Virginia Democrats will choose a nominee on Tuesday for the special election to fill the term of the late Rep. Donald McEachin, who died in November just weeks after winning reelection.
Democrats in the 4th Congressional District are holding a “firehouse primary” – or one that’s conducted by the party organization, instead of by election officials – across a handful of pop-up voting locations in the Richmond-area district.
The nominee will enter the February general election as the favorite in what has been a reliably Democratic district, and the outcome of the election isn’t likely to affect the balance of power in the US House, which Republicans are set to control in January.
Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who finished third in the 2021 gubernatorial primary, has the support of Democratic Party leaders and groups ranging from the political arm of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to the moderate-backing Democratic Majority for Israel PAC. If elected, she would be the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine campaigned with McClellan, a close ally whose wedding he officiated, over the weekend and members of the Commonwealth’s Democratic congressional delegation have all endorsed her, as have Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and other local officials. Democrats will not know their nominee until Wednesday, at the earliest, when the counting of ballots begins.
The coalescing around McClellan was influenced in part by the campaign of scandal-plagued state Sen. Joe Morrissey. His feuds with the party establishment may be part of his appeal among some disenchanted partisans, but his critics point to a more damaging history, including his resignation from the state House in 2014 after a misdemeanor conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor – a 17-year-old part-time staffer at his law office with whom he had sex and exchanged nude photos. He was in his mid-50s at the time, but has argued, according to a local report, that he believed the woman was 18. (Morrissey has since married the woman and they have several children.) Morrissey has also been stripped of his law license – twice – and remains disbarred following a 2019 state Supreme Court decision to uphold its revocation.
Morrissey attacked the state party for holding the primary on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday, saying it would limit voter turnout. In announcing his run, Morrissey called himself a “worker bee” while highlighting his work on criminal justice reform.
Virginia doesn’t have party registration, so the primary will be open to all voters in the district, provided they sign a pledge to support the Democratic nominee in the general election. Republicans chose their candidate, Leon Benjamin, in a weekend vote.
Benjamin has run for the seat before, having lost to McEachin earlier this year and in 2020.
Under Virginia state law, there’s no state-run primary for this special election, so the parties are responsible for selecting their own nominees.
The district’s Democratic committee chairwoman cheered the “firehouse” voting method as a way to increase participation in the process.
“A Firehouse Primary allows as many candidates and voters to participate in the democratic process as possible,” Alexsis Rodgers said. “The Fourth Congressional District Democratic Committee is committed to holding a smooth, transparent, and expedient process to select a nominee.”
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin last Monday set the date of the special election for February 21, creating a quick turnaround as the parties need to formally select their candidates by December 23.
With just a week to campaign, a host of Democrats jumped into the race. McClellan and Morrissey are the leading contenders, largely because state Del. Lamont Bagby decided to drop out to help clear the way for McClellan, a fellow leader of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. Bagby’s support largely shifted to McClellan.
McClellan, who has served in the state legislature since 2006 and succeeded McEachin in the state Senate, spoke about her legislative experience and her work in the capitol with the late congressman in her announcement speech last week.
“This is a bittersweet day for me as I continue to mourn a friend but hear the call to carry on his legacy and carry my servant leadership to Washington,” McClellan said.
Virginia Democrats lost the governorship and the House of Delegates in 2021 and control only a very narrow majority in the state Senate. If McClellan were to win the congressional special election in February, her vacant Senate seat could weaken Democrats’ ability to block Republican bills – like potential restrictions on abortion.