After primaries, Va. political leaders fire opening shots of 2023 general election fight

Tuesday’s packed slate of General Assembly primaries gave both parties a chance to preview their messages as they head deeper into an election year with full control of the legislature up for grabs.

By: - June 22, 2023 12:09 am

In Virginia’s 2023 primary contests, establishment-backed candidates mostly prevailed on the Republican side. Democrats saw more mixed results. (Graham Moomaw/The Virginia Mercury)

As the Virginia political world pivoted from primary season to November’s general elections, Republican leaders sought to portray the opposition as a battered party drifting further left while Democrats argued nothing can hide the extremism at the GOP’s core.

Tuesday’s packed slate of General Assembly primaries gave both parties a chance to preview their messages as they head deeper into an election year with full control of the legislature up for grabs. Establishment-backed candidates mostly prevailed on the Republican side. Democrats saw more mixed results, with multiple big-name incumbent senators falling to progressive challengers as others narrowly held onto their seats.

Aird tops Morrissey, Sturtevant beats Chase in wild Virginia primaries

That outcome gave Democrats a more complicated picture to explain, even as party leaders said they continue to feel momentum is on their side in the first cycle of full legislative elections since the fall of Roe v. Wade. Republicans, meanwhile, highlighted the fact that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s endorsees won big in contested primaries and sought to portray the state GOP as the more unified party.

Republicans had a 52-48 majority earlier this year in the House of Delegates, which now has several vacancies on both sides of the aisle due to resignations and people running for higher office. In the Senate, Democrats have a 22-18 majority, enabling them to block the most contentious Republican policy proposals. 

All 140 General Assembly seats are on the ballot in November. Depending on what voters decide, Republicans could take full legislative control, Democrats could further restrain Youngkin’s power by keeping the Senate and flipping the House, or a mixed result could continue the current dynamic of divided government.

In a post-primary memo released Wednesday, Youngkin political advisor Dave Rexrode said Virginia Democrats are emerging from the primary season “scattered and fighting amongst themselves” and under control of “the radical progressive left.”

“Gone are the reasonable Democrats who would put Virginia first,” Rexrode wrote. “They have been replaced with new nominees who would find like-minded comrades in the most liberal legislatures in the country.”

Democratic leaders scoffed at the notion that Tuesday’s results were a positive sign for Youngkin, whom they said continues to play to the GOP’s Trump base as he considers a run for president.

“That’s big talk coming from somebody’s who’s in Paris,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, referring to Youngkin’s absence from Virginia during Tuesday’s elections to attend the Paris Air Show, a high-profile aviation and space business conference.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said polls on abortion consistently show it’s Republicans leaning into extreme positions unsupported by most Virginians and Democrats working to protect fundamental rights.

“The reason that Glenn Youngkin is claiming to have an accomplishment is because he doesn’t have any accomplishments,” Surovell said. “He hasn’t accomplished anything in the last two years because he refuses to work with Democrats because he’s in the middle of a presidential beauty pageant.”

House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, pointed out Youngkin-backed contenders didn’t do nearly as well last year when the governor traveled the country to stump for GOP gubernatorial candidates. The fact that a governor can potentially sway races in his own state, Scott said, is “no surprise.”

“He’s the dang leader of the party, allegedly,” Scott said.

Both Surovell and Locke are considered contenders to lead the Senate Democratic Caucus heading into 2024 after a retirement surge that included Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, the longtime leader of the Senate Democrats.

Who might — and who won’t — be returning to the General Assembly next year

The coming departures for Senate Democrats rose significantly Tuesday after Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, lost to Fairfax County School Board member Stella Pekarsky and Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, was defeated by progressive challenger Saddam Azlan Salim.

In another marquee contest in the Richmond and Petersburg regions, Sen. Joe Morrissey lost to former delegate Lashrecse Aird in a race that Aird made a referendum on Morrissey’s self-described “pro-life” abortion views. Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, defeated Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, in a closely watched Hampton Roads primary.

