The Most Interesting Results From Virginia’s Legislative Primaries and What They Mean

Former Virginia State Delegate Lashrecse Aird, right, talks with Surry County Democratic chair Earrett Parson as she visits a polling precinct Tuesday, June 20, 2023, in Surry, Va. Aird is running against Virginia State Sen. Joe Morrissey in a Democratic primary for a newly redrawn Senate district. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By Carolyn Fiddler

June 23, 2023

Voters across the state went to the polls on Tuesday to select their party’s candidates for this fall’s General Assembly elections. Here’s what we know about the outcomes of those races and their significance in the broader political landscape.

This week finally put the Old Dominion’s primary contests in the rear view mirror, which is a landmark event in and of itself, but this year’s nomination battles produced some pretty spicy results in some places. Let’s take a look at the biggest takeaways.

Last-Remaining Anti-Reproductive Freedom Democratic Senator Ousted

Dogwood has already written a bit about Virginia’s highest-profile primary, which was in Senate District 13. Former Del. Lashrecse Aird – who served three terms and then lost reelection in the Youngkin-led red burp of 2021 – took on the scandal-plagued one-term state senator and former delegate Joe Morrissey, who also happens to be the last anti-abortion Democrat in the General Assembly.

While Morrissey often lived his life as though the rules that govern society generally don’t apply to him, the rules that govern elections do apply to him, so barring a last-minute filing as an independent candidate or a wildly successful write-in campaign, Morrissey is meaningfully out of politics at least for now.

And Aird didn’t just win the Senate District 13 primary on Tuesday; she annihilated Morrissey by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

This is remarkable not because Morrissey is awful, but because of the issue Aird focused on in the primary: reproductive freedom.

Aird used Morrissey’s own past statements about his opposition to abortion and made “Roe Not Joe” the centerpiece of her campaign, demonstrating once again that reproductive freedom motivates Democratic voters.

SD13 is heavily Democratic, so Aird is virtually guaranteed to represent it in the Senate next year.

Longtime Legislator Deeds Holds Off Challenge

Charlottesville-area Senate District 11 was home to another high-profile Democratic contest. Del. Sally Hudson challenged Sen. Creigh Deeds for the nomination here, although there’s not a ton of daylight between the two on actual issues.

Deeds has served in the General Assembly for more than three decades, while Hudson, who’s also an economics professor at UVA, was first elected to the House in 2019.

Hudson attempted to turn Deeds’ long career into a liability, dragging up past pro-gun votes (he used to represent a far more rural House district) and a 2009 A rating from the NRA.

Deeds freely admits that his position on gun safety issues has evolved, particularly since the tragic 2013 death of his son by suicide (Deeds nearly died after his son stabbed him more than 10 times before shooting himself with a rifle).

He’s been a staunchly pro-gun safety lawmaker for many years now – and sufficiently so that he won the endorsement of Gabby Giffords’ gun safety organization in this primary and has been designated a “Gun Sense Candidate” by Moms Demand Action.

Deeds won the primary 51-49%, and SD 11 is sufficiently blue that Deeds has a fairly open path to victory in November. 

Other Close Democratic Contests

Hampton Roads-area Senate District 18 saw a primary matchup between two Democratic heavyweights. Redistricting drew Sens. Louise Lucas and Lionell Spruill into the same seat, and both longtime lawmakers fought hard to win the nomination.

Both Black legislators overcame profound systemic disadvantages in segregated southeastern Virginia to reach the state Capitol in the 1990s, and both are political powerhouses in their own rights.

The tenor of their campaign, it could be said, reflected their political passion and strong personalities, as billboards, mailers, and brutal TV ads blanketed the district.

Lucas ultimately prevailed 52-47%, and she’ll no doubt return to the Senate in this deeply Democratic district.

Virginia’s Democratic Senate primaries saw several interesting upsets.

In Senate District 36, Sen. George Barker was challenged by Fairfax County school board member Stella Pekarsky..

Barker, who’s served in the state Senate since 2008, ran on his record of bringing resources and economic development home to Northern Virginia, while Pekarsky leaned hard into her experience with education, community ties, and progressive stances on issues like gun safety and reproductive rights.

Pekarsky bested Barker to win the nomination 52-48%. SD36 is sufficiently blue that Pekarsky is heavily favored to win the seat in November.

NOVA Democrats Back Progressive Challenger

The biggest Democratic upset of the night was also in Northern Virginia – in Senate District 37, specifically, where first-time candidate Saddam Salim scored a solid victory over Sen. Chap Petersen.

Petersen’s 20ish years in the General Assembly span both the state House and Senate, and he appeared to relish becoming something of a thorn in progressives’ sides, most recently by publicly rebuking then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s COVID-related executive orders intended to keep Virginians safe, voting against a high-profile gun safety measure in the legislature, and advocating for a notoriously predatory towing company that operates in Northern Virginia.

Salim is the first Bangladeshi-American ever nominated by Democrats for a Virginia Senate seat. His campaign was described as “long-shot” and “underfunded,” but Virginia Democratic voters appear increasingly hostile to candidates that don’t share their progressive values – as reflected by the 54-46% drubbing Salim delivered to Petersen this week.

Salim will likely prevail in November in this solidly blue seat.

