Tina Freitas stood in a field wearing a jumbo-sized handgun on her hip as she ripped into her Republican primary opponent, Sen. Emmett Hanger, for voting against a bill this year that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
“In Virginia, we have what we call open carry, which means if you wear your gun like this, you’re fine — minus all the snowflakes you might offend,” Freitas, of Culpeper County, said in the campaign video.
She then lifted her blouse to reveal a much smaller gun tucked into her waistband.
“But the moment you wear your gun like this, now you’re either breaking the law or you have to jump through a whole bunch of government hoops in order to exercise your constitutional rights,” she said, noting Hanger was the only Republican in the Senate to oppose the legislation, which supporters call “constitutional carry.”
Freitas is one of three GOP candidates in this year’s General Assembly nomination contests hoping to knock off a sitting member of their own party with a challenge from the right.
The races were touched off in part by the incumbents’ support of Medicaid expansion last year – a schism within the GOP last year that saw two dozen members of the party partner with Democrats to pass the measure after years of resistance. But as the campaigns have played out, debate over health care has taken a backseat to issues like gun rights, abortion and, in some cases, personality and style.
Abortion and guns animate Republican primaries
Over in Stafford County, former supervisor Paul Milde has derided Del. Bob Thomas as a phony Republican, photoshopping a tie-die shirt with Planned Parenthood and ERA buttons onto his opponent.
Among other things, Milde criticizes Thomas for supporting a budget that sent state money to Planned Parenthood to pay for long acting contraceptives for women who can’t afford them. Thomas, perhaps playing defense, later endorsed controversial abortion legislation in Georgia – a topic most sitting Republicans have actively avoided weighing in on.
“I’d love to see Virginia move that way but we have to have a governor who’s willing to sign these things so we have to make some progress in the next two years,” he told conservative radio host John Fredericks in a May interview.
Abortion has been a major theme in Freitas’ campaign, too.
‘She’s telling people that I want to take their guns and kill their babies’
Like Milde, she has attacked Hanger for supporting state funding for long acting contraceptives that ultimately went to Planned Parenthood. She also backs efforts in other states to restrict abortions, saying in an interview with Fredericks that she would vote for legislation passed in Alabama if it came across her desk. (She didn’t respond to an interview request from the Virginia Mercury.)
Freitas has raised the bulk of her money from a California libertarian who made a fortune running a tomato-packing business famous for operating without managers. The man is also a contributor to Freitas’ husband, Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, who drew attention in Conservative media circles last year for a fiery floor speech in support of gun rights that prompted members of the black caucus to walk off the floor.
This is not the first time Hanger has faced a primary opponent who has accused him of not being conservative enough. The folksy, 70-year-old real estate agent has represented the district since 1992 and is known for periodically bucking his party, particularly on votes to increase education and social services funding.
He says the Planned Parenthood attack is misleading – the health department, not the General Assembly, directed the money to the organization, which he says he doesn’t support. But he didn’t go as far as Freitas when pressed on his support for legislation to add additional restrictions to abortion access, saying he couldn’t support the law passed in Alabama without an exemption for victims of rape or incest.
He also sticks by his vote to maintain the existing permitting requirements to carry a concealed weapon, a system he says works fine and is supported by law enforcement groups.
“She’s telling people that I want to take their guns and kill their babies,” said Hanger, who has gone on the offensive, showering the district with mailers. “I really didn’t think that’s what we’d be talking about, but in this instance I can’t avoid some response.”
‘You’ll never see him riding around in a fire truck’
The fight over Medicaid has loomed largest in the suburban Richmond nomination contest between Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, and Hanover County Supervisor Scott Wyatt. Mired in a messy nomination fight that’s seen both candidates declare victory, it’s the only of the three races that won’t be decided in Tuesday’s primary.
Party insiders say Peace is facing more scrutiny on the issue than other incumbents in part because of a Facebook post he wrote comparing the legislation’s passage to the end of the state’s Massive Resistance to the desegregation of public school.
“Democrats can make those attacks, we don’t need them coming from within our party,” said one Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Wyatt’s supporters say that as he’s risen in the ranks of party leadership — he chairs the House’s General Laws Committee and sits on the budget committee — he’s grown distant from the district.
“You’ll never see him riding around in a fire truck during parades,” said Lou Green, a 62-year-old salesman from Hanover who says he’s put off by Peace’s country-club style and bow ties and, like many Wyatt supporters, questions whether Peace even lives in the district, noting that he owns property in Richmond’s tony West End and sends his children to private school.
Peace stands by his vote on Medicaid as the right move for his district, offered to a show a reporter his laundry to prove he lives in Hanover, and defended bow ties as the perfect neckwear for a fiscal conservative due to their lower cost. (Wyatt “probably doesn’t know how to tie one,” Peace quipped.)
