Metro Weekly

Primary Battles: 7 Virginia Party Contests to Watch

The General Assembly primaries that LGBT people in Metro D.C. should keep their eye on

Today, Tuesday, June 9, is primary day in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Later this year, candidates seeking 4-year Senate terms and 2-year terms in the House of Delegates will vie for seats in the state’s General Assembly. Republicans currently control the House by a 67-32 margin, with 1 seat vacant, and control the Senate by a 21-19 margin. While it is unlikely that Democrats will seize control in the more heavily gerrymandered House, the makeup of that chamber, as well as outright control of the Senate, will likely have an impact on Terry McAuliffe’s priorities as governor, such as Medicaid expansion, education or transportation funding.

As far as the LGBT community is concerned, control of the Senate means control of various committees, meaning that any bills advancing LGBT rights can be sent to a friendly committee and approved for a final floor vote, rather than never seeing the light of day. While Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Upperville, Winchester, Aldie, Jeffersonton) has a fairly pro-LGBT record on issues like housing and employment discrimination, she does not sit on every committee, and still does not support marriage equality, meaning that only Democratic control over committees can ensure the passage of LGBT bills in the upper chamber, as Democrats would be able to schedule when bills are brought up for vote. Democrats only need one seat for control, as Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, in his capacity as presiding officer of the Senate, can cast tie-breaking votes. But they have to shore up some vulnerable members, particularly in the rural Shenandoah Valley, the Roanoke area, and the Eastern Shore, as well as hold onto seats where long-time incumbents are retiring. For control, Republicans simply must retain all their seats, including some seats made open by retirements.

The back-and-forth between the parties will continue well into the fall, but first, aspiring candidates must win their respective primaries. While several Republican state senators and delegates face primary challenges in safe Republican districts, there are seven primary races LGBT political observers in our area should keep their eyes on, which could shape the ideological makeup of the caucuses or could have a long-lasting impact on this November’s contests, including four races in Northern Virginia.

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RACE 1: HOUSE DISTRICT 79 (Portsmouth, Norfolk): A Tea Party Democrat?

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Del. Johnny Joannou has been perhaps one of the most hostile Democrats to LGBT people in the entire General Assembly. His record on LGBT rights reads like a laundry list of anti-gay actions, from voting against nondiscrimination protections to voting — twice — in favor of the Marshall-Newman Amendment banning same-sex marriage in the commonwealth. He serves as one of two Democrats on two subcommittees where some LGBT-related bills are sent, including the House Commitee on Privileges and Elections’ Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments. Basically, if you ever want Marshall-Newman repealed and taken out of the state constitution, this is one of the men standing in your way. Joannou’s conservative record on several other core Democratic issues, including abortion rights, background checks to purchase guns, and Medicaid expansion hasn’t exactly endeared him to other Democrats, prompting progressive groups to back former Portsmouth City Councilman Steve Heretick. Meanwhile, according to The Virginian-Pilot, the Portsmouth Tea Party has begun organizing for Joannou in what could be a low-turnout election. With no announced Republican or independent candidate, the winner of this primary gets an automatic two-year term. And since voters do not register by party in Virginia, anyone can vote in an open primary, meaning a few dedicated activists on either side could tip the balance in this race. 

RACE 2: SENATE DISTRICT 16 (Richmond, Hopewell, Petersburg): Freshman Showdown

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While Metro Weekly members may remember Del. Joe Preston for his comments on LGBT bathroom usage, and his responses to a questionnaire from the conservative Virginia Christian Alliance raised some eyebrows among local LGBT and Democratic activists, this is really a race between two freshmen lawmakers quibbling over who is sufficiently progressive. Both have fairly strong LGBT records, though Dance outflanks Preston when it comes to repealing Marshall-Newman and on transgender issues. Preston, who was elected to his Petersburg-area House seat in January to replace Dance after she won a special election to replace retiring Sen. Henry Marsh (D-Richmond) in November, claims Dance has been “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to advocating for her Petersburg constituents. He also claims that she is insufficiently liberal, giving cover to Republicans who refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Dance counters that she has fought hard for the District, and says Preston is just echoing talking points on Medicaid expansion — ruled “mostly false” by The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Politifact team — from former Del. Joe Morrissey (D-Henrico), a former Democrat-turned-Independent who plans to run in the general election. Add in the fact that Morrissey is a longtime political foe of Dance’s and backed her primary challenger, Evandra Thompson, during Dance’s 2013 re-election bid, with Dance pulling off an extremely narrow victory. Even Taylor Swift couldn’t imagine this much “Bad Blood” between politicians. 