Republicans Move Further Right To Prevail In Primaries

While Virginia’s Democratic Senate primaries resulted in nominees – especially in Northern Virginia – that are more in tune with the party’s increasing progressivism, the most contentious Republican Senate primary appeared to steer that party somewhat away from the Trump-inspired, culture war extremism that’s come to define GOP on the national level – but it actually did no such thing.

The most-watched GOP Senate primary was in Senate District 12, which includes suburbs to the south of Richmond, where self-described “Trump in heels” Sen. Amanda Chase lost in a hotly contested three-way race.

Chase has made news over the past several years for all the wrong reasons, finally culminating in a full divorce from the Republican Senate Caucus.

Tina Ramirez is a single mom, nonprofit leader, and failed congressional candidate who “can be as outspoken as Chase” in her support of Trump. 

Both candidates lost to Glen Sturtevant, a former one-term state senator, who defeated Chase just 39-38%.

Virginia Republicans rushed to paint this outcome as evidence that GOPers in the commonwealth are moving “to the middle,” while Democrats lurch to the left, but this primary doesn’t actually provide evidence of that.

To scrape out his slim win in this three-way race, Sturtevant had to tack hard to the right. His past votes supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and a “red flag” gun safety bill became fodder for attacks from his opponents; he actually fully flip-flopped on his vote to keep firearms out of the hands of people who pose a danger to themselves or others, calling it a “mistake.”

Sturtevant also benefited from the endorsement of several of Chase’s fellow Senate Republicans, who have not been shy about their distaste for her tactics and demeanor.

But no General Assembly Republican has indicated any fundamental disagreement with Chase’s policy positions, and Sturtevant essentially had to adopt her far-right stances to (barely) win the primary.

What Virginia Republicans did do this week was rid themselves of a noisome, MAGA-loving grandstander; what they did not do was move anywhere closer to the political “center.”

The fact that Sturtevant had to remake himself as an extremist conservative indicates that the Old Dominion GOP is actually moving ever further to the right – and away from the majority of Virginians, particularly on issues like reproductive rights.

Virginia’s House primaries didn’t bring as much drama or as many upsets as their Senate counterparts. These contests saw just one incumbent-on-incumbent race: Wren Williams vs. Marie March in House District 47

These two first-term Republicans ended up vying to represent the same seat after the redistricting dust settled, resulting in a race pitting Virginia’s two most right-wing, MAGA-tastic lawmakers against each other.

Williams attained extremist credibility by becoming part of the Trump legal team that challenged Biden’s victory in Wisconsin; March earned her extremist bona fides by being in Washington, DC, on Jan. 6, 2021 (although she denies actually invading the U.S. Capitol building).

Although they arrived in the General Assembly with similar political philosophies, Williams adapted to the GOP’s boys club far more successfully than March, who dedicated herself to living up to her reputation as an anti-establishment candidate; meanwhile, Williams began to occasionally set aside his “conservative convictions” to get legislation passed. Williams also garnered the extremely establishment endorsement of Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert, and he swamped March in fundraising.

While his policy stances are no less extreme than March’s, Williams is the lawmaker who will be returning to the House of Delegates this fall. He trounced March 67-33% in a contest tantamount to a general election in this heavily Republican district. 

Close And Uncalled Races

For a few primary candidates, though, the race isn’t over quite yet.

Final calls have yet to be made in two Democratic House primaries, one Democratic Senate primary, and one Republican Senate primary.

Interestingly, the uncalled Senate primaries are for the same seat: Senate District 29.

Both primaries will likely be decided by about 700 outstanding mail-in ballots and 250 or so provisional ballots, which won’t be counted until Saturday, June 24.

This Northern Virginia-area district leans fairly blue, so the outcome of the contest between Democratic Sen. Jeremy McPike and former Del. Elizabeth Guzman is the one to keep a closer eye on.

The outstanding Democratic House primaries are in HDs 19 and 96.

The winner of the HD-19 primary will likely win in November; HD-96 leans pretty solidly Democratic, too (also the Republican candidate has raised literally no money).

The (Republican) Candidates Already Selected

You may have noticed that there were more contested Democratic primary contests than Republican, and you were correct to do so.

Many GOP nominating contests have already been decided through other, markedly less-democratic means: specifically, firehouse primaries and conventions. 

These types of contests typically draw a fraction of the electorate that state-run primaries turn out; conventions require voters to congregate at a single location for hours, and voters in firehouse primaries must cast ballots within a limited time window (as opposed to the 13 hours polls are open on election day) and are required to do so at only a few locations across a district. 

And when selecting a candidate becomes difficult, fewer people will participate in the process.

Republicans held local conventions in four House seats and one Senate seat, and they opted for firehouse primaries (sometimes also referred to as a “mass canvass” or “unassembled caucus”) in two House districts and two Senate districts.

Democrats across Virginia fully eschewed these less democratic nominating methods and instead had their voters select the party’s nominees in seats with more than one Dem candidate in this week’s primaries. 

As mentioned above, Republicans are attempting to spin the primaries as evidence of the GOP moving to the middle while Democrats veer to the left; these discussions conveniently omit mention of the right-wing GOPers party activists had already selected.

Interested in full Virginia primary results? You can find the full list of Senate contests here and House contests here.

  • Carolyn Fiddler

    Carolyn Fiddler is Dogwood's chief political correspondent. She is also the nation’s foremost expert in state politics with almost two decades of experience in statehouse machinations, and her comic book collection is probably bigger than yours.

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