His supporters didn’t comment on Peace’s fashion sense, but they do say they back his politics. One woman waiting in line to vote for him during the recent firehouse primary in the district said she supported his vote on Medicaid and has never had trouble getting a response when she’s contacted his office with an issue, question or comment. Another man, Jack Torza, a real estate agent, said he opposed Medicaid expansion but agrees with Peace on enough other issues that it wasn’t a deal breaker for him.
“He can vote his conviction,” Torza said.
A Democrat hopes for an AOC-style upset in Northern Virginia
On the Democratic side, Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, is campaigning aggressively in response to his first primary challenge since he won the seat in 1979.
His leading opponent, Yasmine Taeb, a 39-year-old human rights lawyer, has drawn comparisons to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her progressive platform and energetic campaign against a powerful, longstanding Democrat. (Karen Torrent, an attorney, is also running for the nomination but trails far behind in fundraising)
She supports a Green New Deal for Virginia, universal health care and has sworn off campaign money from corporate PACs, criticizing Saslaw for accepting millions in donations over the years from the state’s largest energy company, Dominion Energy and the payday loan industry.
During a debate in April, Saslaw wrote off Taeb and her platform as the latest “fashion statements” and asked voters to look at his results, citing his votes this year to increase teacher pay and legislation sought by Dominion that created a path for more solar and wind power.
He said he wouldn’t stop accepting money from corporations, saying it was “insulting to say I’m controlled by that.” On the Green New Deal, he echoed Republican attacks at the federal level, saying the plan is fine “if you don’t mind us being without electricity for 16 hours a day.”
He has also criticized Taeb for saying in a candidate survey that she supports taking heavy weaponry away from local police departments, telling The Washington Post in a statement that “many more lives could have been lost (in Virginia Beach) if they had to go back to their headquarters to get a gun.”
Taeb responded that Saslaw was mischaracterizing her position. “I’m talking about weapons of war and tanks being used against our citizens,” she told The Post.
Fist-fighting, disbarred former delegate tries for a comeback
Most of the other races that state Democrats will decide on Tuesday hinge more on the respective candidates’ personality, style and reputation than their policy positions, which in many cases are indistinguishable.
Among them is former Del. Joe Morrissey’s campaign to unseat Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg.
Morrissey made national headlines in 2015 for winning reelection to his House of Delegates seat while serving a jail sentence for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He also famously served a five-day jail sentence in the 1990s when, as the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, he got into a courthouse fistfight with a defense attorney.
He challenged Dance before as an independent candidate, but ultimately dropped out of the race. Since then, he made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Richmond, coming in third, and lost his law license following an investigation into statements he made while defending himself against the delinquency charge, which stemmed from a relationship with his then 17-year-old receptionist. The two have since married.
Morrissey’s supporters are not bothered by his past, the widespread news coverage of which has made him a local celebrity. His supporters often cite reputation as a vigorous criminal defense attorney who would stand up for low-income black clients. As a delegate, he was known for flamboyant stunts, which once included waving an assault rifle on the floor of House.
Dance, a former mayor of Petersburg, is one of the few Democrats leaning on Gov. Ralph Northam as she fights off the challenge, touting her seniority in the party and connections with the administration as an asset that, among other things, helped her secure funding to replace Central State Hospital.
In a dynamic not dissimilar to voters’ willingness to look past Morrissey’s past misdeeds, The Washington Post reports that Northam’s blackface scandal has not been a hindrance in the heavily African-American district.
“I think he is a good man,” Joseph Parham told a Post reporter. “Everybody deserves a chance.” The fact that Northam refused to resign “lets me know he ain’t no quitter. Nobody likes a quitter.”
Big bucks flow into local prosecutors races
Commonwealth’s attorney races rarely draw much attention, even in their respective districts.
But two Democratic candidates hoping to take down incumbent prosecutors in Fairfax and Arlington counties have attracted nearly $1 million in donations from a George Soros-funded PAC that promotes liberal criminal justice reforms.
In Fairfax, Steve T. Descano, a former federal prosecutor, is campaigning to unseat Raymond Morrogh, promising an end to cash bail and the death penalty in the county.
In Arlington, defense lawyer Parisa Dehghani-Tafti is challenging Theo Stamos, along similar grounds, promising bail reform and pledging not to prosecute low-level marijuana cases.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe has also weighed in on the race, endorsing both challengers on the grounds that the incumbents fought his effort to automate the process of restoring felons’ voting rights when they get out of prison.
“I just can’t fathom why Democratic commonwealth’s attorneys would try to stop a Democratic governor from doing the morally right thing,” McAuliffe told the Associated Press.
Stamos and Morrogh counter that they’ve made important contributions to improving the criminal justice system in their respective counties. Morrogh cited his implementation of open discovery rules. Stamos stressed her advocacy around issues such as lowering penalties for first time marijuana possession. She said she opposed McAuliffe’s approach to voting rights restorations because it would make it easier for felons to obtain their gun rights, too.
“Sometimes you have to take on a rich and powerful person like the governor of Virginia if you think what you’re doing is right,” Stamos told the AP.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include the candidacy of Karen Torrent, who is also running for the Democratic nomination for Senate District 35.