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Several senior members of the Virginia Senate face primary challengers

Virginia Department of Elections

Voters across much of Virginia are headed to the polls this week. Several incumbents in the Senate are facing stiff primary challenges.

Some of the Senate’s most senior members are in hotly contested races this year: Creigh Deeds, Chap Petersen, George Barker and Dave Marsden just to name a few of the longtime incumbents who have primary challengers.

Mark Rozell at George Mason University’s Schar School says these challengers are trying to cast incumbents as too wedded to moderate politics and compromise.

“There is the possibility that a number of Democratic incumbents will get knocked off by these primary challengers who are running generally as more progressive candidates, more committed to the liberal policy agenda,” Rozell says.

J. Miles Coleman at the University of Virginia says the new maps created by the Supreme Court have created a situation where none of the incumbents are running in their old districts, and that’s a challenge they need to overcome.

“Back during the end of the session earlier this year in Richmond, we had a lot of voluntary retirements," says Coleman. "Longtime members hanging it up because of the maps, because of personal reasons. This week we may have another wave of involuntary retirements.”

11 of the 40 Senators have already voluntarily announced their departure. This week, voters might add a few involuntary additions to that list.

Virginia and its use of open primaries

Voters are going to the polls today for legislative and some local primaries. The way those primaries are structured worry some party officials.

Virginia is one of 18 states where voters do not register as a Democrat or as a Republican. That means that voters can choose to vote in whatever primary they want, and Democrats are worried that Republicans might try to influence a Senate primary in Petersburg and a Commonwealth’s Attorney primary in Fairfax County.

J. Miles Coleman at the University of Virginia says open primaries have been controversial for years.

“The party activists really don’t like it because you are opening up the party primaries to potentially independents and voters in the other party who may not go for the more kind of quote-unquote ideologically pure candidates,” Coleman says.

But can Republicans really have an influence in a Democratic primary? There’s no evidence that’s ever happened, says Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School.

“It’s really complicated to get Republican-identifying voters to become enthusiastic about making the effort to vote in a Democratic Party primary on the belief that this will happen among a large number of Republicans and ultimately affect the outcome of a Democratic primary race,” Rozell says.

Most states force voters to register by party, creating a closed primary that’s exclusive to voters from that party. Members of the General Assembly have repeatedly rejected efforts to adopt that system in Virginia.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.