RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s highly charged legislative primary Tuesday is being closely watched as a possible political barometer for the coming presidential election year.
The state’s 2017 elections were an early warning signal that a blue wave of opposition to President Donald Trump was headed for the 2018 U.S. midterms. This year’s contests legislative could offer strong clues about larger trends in 2020.
Normally sleepy affairs, this year’s primary contests feature plenty of drama as moderates in both parties take fire from their outer flanks. All 140 legislative seats are up for grabs this year and Virginia is the only state whose legislature has a reasonable chance of flipping partisan control. Republicans currently have narrow majorities in both the House and Senate.
On the GOP side, lingering resentment over last year’s vote in Virginia to expand Medicaid is helping fuel unusually divisive primary contests. Meanwhile, an unusually high number of Democratic incumbents are being challenged by liberal newcomers who aren’t shy about attacking their opponents as ethically compromised and out of step with the party’s base.
Democrats are hoping they can continue a three-year winning streak, which has been powered in large part by suburban voters unhappy with Trump who are fleeing the GOP.
But the party lost a major advantage earlier this year when its top three statewide office holders became ensnared in scandal. A racist yearbook photo surfaced in February and almost forced Gov. Ralph Northam from office. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was then accused by two women of sexual assault, which he denies. And Attorney General Mark Herring revealed that he’d worn blackface during his college days after calling for Northam to resign for similar behavior.
On Tuesday, two of the state’s most powerful senators will try to hold on to their seats. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw and Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger, who combined have more than seven decades of experience as lawmakers, are both facing spirited opponents.
Saslaw, a canny veteran of Capitol politics who is ardently pro-business and chummy with Republicans, hasn’t faced a primary challenger in 40 years. This year he has two.
One of those challengers, 39-year-old human rights lawyer Yasmine Taeb, has been aggressive in painting Saslaw as too conservative and too cozy with special interests.
Hanger was key in getting Medicaid expansion passed in Virginia last year, even defeating his own party’s plan to derail the effort during one committee hearing. His opponent, Tina Freitas, said Hanger has betrayed his constituents by supporting Medicaid and said he’s not conservative enough on guns or abortion. The state’s hospitals have spent heavily to help Hanger hold on to the GOP nomination.
Similarly themed races are playing out in other parts of the state. Republican Del. Bob Thomas, who also voted for Medicaid expansion, is trying to hold on to this Fredericksburg-area seat.
And Del. Lee Carter, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who was one of the biggest surprise winners in 2017, is trying to fend off a more moderate primary opponent.
Tuesday’s vote will also determine if one of Virginia’s most colorful politicians can make a comeback. Joe Morrissey, a former state lawmaker who used to spend his days at the state Capitol and his nights in jail after being accused of having sex with his teenage secretary, is looking to unseat incumbent Sen. Roslyn Dance in a Richmond-area Democratic primary.
There’s also plenty of local action in some of the state’s biggest counties. In Fairfax County, multiple candidates are running for the Democratic nomination to lead the Board of Supervisors. And two prosecutors’ races in northern Virginia have been flooded with cash from a political action committee financed by liberal billionaire George Soros on behalf of two challengers say they want to implement criminal justice reforms to make the system fairer to those accused.