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Under the old lines in the Virginia House of Delegates, Albemarle County was robbed of having a competitive seat by being split three ways into rural, red territory. That wrong has been fixed by the special masters responsible for drawing the new lines, as they’ve drawn a district similar to the one that existed in the 1990s in the area: a Charlottesville donut district in the middle with the rest of Albemarle, with parts of some adjacent counties to help meet the population requirement.
But unlike the 1990s, when such a district would have been reliably red, the liberal heart of central Virginia is probably going to elect a Democrat to the House of Delegates next year. Under the new lines, District 55 voted for Terry McAuliffe by 12% according to Harvard’s Voting Election and Science Team on DRA2020. Using the same source, Donald Trump did not even garner 40% of the vote in this seat in 2020, though that number is less relevant given Virginia voters’ tendencies to give more support to Republicans in state-level government elections in most parts of the Commonwealth.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, 82.45% of the district’s population is in Albemarle County, 11.21% in Louisa, 6.29% in Nelson, and 0.04% in Fluvanna, where the special masters included a small sliver of the county’s “Cunningham” precinct so that the small town of Scottsville could be kept together. Albemarle as a whole is a blue bastion, of course. The Louisa section is reliably red — the only Democrat who has been able to win this area is Tim Kaine in 2018. The Nelson portion tilts Democratic — two Republicans have been able to win it: Donald Trump in 2016 and Glenn Youngkin in 2021. Finally, we do not yet know how the Fluvanna section will vote as there are only 25 voters in this section of the county in what would be a split precinct.
As you can see in the featured image map at the top of this article, the district in the 2021 House of Delegates elections is very much divided by the east and west, thanks to Rob Bell’s incredible ticket-splitting in his favor. Precincts to the west are a sea of blue, and precincts to the east are a sea of red. But the blue sea is considerably “deeper” than the red, meaning its Democratic margins are much stronger than the eastern part’s margins for the Republicans. If Democrats can “Defeat the East,” victory is theirs.
Longtime incumbent Rob Bell (R), first elected in 2001, will face an uphill re-election battle. We wouldn’t count Bell out as he was one of the top-performing Republicans in the House of Delegates in 2021 — he outran Youngkin by 9.67%. In the map above, which compares the margin of victory difference between candidates for the House of Delegates and the gubernatorial race, you can see the precincts in the northern and eastern parts of Albemarle sticking out, all of which were in Bell’s old district except most of the “Pantops” precinct, where most voters were in Sally Hudson’s old district. The red areas are where Republican candidates for the House of Delegates did better in their election than Youngkin, and the blue areas are where Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates did better than McAuliffe. The latter precincts are scarce, with most of them being in the old District 59. 2021 Democratic candidate Ben Moses, who ran in the Safe Republican district, did considerably well compared to the rest of the 2021 Democratic candidates here, even outrunning McAuliffe by double-digits in some precincts. Overall, the vote was 3.61% more Republican in the House of Delegates elections than for Governor. However, this is an estimated result due to Virginia having their early votes separate from their election day votes.
Bell has never once in his career run in a competitive race since he was first elected, so he’s never faced an opponent with much investment in their campaigns. It would not be surprising if Bell opted out of re-election after such a long tenure in the chamber and seeing the challenge he faces next year, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t want to go out without a fight, especially given his fundraising capabilities and incumbency advantage. Plus Bell enjoys the advantage of running in what will likely be a Republican-favoring environment with a Democrat in the White House unless President Biden somehow turns around his net approval by next year’s elections.
Bell faces two Democratic opponents so far who will face each other in a primary: Kellen Squire, an ER nurse who ran against Bell in 2017, and Albemarle County Board of Supervisors member Donna Price. Price represents the Scottsville district on the Board of Supervisors, which has the southern suburbs of Charlottesville and the Republican-leaning areas on the Fluvanna County border. One good thing both of these candidates have going for them is running for office in Bell’s old district before, as that is where Democrats would need to play catchup the most to ensure a Bell knockout. Given Bell’s uphill battle for re-election, more candidates entering the Democratic primary is not out of the question. If the Democratic primary were between these two candidates though, it’d probably fall along regional lines, with Squire doing well in the northern part of Albemarle, where he hails and has previously run in, and Price doing well in her Board of Supervisors district in the eastern part of the county; the rest of the district would be up for grabs.
Our official rating for this seat will not be revealed until our 2023-2024 state legislative elections page launches on January 1st, 2023. But for a preliminary rating… CNalysis sees this seat as a Lean–to-Likely Democratic pickup in the 2023 House of Delegates elections.