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Virginia Primary Preview: 10 General Assembly contests to watch Tuesday

Virginia Mercury

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Graham Moomaw

In Tuesday’s General Assembly primaries, Virginia voters will decide how much bigger this year’s retirement wave should get.

The first legislative election cycle since the 2021 redistricting process has created an unusually busy primary calendar, with numerous incumbents facing challengers and several sitting lawmakers looking to move up to a bigger role within their respective parties.

The primaries aren’t expected to make or break either party’s chances of winning control of the state Senate and House of Delegates in November. The results will be an indicator of the electorate’s mood heading into an important general election season with partisan control of the statehouse up for grabs.

Democrats will have the busier day Tuesday because the party has more contested races than the GOP. Taken as a whole, the Democratic primaries will determine whether more than a half-dozen experienced Democratic senators return or are replaced by a group of younger, more progressive candidates running on themes of generational change and bolder leadership.

On the Republican side, Tuesday’s contests will show how much clout Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s endorsements carry and whether the conservative base still has a strong appetite for anti-establishment candidates eager to do battle with GOP leadership.

Here’s a rundown of 10 races to watch when polls close Tuesday evening.

Senate District 13: Sen. Joe Morrissey vs. Lashrecse Aird

Abortion has been the dominant theme in this matchup between Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, one of the most polarizing but durable figures in Democratic politics, and Lashrecse Aird, a former state delegate looking to make a high-profile return to the statehouse after narrowly losing her seat in 2021.

In a race playing out in Petersburg and the Richmond suburbs, Aird has tried to paint Morrissey as too controversial and too untrustworthy on abortion, pointing to his frequent comments calling himself “pro-life” and support for abortion restrictions based on fetal development. Aird is getting help from numerous Democratic senators, particularly women, who have taken the unusual step of publicly supporting the ouster of a colleague. With Republicans pushing for more restrictive abortion laws after the fall of Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights advocates argue Morrissey’s wobbliness in the Democratic-controlled Senate is too risky to tolerate.

Morrissey, a former criminal defense lawyer disbarred after numerous ethical violations, is notoriously difficult to beat. That’s largely due to the loyal following he’s built around his “Fightin’ Joe” image and promises to fiercely advocate for marginalized people and communities. Morrissey has said abortion isn’t as dominant an issue as some may think and has suggested it’s Aird who’s out of step with voters’ more complicated views on late-term abortion.

While Morrissey’s aggressive demeanor may be part of the attraction for his base, it’s a turnoff for others who see him as unfit for public office. Voters got a recent reminder of Morrissey’s most high-profile scandal when his former teenaged receptionist turned wife, Myrna, accused him of abuse and filed for divorce. Morrissey, who served jail time over his relationship with Myrna but bounced back by portraying himself as a devoted family man, denied her claims.

Senate District 12: Sen. Amanda Chase vs. Glen Sturtevant vs. Tina Ramirez

Two years after hard-right Sen. Amanda Chase was formally censured by the Senate for making comments supportive of the Jan. 6 MAGA protest that turned into a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, Republican voters in Chesterfield County and Colonial Heights will decide whether to send her back for four more years or send her home.

After kicking Chase out of the Senate Republican Caucus, GOP leaders are hoping to replace her with onetime caucus member Glen Sturtevant. A lawyer and former Richmond School Board member with an occasional moderate streak, Sturtevant lost a swing-district Senate seat four years ago after serving a single term. He’s now reintroducing himself as a staunch conservative as he attempts a comeback in a redder district.

Chase, one of the Trumpiest figures in Virginia politics, known for packing a pistol and spreading conspiracy theories about election fraud, finished third in the GOP’s 2021 gubernatorial convention.

A wild card in the contest is Tina Ramirez, a nonprofit leader and former congressional candidate who has raised more than half a million dollars for her campaign despite lacking the General Assembly experience of her two other competitors.

The district leans solidly Republican, but a Chase win could slightly lower the party’s outlook for keeping the seat due to her more limited general election appeal.

Senate District 18: Sen. Louise Lucas vs. Sen. Lionell Spruill

The only head-to-head primary featuring two sitting state senators is a bruising battle of wills between Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake.

The 2021 redistricting process led to dozens of General Assembly incumbents being drawn into the same district. In most other cases, a lawmaker either moved or retired to avoid the unpleasantry of a primary fight with a neighbor from their own party.

That wasn’t the case for Lucas and Spruill, who stayed on a collision course that will leave the loser thrown from office involuntarily.

The result could affect the tone and power dynamics among Senate Democrats. Lucas has clashed with several Northern Virginia Democrats during the primary, accusing them of trying to deny her — and, by extension, the Hampton Roads region — a chance to lead the Senate’s powerful budget-writing committee. Lucas has also built a large Twitter following by being sharply critical of Youngkin, while the less online Spruill cuts a more moderate figure and talks up his ability to work across the aisle.

Senate District 33: Jennifer Carroll Foy vs. Hala Ayala

As two members of the sizable class of Democrats elected to the House in 2017’s blue wave, both Jennifer Carroll Foy and Hala Ayala took a shot at higher office in 2021. They came up short, and both had to forfeit their House seats. But the winner of their Northern Virginia primary will be a heavy favorite to ascend to the Senate next year representing a new district in Prince William County.