RACE 3: SENATE DISTRICT 29 (Manassas, Dale City, Woodbridge): NoVa’s Needed Firewall

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Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-Manassas) is retiring after 40 years. Now, to gain control of the Senate, Democrats have to keep this district, which votes Democratic during presidential years but has massive drops in turnout in off years, potentially allowing Republicans to wrest away a rare Northern Virginia pickup opportunity. The GOP’s candidate, Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish, is considered a strong general election contender and has already raised more money than all three Democrats combined. All three Democrats ran for the House in 2013, with Futrell ousting incumbent Republican Del. Mark Dudenhefer by a slim margin, McPike narrowly losing to Del. Scott Lingamfelter, and Qarni narrowly losing to conservative firebrand Del. Bob Marshall. In the end, it may come down to geography and turnout, as Qarni hails from the Manassas area, McPike from the Dale City area, and Futrell from Woodbridge, in this long, winding district that takes up the bulk of Prince William County. Democrats need a strong candidate here if they are to have any hope of gaining back the Senate.

RACE 4: SENATE DISTRICT 10 (Richmond City, Chesterfield, Midlothian): The Tipping Point

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When Sen. John Watkins (R-Powhatan) announced his retirement, Democrats immediately saw their best opportunity for picking up a seat. Watkins, a moderate and LGBT rights supporter who represents some of the liberal and LGBT-heavy parts of the City of Richmond, had a history of siding with Democrats when it comes to social issues. President Obama won the district narrowly in 2008 and 2012, and political observers expect the district to split almost evenly between the Republican and Democratic candidates. This is yet another district where Democrats need a strong candidate to emerge for the general election. Daniel Gecker, a Chesterfield County supervisor and former independent now running as an independent, is the establishment favorite –earning the backing of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) — because of his perceived moderate image. McMurtrie, a former delegate known for his conservative views, is running to Gecker’s right, while Francis, a consultant for renewable energy nonprofits, is running as the “true progressive” in the race. The winner will face Republican Glen Sturtevant, Libertarian Carl Loser and former Chesterfield County Supervisor Marleen Durfee, an independent, in the general election. In short: whichever party wins this seat in November will likely control the Senate. 

RACE 5: HOUSE DISTRICT 28 (Fredericksburg, Stafford, Aquia Harbor): The GOP’s Leader

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Del. Bill Howell is the all-powerful Speaker of the House of Delegates and the most powerful Republican in government. Anything that happens in Richmond needs to go through him first. But Howell’s decision to avoid bills dealing with social issues — whether backed by liberals or conservatives — and particularly his support for a transportation package, backed by former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), which raised taxes, have angered Tea Party and anti-tax activists. Two years ago, some of Howell’s top lieutenants faces strong primary challenges, with Del. Joe May (R-Leesburg) and Del. Beverly Sherwood (R-Winchester) losing their races. This year, Howell faces former Stafford County Supervisor Susan Stimpson, a conservative darling and former candidate for lieutenant governor who has the backing of conservative activist Grover Norquist, of the anti-tax organization Americans for Tax Reform. Other outside conservative groups like the National Association for Gun Rights are also hitting Howell, trying to imply that he is soft on crime and weak in standing up for Second Amendment rights. Because Stimpson is beloved by the Tea Party and other right-wing groups, the race has drawn many comparisons — many overstating Stimpson’s strengths — to U.S. Rep. Dave Brat’s dispatching of former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in last year’s congressional primary. While many observers believe Howell will defeat Stimpson, even a closer margin of victory than expected for the Speaker could have wide-ranging impacts on how conservative Virginia House Republicans believe they must be to avoid primary challenges. As former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis told The Washington Post, “If [Stimpson] wins, this will send shivers down a lot of incumbents’ spines. You’d have every Republican incumbent looking over their shoulders.” 

RACE 6: HOUSE DISTRICT 45 (Alexandria City, South Arlington, Belle Haven): Alexandria Free-for-All

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This race features five Democrats trying to position themselves as the worthy successor to Del. Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria). There’s not much differentiating the candidates when it comes to major policies they’d promote in Richmond, which is why the candidates are each touting prominent Democratic figures who have endorsed them. On paper, Craig Fifer, backed by openly gay Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria, Arlington, Belle Haven) and the editorial board of The Washington Post, and Julie Jakopic, backed by Krupicka and Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, appear to have the edge, though openly gay candidate Mark Levine, a Democratic activist, lawyer and political pundit, has raised the most money. Were Levine to win, he would become just the third openly gay member of the General Assembly, after Ebbin and Del. Mark Sickles (D-Franconia, Rose Hill, Lorton), who represents a neighboring district. 

RACE 7: HOUSE DISTRICT 44 (Mount Vernon, Fort Hunt, Hybla Valley): Surovell’s Successor

Primary-HD44Del. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), a longtime LGBT ally in the General Assembly, shook things up when he opted to pursue the Senate seat of retiring Sen. Linda “Toddy” Puller (D-Mount Vernon, Woodbridge, Quantico), leaving this seat open. The race in this safely Democratic district pits Paul Krizek, vice president at Christian Relief Services Charities, who has been involved with many local civic groups in the district, against Justin Brown, a Hill staffer known best for his work on veterans’ issues. Krizek has the establishment backing — including that of Surovell — and the Post endorsement behind him, but Brown, a Navy veteran, is being backed by VoteVets, a political action committee dedicated to electing veterans to public office. 

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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