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Controversial Virginia state senators, including 'pro-life' Democrat, ousted in primary election

Former Virginia State Delegate Lashrecse Aird, right, talks with poll workers as she visits a polling precinct Tuesday, June 20, 2023, in Surry, Va. Aird is running against Virginia State Sen. Joe Morrissey in a Democratic primary for a newly redrawn Senate district.
Steve Helber
Former Virginia State Delegate Lashrecse Aird, right, talks with poll workers as she visits a polling precinct Tuesday, June 20, 2023, in Surry, Va. Aird is running against Virginia State Sen. Joe Morrissey in a Democratic primary for a newly redrawn Senate district.

Voters ousted two of Virginia's most controversial political figures in Tuesday's primary election, along with at least three more of their Senate colleagues.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, a political centrist and increasingly rare Democrat who supports limits on abortion access, lost to former state legislator Lashrecse Aird, who calls herself a 100% supporter of abortion rights.

“Joe's been here too long. It’s time for new blood,” said Gail Coleman, 62, who voted for Aird Tuesday afternoon in suburban Richmond.

Complete results from the Va. Dept. of Elections

Republican Sen. Amanda Chase, a right-wing firebrand who has served in the Senate since 2016 and embraced falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election, was edged out by Glen Sturtevant, a lawyer and former senator seeking a political comeback in the red-leaning suburban Richmond district.

Voters decided dozens of other nominees, including in some swing districts that will help determine the balance of power in the General Assembly in the November election. Virginia's Legislature is closely divided politically, and the state is one of just a few that holds its legislative races in odd-numbered years. The unusual calendar and quasi-swing state status make Virginia worth watching for hints of voter sentiment ahead of the next midterms or presidential cycle.

Both parties and both chambers had competitive contests on Tuesday's ballot, and an unusually high number of sitting officeholders faced serious challenges in an election season upended by new political maps.

This year marks the first cycle in which legislative candidates are running in districts created during the redistricting process that ended in late 2021. The new maps were drawn by outside experts without regard to protecting incumbents. That’s contributed to a wave of retirements by many veteran lawmakers and diminished the name-recognition advantage for incumbents, some of whom ran in almost entirely new districts.

The losses by Chase, Morrissey and their colleagues will add to the already lofty turnover.

In another high-profile race, Sen. L. Louise Lucas, a veteran legislator, knocked off Sen. Lionell Spruill. The race for the heavily Democratic Hampton Roads seat was one of only two featuring current members of the same chamber running against one another. It was marked by particularly sharp personal attacks on social media and in TV ads.

Lucas, who has served in the Senate since 1992, campaigned as a fighter. She donned boxing gloves in some ads, promising to take on Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“MOMMA SAID KNOCK YOU OUT!” she tweeted.

In northern Virginia, challengers upset at least two other Democratic incumbents.

Saddam Salim, a first-generation immigrant and political activist, defeated moderate Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen, a lawyer who angered the angered the liberal wing of his party by providing a key vote for Republicans in getting some of Youngkin’s priorities across the finish line, including legislation that ended school mask mandates last year.

Stella Pekarsky, a member of the Fairfax County School Board, beat Democratic Sen. George Barker, who has served in the Senate since 2008 and wields significant influence as co-chair of the chamber’s Finance and Appropriations Committee.

In a contentious Republican contest for a southwest Virginia House seat, freshman Del. Wren Williams defeated fellow Del. Marie March. In northern Virginia, former CIA officer Russet Perry secured the Democratic nomination in a Senate seat expected to be a key battleground in the general election.

Elsewhere, incumbents easily cruised past challengers. Democratic Sen. Lamont Bagby handily defeated Katie Gooch in a Richmond-area race, and Sen. Dave Marsden defeated Heidi Drauschak, who was backed by the big-spending advocacy group Clean Virginia.

In a Charlottesville-anchored seat, Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds fended off a spirited challenge from Sally Hudson, a member of the House of Delegates. Deeds, a respected advocate on mental health issues, campaigned as a pragmatic progressive whose experience and relationships in Richmond would be a boon to his constituents, an argument echoed by other incumbents.

Among Republicans, Chase was the only Senate incumbent to face a challenge Tuesday. She campaigned as a champion of gun rights and other conservative values. She also persistently repeated former President Donald Trump’s falsehoods about widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

Although Chase had campaigned with Youngkin after unsuccessfully seeking the party's nomination for governor herself in 2021, Youngkin did not endorse her in the race. Nor did he wade into an eight-way Senate contest in the Shenandoah Valley won by farmer Timmy French.

But the night went especially well for other candidates the governor backed. All of the seven on the ballot Tuesday won their nomination contests. The three others in competitive races he backed had won party-run nominations earlier.

In the central Virginia Senate nomination contest with Morrissey, Aird was powered to victory with endorsements from an unusual number of legislators and members of the state’s congressional delegation. She also far outspent Morrissey, who ran a scrappy operation with no official campaign manager.

A disbarred attorney with a long history of personal and professional controversies, Morrissey calls himself “pro-life” but has long supported some abortion access. He has recently expressed a willingness to vote with Republicans to enact stricter limits.

Morrissey had time and again overcome personal controversies to win elected office. Campaigning this year, he faced allegations of mistreatment and physical abuse by his decades-younger estranged wife, which he strenuously denied.

Despite those headwinds, many observers were unwilling to count him out because of his long-established reputation as an effective grassroots campaigner who takes care of bread-and-butter issues for constituents. Morrissey conceded to Aird.

Aird, who works in higher education administration, will head into the general election season as the favorite in the blue leaning district south and east of Richmond.

A handful of other races were too early to call.

Updated: June 21, 2023 at 9:42 AM EDT
Text updated with additional detail