Scandal-plagued former state Del. Joe Morrissey, who won his last election while serving a jail sentence on a sex charge, toppled a long-serving Democratic senator in Virginia’s primaries Tuesday, which saw upsets — and near upsets — on both sides of the aisle.
Voters around the state sent mixed messages, voting out a Republican delegate for not being conservative enough in a purple district but backing a moderate Republican who faced similar attacks in his deep-red Senate district to the west. On the Democratic side, Sen. Dick Saslaw, the corporate-friendly minority leader in the Senate, only narrowly held onto his seat in the face of an aggressive, progressive challenge despite outspending her by nearly 10 to one.
And then there’s Morrissey, who rolled up wide margins over Sen. Rosalyn Dance, winning by 10 percentage points and even trouncing her on her own turf in Petersburg, where she once served as mayor.
In the heavily Democratic district, the primary victory means he’s likely to cruise to election in November.
Morrissey’s supporters are well aware of his legal troubles, which have made him into a minor local celebrity and go back to 1992 when he was the chief prosecutor in Richmond and served a five-day jail sentence after getting into a courthouse fistfight with an opposing attorney.
Since then, he’s been disbarred twice (he’s appealing the most recent suspension of his law license) and was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor following an investigation into his relationship with his 17-year-old secretary, who he has since married. Because a judge granted him work release, he was able to campaign for reelection to the House of Delegates while serving a three-month jail sentence and, after his victory, commute to the General Assembly to participate in floor sessions.
Aside from different positions on abortion – Morrissey calls himself a “pro-life Democrat” — the campaign had less to do with policy and political differences between the candidates and more to do with personality and style. And many voters in the district said they like Morrissey – warts and all.
“Joe has always been a fighter,” said retiree Lawrence Howell after casting his ballot in Richmond. “He’s had some slip ups, but I don’t fault him for that. Everyone learns from their mistakes.”
A Republican delegate falls to a challenge from the right
The other big upset of the night came via Republican voters in the Fredericksburg-area, where former Stafford County Supervisor Paul Milde beat Del. Bob Thomas.
The race was tight – Milde won by 143 votes, giving him a 2 point margin.
Thomas was one of two-dozen Republican lawmakers to vote with Democrats to expand Medicaid last year – a still contentious issue within the party.
But as the campaign played out, the issue took a backseat to debate over whether Thomas had done enough to oppose abortion during his two years in office. Milde attacked Thomas for supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, which some Republicans view as a way to sneak abortion into the Constitution, and for voting for a budget that sent money to Planned Parenthood to pay for long-acting contraception for low income women.
Thomas went on the offensive, endorsing restrictive abortion legislation passed in Georgia and flagging Milde’s criminal history, which included charges in 1992 in connection to the attempted burglary of a Foot Locker in Fairfax County.
But Milde’s attacks appeared to resonate with voters, several of whom said Tuesday that they were voting for Milde because they considered him the “pro-life candidate.”
Voters also said they appreciated his service on the Board of Supervisors and disliked Thomas’ decision to air the details of the old burglary charge.
“He’s helped this county a bunch,” said Lenny Baird, a 47-year-old contractor. “And I don’t like all this dirt slinging.”
It’s unclear how Milde’s more conservative posture will play in the general election, which the party won in 2017 by the narrowest of margins.
A rural Republican holds onto the center
Similar attacks to the west – minus the criminal stuff – failed to make a much of a dent in the campaign of Sen. Emmett Hanger, a Republican who has represented the Augusta-anchored district since 1996.
Tina Freitas, the wife of Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, accused Hanger of being too soft on abortion and criticized his vote opposing legislation that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons without a permit, making her point by posting campaign videos to Facebook that featured her wearing and firing a range of guns while making cracks about offending “snowflakes.”
Hanger is known for periodically bucking his party to partner with Democrats, particularly when funding for education and social services is on the table.
Unlike Thomas, Hanger didn’t budge when Freitas said she’d back legislation passed by Alabama banning most abortions, saying he couldn’t support restrictions without exceptions for rape and incest. He also stood by his vote to maintain the existing concealed weapons permitting system, saying law enforcement groups backed his position, even if he was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the bill.
And despite Freitas winning a range of endorsements from Republican heavy hitters, including one of Hanger’s Senate colleagues, Hanger easily held onto his seat (taking 57 percent of the vote) despite accusations he wasn’t sufficiently conservative for his district.
His victory in the heavily-Republican district all but assures his election in November. At his election-night party, he wrote off the attacks as smears as he thanked his supporters for standing by him.
“It really has been a draining exercise, but that’s just part of politics,” he said.
A Democratic giant narrowly fends off a progressive hopeful in Northern Virginia
Saslaw, the Senate minority leader, held onto his seat – and his leadership post — in a race against a progressive human rights lawyer that was far closer than many predicted.
Yasmine Taeb, making her first run for office, swore off corporate campaign contributions, endorsed universal health care and backed a Green New Deal for Virginia.
She criticized Saslaw for his chummy relationship with the state’s largest utility, Dominion Energy, and other corporate interests.
Saslaw swung back hard, saying he wouldn’t apologize for taking corporate donations and painting Taeb as too extreme, criticizing her for supporting demilitarizing police departments and energy policies he said would lead to “us being without electricity for 16 hours a day.”
In the end, Taeb came within roughly 500 votes and about 3 percentage points of unseating Saslaw. (A third candidate, lawyer Karen Torrent, took more than 5.6 percent of the vote)
Taeb’s supporters said at the polls they liked her willingness to tackle big issues like climate change.
“He’s been in the state Senate for a long time and we need to send him a message that he needs to at least listen to her ideas,” said David Traub, a 39-year-old high school teacher.
But Saslaw’s supporters said even if they didn’t always agree with him, he’s been a reliable representative of the district. And his seniority at a moment when Democrats have an opportunity to take back control of the House and Senate wasn’t lost on them.
“If they win the Senate, he’ll be the head of it — Northern Virginia gets its due then,” Rebecca McMurry, a financial officer at a local company, said as she left her polling place.