” said Beth Gunter, chair of the Roanoke County Democratic Committee. “This is kind of the question of the hour.”
Gunter also said no other Democrats have approached her expressing interest in Edwards’ seat. She lauded his “years of amazing service.”
Roanoke Democratic Chair Mark Lazar said: “I’m aware there has been some interest, but I’m not at liberty to disclose names. No one has declared.”
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, would be one obvious Democratic contender for Senate District 4 should Edwards decide to retire. Rasoul said he hasn’t made any decisions, though he had some “loose conversation” with Edwards last fall regarding the senator’s intentions.
Back then, Edwards “said he’s taking his time” on making a decision, Rasoul said.
“I haven’t come to any conclusions,” Rasoul said Wednesday. “I feel very comfortable in my current House seat.”
(Source: The Roanoke Times)