Carroll Foy finished a distant second to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the 2021 Democratic primary after running as a progressive outsider. Due partly to friendlier relations with the party establishment, Ayala beat five other candidates in 2021 to become the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor. She lost in the general election to current Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears.

The Ayala vs. Carroll Foy primary is perhaps the most high-profile proxy battle between Dominion Energy, the politically influential power company, and anti-Dominion group Clean Virginia, which donates to candidates who swear off Dominion donations. In the most recent fundraising period, Carroll Foy received $300,000 from the Clean Virginia Fund, while Ayala got $100,000 from Dominion.

Ayala has endorsements from McAuliffe and former Gov. Ralph Northam, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. Carroll Foy is backed by current House Majority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, and a variety of organized labor groups.

Senate District 36: Sen. George Barker vs. Stella Pekarsky

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, is facing a stiff challenge from Fairfax County School Board member Stella Pekarsky in a redrawn district that’s mostly new territory for the incumbent.

Running on seniority and experience, Barker has said he’s likely to play a more prominent role on the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee if reelected, enhancing his ability to deliver results for his constituents and his region. His younger challenger, his ads suggest, can’t measure up.

Pekarsky is portraying herself as a fresh face and “a strong Democrat to fight Youngkin” and has attacked Barker as overly reliant on special-interest money and too mild-mannered.

Dominion is backing Barker. Clean Virginia is supporting Pekarsky.

House District 47: Del. Marie March vs. Del. Wren Williams

Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, got into the General Assembly by criticizing a longtime Republican lawmaker for not being vocal enough in support of former President Donald Trump’s election fraud claims.

Del. Marie March, R-Floyd, has made it clear she didn’t come to Richmond to make friends with the GOP establishment and has accused her own party of killing every bill she files out of pure spite.

Only one of the two legislators will be left standing after redistricting put them in the same strongly Republican Southwest Virginia district.

House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, a frequent target of March’s ire over what she sees as stifling, top-down leadership, is backing Williams in the contest.

Williams is portraying himself as the more effective legislator in the race, while March is touting her willingness to fight for the most unyielding conservative policies, like a total ban on abortion, even if it gets her into trouble.

Senate District 29: Sen. Jeremy McPike vs. Del. Elizabeth Guzman

Another member of the 2017 House Democratic class who took an unsuccessful shot at statewide office in 2021, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, is challenging Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, the director of general services for the city of Alexandria.

A Peruvian immigrant and social worker, Guzman was one of the few elected Virginia Democrats to back Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary. She sought the nomination for lieutenant governor in 2021, but dropped out before the primary to keep her seat in the House. Guzman has run ads saying the Senate needs more women to protect abortion rights.

McPike, who has served in the Senate since 2016, is running campaign ads leaning into his status as a volunteer firefighter, saying he’s putting out fires “set by Republicans in Richmond” over health care, gun laws and abortion.

Senate District 17: Del. Emily Brewer vs. Hermie Sadler

Youngkin is backing Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, in an important GOP primary for an open Senate seat stretching from Southside Virginia to Hampton Roads.

Brewer’s primary opponent is Hermie Sadler, a former NASCAR driver and truck stop owner who has recently been on a crusade to fight Virginia’s effort to ban so-called skill machines, the slots-like games he and many other business owners have installed in convenience stores and sports bars.

Brewer, who has become a leading voice in the House GOP for tougher restrictions on abortion, is largely running on her legislative record and support from party leaders. Embracing outsider status, Sadler has portrayed Brewer as egregiously moderate.

The nominating method in the district stirred drama earlier this year when a Republican activist sued the state and accused the Youngkin administration of improperly meddling in the race by switching the method from a government-run primary to a party-controlled convention. A judge ruled the state had overstepped its authority and ordered a primary, the method preferred by Sadler’s camp.

The district leans Republican but could become competitive in a strong Democratic year.

Senate District 11: Sen. Creigh Deeds vs. Del. Sally Hudson

Longtime Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, is being challenged by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, in a race that also pits seniority and experience against an emerging progressive voice in the party.

Hudson, an economics professor at the University of Virginia, has gone after Deeds’ voting record on guns, pointing out his opposition to some gun control measures in the past and more recent reluctance to pass an assault weapons ban when Democrats had full control of the legislature in 2021. Deeds, whose former district had a rural feel before it was redrawn to center more tightly on deep-blue Charlottesville, has argued his views have evolved over time. In the most recent session, he sponsored an unsuccessful, less sweeping gun bill that would have banned future sales of assault-style firearms without criminalizing existing ones.

Though Hudson is seen as an up-and-comer, many Democrats have rallied behind Deeds, pointing to his work to reform the state’s mental health system after a 2013 family tragedy in which Deeds’ mentally ill son attacked the senator and later died by suicide.

Senate District 35: Sen. Dave Marsden vs. Heidi Drauschak

In another Northern Virginia contest, Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, is being challenged by Heidi Drauschak, a much younger activist campaigning against the “same old boys club.”

Drauschak, who founded a nonprofit focused on campaign finance reform and fighting corruption, has put up strong fundraising numbers signaling a competitive race, with much of her funding coming from Clean Virginia.

Marsden, a former director of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice who has served in the Senate since 2010, has endorsements from top Northern Virginia Democrats like Saslaw, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

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