Feisty Virginia primaries closely watched for national trend

Published: Jun. 11, 2019 at 11:47 AM EDT
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Voting in primary elections began Tuesday in Virginia, where off-year contests for all 140 seats in the state legislature could serve as a political barometer for the coming presidential election year.

The state's elections in 2017 were an early warning signal that a blue wave of opposition to President Donald Trump would wash over the 2018 U.S. midterms, and political analysts are looking for clues about 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, 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 to expand Medicaid in Virginia is fueling divisive primary contests. Among Democrats, many 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 hope they can continue a three-year winning streak, powered largely by suburban voters unhappy with Trump and 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, after calling for Northam to resign, revealed that he too wore blackface once in college.

Asked about the Northam scandal, several voters said they were ready to move on from it.

"God says, 'If you can't forgive your brother, how can I forgive you?' You've got to learn to forgive," said Gail Parker-Coefield, a 65-year-old home health nurse who cast her ballot in Virginia Beach. The African American voter chose state Senate candidate Cheryl Turpin, who is currently a state delegate.

Threatened incumbents include two of Virginia's most powerful senators, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw and Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger.

Saslaw, who is ardently pro-business and chummy with Republicans, hasn't faced a primary challenger in 40 years. This year he has two. And one of them, 39-year-old human rights lawyer Yasmine Taeb, has painted Saslaw as too conservative and too cozy with special interests.

Hanger played a key role in the health care expansion that made 400,000 low-income Virginia adults eligible to enroll in Medicaid last year. His opponent, Tina Freitas, said Hanger has betrayed his constituents by supporting Medicaid, and isn't conservative enough on guns or abortion. The state's hospitals have spent heavily to help Hanger hold on to the GOP nomination.

Similar themes are playing out around the state. Republican Del. Bob Thomas also voted for Medicaid expansion and is trying to hold on to his Fredericksburg-area seat.

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 opponent.

Tuesday's vote also featured a comeback attempt by Joe Morrissey, 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. He's looking to unseat incumbent Sen. Roslyn Dance in a Richmond-area Democratic primary.

Voter Bella Weinstein, a 31-year old prop stylist and clothing designer, said it was easy for her to choose Dance. She cited Morrissey's checkered past and doesn't believe he's honest.

Dance "just seems like she's a decent person and cares about the people she represents," Weinstein said.

She also said she doesn't believe that Dance's decision to align herself with Northam will hurt her, despite the blackface scandal.

"I'm against what he did. I'm hoping it doesn't represent who he is today," she said of Northam. "Our president is a pretty good example of people having a pretty short-term memory. I don't think it will hurt her (Dance). I think she's trying to protect the party."

There was also plenty of local action. In Fairfax County, multiple candidates were 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 who want to make the criminal justice system fairer to the accused.


Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie in Richmond and Ben Finley in Virginia Beach contributed to this report.