What to know about the Democratic ‘firehouse primary’ in Virginia’s special House race

Madeline Monroe/ Daniel Sangjib Min-Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP/ Getty Images

A special election to replace the late Rep. Donald McEachin (D) in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District has Democrats scrambling as they host a rushed primary on Tuesday.

Last week, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) required both Republicans and Democrats to file their candidacies by Dec. 23 in order to prepare for the special election, which will be held on Feb. 21.

Both parties in Virginia must pay for and host their own primaries, in contrast to a state-run primary held in a typical November election cycle. The process is called a “firehouse primary” or an unassembled caucus because voters and candidates are engaged as quickly as possible.

On Saturday, Republicans elected Leon Benjamin Sr. as their nominee for the special election. Benjamin previously ran in the November midterm election against McEachin.

But the Democratic primary, held on Tuesday, is the more closely watched race because Democrats are favored to win the seat. In November, McEachin beat Benjamin by tens of thousands of votes.

Here’s everything we know about Tuesday’s Democratic primary election.

Candidates did not have much time to campaign

Four qualified candidates are vying for the open seat in the Democratic primary, the Virginia Democratic Party and 4th Congressional District Committee announced last week.

The leading candidates are two Virginia state senators in the Democratic Party, Joseph Morrissey and Jennifer McClellan.

Both had little time to campaign after announcing their candidacies six days ago and facing the primary election on Tuesday.

In that short time frame, however, McClellan has campaigned aggressively, earning key endorsements from U.S. Democratic Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, as well as Richmond’s mayor, among a long list of others.

McClellan moved swiftly to put up campaign signs, knock on doors and make phone calls. As of Monday, she had spent around $15,000 in digital ads, according to FWIW, a newsletter that tracks political ad spending.

She raised about $200,000 as of Friday, a campaign adviser told Roll Call.

Lamont Bagby, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates who called McEachin his mentor, announced he was running for the seat before quickly suspending his campaign and endorsing McClellan, saying she was the only person for the job.

The primary has been contentious

The race grew quickly heated after Morrissey, who has faced numerous scandalous headlines, threw his hat in the ring.

Morrissey began his campaign last week by targeting Democratic leaders for hosting the primary on a weekday instead of on a Saturday.

“It will have the direct effect of chilling and limiting voter turnout,” he said, accusing the party of colluding to select their preferred candidate. “That’s what the Democratic elites did.”

Morrissey, a longtime attorney who has been disbarred twice, is one of the more polarizing figures in Virginia politics. In 2014, he was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a then-17-year-old receptionist at his law firm who is now his wife.

After his conviction, Morrissey resigned his seat in the House of Delegates, which he later won back in a special election while serving partial time in jail. Before he left office, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) pardoned Morrissey for the 2014 crime.

Morrissey served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2008 until 2015 and was elected as a state senator in 2019.

The Democrat, who is Catholic, also holds stricter views on abortion than much of his party, something seen as a political liability following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion this year.

In a May interview with an NBC affiliate in Richmond, Morrissey said he supports abortion access up until the point he believes a fetus can feel pain, around 20 weeks.

In his campaign announcement, Morrissey touted his achievements in the state Senate, including criminal justice reform, and said he was a “worker bee” who was passionate about “looking out for the marginalized.”

The favored candidate could make history

McClellan is favored to win the primary, and if she goes on to win the special election, she would become the first Black woman elected to represent Virginia in Congress.

McClellan, who hails from Petersburg, Va., represented the Virginia House of Delegates from 2006 to 2017. 

She won election as a state senator in 2016, taking the seat formerly held by McEachin. In the state senate, she’s also served as vice chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

In her campaign announcement last week, McClellan discussed her record on tackling climate change and protecting abortion rights. She also honored the late McEachin, acknowledging she would have big shoes to fill.

“This is a bittersweet day for me as I continue to mourn a friend, but I hear the call to carry on his legacy,” she said. 

Tags Don McEachin Donald McEachin firehouse primary Glenn Youngkin Glenn Youngkin Jennifer McClellan Jennifer McClellan Joseph Morrissey

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