Virginia voters picking nominees in hotly contested legislative races

Posted at 4:56 AM, Jun 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-20 18:24:54-04

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Candidates made their last-minute pitches to voters Tuesday as a Virginia legislative primary season marked by hard-fought campaigns in both parties drew to a close.

Voters were picking their party's nominee for dozens of seats around the state, including some swing districts that will help determine the balance of power in the General Assembly. Both parties and both chambers had competitive contests on the ballot, and an unusually high number of sitting officeholders were facing serious challenges in an election season upended by new political maps.

This year marks the first cycle in which legislative candidates are running in districts created during the redistricting process that ended in late 2021. The new maps were drawn by outside experts without regard to incumbent protection. That's contributed to a wave of retirements by many of the General Assembly's veteran lawmakers and diminished the name-recognition advantage for incumbents, some of whom are running in almost entirely new districts.

Altogether, it’s expected to lead to significant turnover in the Legislature come January.

“It’s time for some new blood,” said Gail Coleman, who voted in suburban Richmond for challengers over veteran incumbents in both a House and Senate race.

Other voters, like Luke Koftan, prioritized experience when deciding between two candidates with similarly resonant messages.

“The fact that she already has a foot in the door swayed it," Koftan said of his decision to back Del. Delores McQuinn over challenger Terrence Lavell Walker.

Virginia, where the General Assembly is currently politically divided, is one of the few states that holds its legislative races in odd-numbered years. With its unusual calendar and quasi-swing state status, the state's results are often closely watched for hints of voter sentiment heading into the following year’s midterm or presidential cycle.

Tuesday's primary has 22 contested races for the state Senate and 25 contested races for the House of Delegates, though in one of those House races, a GOP contender dropped out at the last minute. Some GOP nominations have already been settled through party-run contests.

While the number of nomination contests in each party was roughly the same for House seats, more action in the Senate has been among Democrats, with 10 incumbents facing primary challengers Tuesday, compared with only one on the GOP side. That's driven concerns that the party's standing will be diminished come general election season because of the heavy spending that's gone into the primaries.

Candidates — including political centrist and self-described “pro-life” incumbent Sen. Joe Morrissey and his challenger, Lashrecse Aird — were making a final push to connect with voters Tuesday. The two are competing in one of the year's most closely watched nomination contests.

Morrissey's decades in the public eye have been filled with a degree of controversy that would tank most ordinary candidates, and many of the state's Democratic power brokers have united behind Aird, who has centered her pitch to voters around protecting abortion access. Aird, boosted by the big-spending advocacy group Clean Virginia, has far outraised Morrissey, but most observers have been unwilling to count him out because of his reputation as an effective grassroots campaigner.

In Hampton Roads, two veteran legislators — Sens. Lionell Spruill and Louise Lucas — are competing in one of the year's only matchups pitting incumbents from the same chamber against each other. The race for the nomination in a heavily Democratic Chesapeake-anchored seat has been marked by personal attacks lobbed on social media and in TV ads.

A cluster of primaries in northern Virginia features incumbents facing off against progressive challengers. Sens. George Barker, Jeremy McPike, Dave Marsden and Chap Petersen are all seen as having some degree of vulnerability.

In a Loudoun County-centered district expected to be a key battleground in the fall, former CIA officer Russet Perry has a slew of endorsements from top elected officials and a healthy fundraising lead over Zach Cummings, a local elected official.

In a Charlottesville-anchored seat, Sen. Creigh Deeds faces a spirited challenge from Sally Hudson, a member of the House of Delegates since 2020.

Among Republicans, the only Senate incumbent facing challengers Tuesday is Amanda Chase, a right-wing firebrand who no longer caucuses with her party. She's running against Tina Ramirez, a nonprofit leader and religious freedom advocate, and Glen Sturtevant, an attorney and former senate member, for the nomination in a red-leaning suburban Richmond seat.

Few observers see a clear single frontrunner in Senate District 1, a red Shenandoah Valley-based seat featuring an eight-way contest. And two races, one in an eastern Virginia district and another for a Fredericksburg-area seat, will test the power of Gov. Glenn Youngkin's endorsement. Youngkin, who only waded into a handful of contested nomination fights, backed female lawmakers in both districts, which lean red but could be competitive in the fall.

In the House, a southwest Virginia GOP primary race between Marie March and Wren Williams is the only other incumbent-on-incumbent matchup. Both candidates identify with former President Donald Trump's MAGA movement.

Voters in some localities will also be deciding nominations for local offices.

In northern Virginia, three Democratic prosecutors who were elected four years ago on promises to reform the criminal justice system are all facing closely watched challenges. Their opponents have questioned the incumbents’ day-to-day management of their offices and have, to varying degrees, endorsed the need for criminal justice reform.

Associated Press reporter Matthew Barakat contributed to this report from Falls Church.

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