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What Virginia’s primaries mean for Democrats and Republicans

Poeple mark ballots in their own cubicle
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
People vote at a precinct on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in Chesterfield County.

Redistricting has added a level of uncertainty to the commonwealth’s off-year primaries.

Virginia’s June legislative primaries are off to a busy start: Trash-talking flyers clog mailboxes, brash TV ads have begun appearing in local markets and special interest groups have already invested millions of dollars in their preferred candidates.

It’s the result of a once-in-a-decade redistricting process that forced incumbents into new territories, and occasionally, against each other.

The primaries will be a reset for both parties according to Rich Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College.

“It's going to end the political careers and really show the strengths of … some candidates,” Meagher said.

For Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the nominating contents represent an opportunity to help shape a field of candidates who can ultimately be successful in the November general election and give him the power to enact his agenda, according to former Virginia GOP chairperson John Whitbeck. Youngkin’s move to endorse candidates in six competitive contests angered some party activists — and at least one GOP candidate — but Whitbeck said it was a smart call.

“We don't have the luxury anymore of having internal fights in the Republican Party of Virginia, because this is a light blue state,” Whitbeck said. “We were basically heading towards being a permanently blue state, and he saved the party. And now he's trying to save the agenda.”

Candidates from both parties have largely stuck to their bases’ views on contentious issues. At a forum hosted by the Virginia Citizen Defense League in March, for example, former GOP state Sen. Glen Sturtevant — previously a swing vote on some hot-button issues — walked back his prior vote for Virginia’s red flag law, calling it “a mistake,” according to the Virginia Mercury. Sturtevant and his opponents — Sen. Amanda Chase (R–Chesterfield) and Tina Ramirez, a religious freedom advocate — all backed removing restrictions on fully automatic machine guns.

Democrats lack a central power broker like Youngkin, though former Gov. Ralph Northam has endorsed candidates in some contests and top lawmakers in both chambers are donating funds to incumbents.

Several veteran Senate Democrats — including state Sens. Chap Petersen (D–Fairfax), Dave Marsden (D–Fairfax), Joe Morrissey (D–Richmond), George Barker (D–Fairfax) and Creigh Deeds (D–Charlottesville) — face challengers who’ve cast themselves as fresher, more progressive voices that better reflect districts. But Petersen, Marsden, Barker and Deeds all currently enjoy a cash advantage and the incumbents broadly point to a track record of legislative wins they say their challengers can’t match.

Democrats also differ in where they’re raising funds. Dominion Energy and Clean Virginia (a group that aims to counter the company’s influence in Richmond) have each spent more than $1 million so far this year on candidates. Youngkin’s fundraising arm pulled in nearly $3 million last quarter, and other national groups are likely to enter races after the primaries.

Despite the contentious races, former Del. Jay Jones — a likely candidate for attorney general in 2025 — said Democrats will unify behind a simple message after the primaries: “I think it's abortion, abortion, abortion.”

“That is going to be the biggest and most animating factor going into the fall,” Jones said, predicting it would draw voters to the Democratic candidates.

Whitbeck said Republicans would probably focus on drawing attention to what he claimed was a “woke agenda” in schools.

Meagher said the intense primaries would likely continue a national trend of deep partisan entrenchment.

“Parties in states and Virginia included, have become more partisan, more leaning into their ideological differences, less likely to work across the aisle,” he said. “And I think that will continue.”

Virginia’s primary election is on Tuesday, June 20; early voting lasts through Saturday, June 17.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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