Controversial Virginia State Senators Ousted in Primary Election

June 21, 2023by Sarah Rankin, Associated Press
Controversial Virginia State Senators Ousted in Primary Election
James Cherry clicks his pen before filling out a ballot at the Green Spring Gardens polling station in Lincolnia, Va., on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (Photo by Minh Connors/The Washington Post via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A handful of Virginia incumbents prevailed over challengers in Tuesday’s primary election, but two of the state’s most controversial political figures — Democratic Sen. Joe Morrissey and Republican Sen. Amanda Chase — lost their party’s nomination, along with at least three more of their Senate colleagues.

Morrissey, a political centrist and increasingly rare Democrat who supports limits on abortion access, lost to former state legislator Lashrecse Aird, an unapologetic, “100%” supporter of abortion rights.

“Joe’s been here too long. It’s time for new blood,” said Gail Coleman, 62, who voted for Aird Tuesday afternoon in suburban Richmond.

Chase, a right-wing firebrand who has served in the Senate since 2016 and embraced falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election, was edged out by Glen Sturtevant, a lawyer and former member of the chamber seeking a political comeback in the red-leaning suburban Richmond district.

Dozens of other races took place around the state, including in some swing districts that will help determine the balance of power in the General Assembly in the November election. Virginia, where the Legislature 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.

Both parties and both chambers had competitive contests on the ballot, and an unusually high number of sitting officeholders faced 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 ran in almost entirely new districts.

The losses by Chase, Morrissey and their colleagues will add to the already lofty turnover.

In another high-profile race, Democrat L. Louise Lucas, a veteran legislator, knocked off another incumbent, fellow Sen. Lionell Spruill. The race in the heavily Democratic Hampton Roads seat was one of only two featuring current officeholders from the same chamber running against one another. It was marked by particularly sharp personal attacks lobbed on social media and in TV ads.

Lucas, who has served in the Senate since 1992, campaigned as a fighter. She donned boxing gloves in some ads, promising to take on Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“MOMMA SAID KNOCK YOU OUT!” she tweeted.

In northern Virginia, challengers upset at least two incumbents.

Saddam Salim, a first-generation immigrant and political activist, defeated moderate Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen.

Petersen, a lawyer, has angered the liberal wing of his party by joining with Republicans as a key vote in getting several of Youngkin’s priorities across the finish line, including legislation that ended school mask mandates last year.

Stella Pekarsky, a member of the Fairfax County School Board, beat Democratic Sen. George Barker, who has served in the Senate since 2008 and wields significant influence from his perch as co-chair of the chamber’s Finance and Appropriations Committee.

In a contentious Republican contest for a southwest Virginia House seat, freshman Del. Wren Williams defeated fellow Del. Marie March. In northern Virginia, former CIA officer Russet Perry secured the Democratic nomination in a Senate seat expected to be a key battleground in the general election.

Elsewhere, incumbents easily cruised past challengers. Democratic Sen. Lamont Bagby handily defeated Katie Gooch in a Richmond-area race, and Sen. Dave Marsden defeated Heidi Drauschak, who was backed by the big-spending advocacy group Clean Virginia.

In a Charlottesville-anchored seat, Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds fended off a spirited challenge from Sally Hudson, a member of the House of Delegates. Deeds, a respected advocate on mental health issues, campaigned as a pragmatic progressive, arguing that his experience and relationships in Richmond would be a boon to his constituents, an argument echoed by other incumbents.

Among Republicans, Chase was the only Senate incumbent to face a challenge Tuesday. She campaigned as a champion of gun rights and other conservative values. She also persistently repeated former President Donald Trump’s falsehoods about widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

Although Chase had campaigned with Youngkin after unsuccessfully seeking the party’s nomination for governor herself in 2021, Youngkin did not endorse her in the race. Nor did he wade into an eight-way Senate contest in the Shenandoah Valley won by farmer Timmy French.

But the night went especially well for other candidates the governor backed. All of the seven on the ballot Tuesday won their nomination contests. The three others in competitive races he backed had won party-run nominations earlier.

In the central Virginia Senate nomination contest with Morrissey, Aird was powered to victory with the help of an unusual number of legislators and members of the state’s congressional delegation who endorsed her. She also far outspent Morrissey, who ran a scrappy operation with no official campaign manager.

A disbarred attorney with a long history of personal and professional controversies, Morrissey identifies as “pro-life” but has long supported some abortion access. He has recently expressed a willingness to vote with Republicans to enact stricter limits.

Until this race, Morrissey had time and again overcome personal controversies to win elected office. As he campaigned for office this year, he faced allegations of mistreatment and physical abuse by his decades-younger estranged wife, which he strenuously denied.

Despite those headwinds, many observers were unwilling to count him out because of his long-established reputation as an effective grassroots campaigner who takes care of bread-and-butter issues for constituents. Morrissey conceded to Aird.

Aird, who works in higher education administration, will head into the general election season as the favorite in the blue leaning district south and east of Richmond.

A handful of other races were too early to call late Tuesday.

___

Associated Press photographer Steve Helber contributed to this report from Dinwiddie.

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