Those results meant at least four incumbent Senate Democrats went down in defeat, with Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, hanging on to a thin lead in his race against Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, as ballot counting continued Wednesday.

Republicans have been quick to note the Democratic incumbents who lost fell to opponents running to their left. That trend didn’t hold up across the board, with Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, and Sen. Dave Mardsen, D-Fairfax, both withstanding well-funded progressive opponents. 

In GOP contests, candidates challenging the status quo didn’t fare well.

In a statement late Tuesday night, Senate GOP leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, pointedly noted that every Senate GOP incumbent on the ballot — a group that technically didn’t include defeated Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, due to her resignation from the caucus — prevailed on Tuesday.

“I am especially gratified that – in stark contrast to our Democrat colleagues – every member of the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus seeking reelection this year has been renominated,” Norment said. “Our senators are devoted to representing the needs of their respective districts and to advancing a positive conservative agenda.”

Chase lost a three-way race in the Richmond suburbs to former senator Glen Sturtevant, who was backed by Norment and others in the Senate GOP, but not Youngkin.

Surovell pointed to Youngkin’s lack of involvement in Chase’s race to push back on claims the governor is boldly remaking the Virginia GOP in his own winning image.

“This was a state senator who openly carried a firearm into our chamber on a regular basis and thought that was normal behavior. Who got censured by our caucus,” Surovell said. “And he couldn’t even bring himself to endorse against her for another senator who beat her handily last night.”

In other hotly contested GOP races, Youngkin-backed Dels. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight and Tara Durant, R-Fredericksburg, defeated outsider candidates Hermie Sadler and Matt Strickland, respectively.

In a sign of potential cracking in the GOP’s unity message, hard-right Del. Marie March, R-Floyd, took to Facebook to blast Youngkin and other party leaders after she lost a primary to Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick. March said she, Chase, Sadler and Strickland were the “4 actual conservatives” running Tuesday and mocked Youngkin and his allies as beholden to “lobbyist money.”

“One big happy family of sell-outs, pretending they care about you and messaging you they are good, kind and concerned,” March wrote.

Democrats emphasized the diversity of their nominees as a sign of strength.

Former Democratic state delegate Jay Jones, widely thought to be a future contender for statewide office, said the theme of the contests in his party was “generational change,” as opposed to a power struggle between the party’s progressive and moderate factions. The results, he said, show healthy evolution.

“It’s a transformational election,” Jones said. “This election ushers in a new generation of leaders. Diverse leaders. Women of color. Younger folks. And that’s really, really good for Virginia.”

In addition to abortion, Democrats indicated their other priorities in the 2023 elections will include protecting voting rights, pushing for stronger restrictions on guns and continued resistance to Youngkin’s proposal to cut Virginia’s corporate tax rate.

Rexrode, who chairs Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC, laid out a far different set of policy issues in his memo.

“Four Democratic incumbents lost election last night and were replaced by far-left progressives who want to ban gas stoves, prevent the sale of gas-powered cars and trucks in the state, limit parents involvement in their children’s education, repeal our Right to Work laws, allow Californians to have a say in our daily lives, support a soft on crime and criminals policy that puts our safety at risk, and force everyone to adopt their radical woke worldview,” Rexrode wrote.

In a post-primary discussion Wednesday on the conservative John Fredericks Radio Show, former Republican delegate turned political commentator Chris Saxman pointed to the success of the left-leaning advocacy group Clean Virginia, which supports campaign finance reform and seeks to counter the monetary influence of Dominion Energy at the statehouse. The group, funded by Charlottesville investor Michael Bills, helped propel candidates to victory in nearly all the 25 races it was involved in. But, as it has in past election cycles,  Saxman noted, the Clean Virginia vs. Dominion debate stirred up some bitter conflict among Democrats.

“The Republicans, on the other hand, have really shown me their ability to get their team together,” Saxman said.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.