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Democrats scramble in one-week primary for open Virginia seat

Jennifer McClellan could be state’s first Black woman in Congress

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan campaigns with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on Saturday ahead of the special Democratic primary to choose a nominee in the race to replace the late Rep. A. Donald McEachin.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan campaigns with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on Saturday ahead of the special Democratic primary to choose a nominee in the race to replace the late Rep. A. Donald McEachin. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic groups and officials are coalescing around Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan to fill the remainder of the term of the late Rep. A. Donald McEachin ahead of a Tuesday primary that will essentially pick the next member of Congress for the Richmond-area district.

McClellan, who would be the first Black woman elected to Congress from Virginia, has been waging a weeklong campaign for the nomination. She faces three other Democrats, including fellow state Sen. Joe Morrissey, a firebrand whose campaign reportedly paid for an ad urging Republicans to vote for him.

The 4th District Democratic Committee decided on Dec. 12 to hold a party-run “firehouse primary” a week later. That decision came hours after Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an order setting  Feb. 21 as the date for a special election to fill the seat. McEachin died last month after winning reelection. Since the seat is in a heavily Democratic district — McEachin won by 30 points — Tuesday’s primary is likely to be the bigger contest. 

McClellan, who has served in the state legislature for 17 years, touts endorsements from the state’s entire Democratic congressional delegation, including Sen. Tim Kaine, who campaigned with her on Saturday.  Other supporters include the New Democrat Coalition Action Fund, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC and outside groups like the pro-Israel DFMI PAC.

One challenger to McClellan,  Delegate Lamont Bagby, dropped out last week and endorsed McClellan.

The election’s short time frame has led to “chaos,” said Larry Huynh, a partner at the online communications and strategy shop Trilogy Interactive.

“To be successful in such a  short runway, candidates have to take advantage of local machinery, infrastructure … to do voter contact,” said Huynh, who is not affiliated with any of the campaigns. The short timeline “gives advantages to those with institutions of support and existing infrastructure.” 

The timeline has forced the candidates to quickly establish federal accounts and put together their operations. It also sets up an election at an unconventional time, just days before Christmas, that people weren’t expecting. The 4th District Democratic Committee set eight locations across the district at which voters can cast their ballots on Tuesday. 

Jared Leopold, an adviser to McClellan’s campaign, said it was like “building the plane as you fly it.”

“Normally in a campaign you have three distinct types of messages. One is informing people who you are, two is telling people to vote for you and three is getting them out to vote,” Leopold said. “Those are all merged into one message along with, hey, there’s an election.”

McClellan has raised about $200,000, Leopold said Friday. That’s allowed her to go up on radio stations and buy some digital ads, as well as send some mail and text messages. 

Candidates won’t have to disclose any fundraising or spending information about the race until Feb. 9 under an order issued by the Federal Election Commission on Friday. 

“I won’t lie to you: we don’t have that much time to whip up a winning campaign,” McClellan wrote in a fundraising email sent to a fellow state senator’s email list, asking for donations that would be split between their campaigns.

Over 17 years in the state legislature, McClellan has focused on a range of issues, including leading bills focused on voting rights, reproductive health and the environment. She succeeded McEachin in the state Senate after he was elected to Congress in 2016. 

“Her work in the Virginia State Senate to increase access to quality, affordable health care, tackle climate change, protect Americans’ fundamental freedoms, and strengthen our economy makes her the best choice to represent Richmond in the U.S. House and to follow in Rep. McEachin’s footsteps,” NewDem Action Fund Chair Rep. Brad Schneider, an Illinois Democrat, said in a statement. 

Morrissey, who has been in the state Senate since 2020 and was in the state House of Delegates from 2008 until 2015, lashed out at Democrats for how they scheduled the firehouse primary.

“What you’ve done is you have set back the voting gains that we have made for the last 10 years in order to get the person you want,” he said on his radio show last week. He criticized the lack of voting locations in his current district. 

Voters on Tuesday will need to sign a statement declaring that the voter lives in the 4th District and is a Democrat, Virginia Scope reported

Morrissey’s campaign paid for a radio ad featuring John Fredericks, a conservative talk show host who said Democrats were rigging their election to avoid nominating Morrissey and that Republicans “can vote for him on Dec. 20 … Sign their stupid pledge, it means nothing, and stick it to them.”

Morrissey said Thursday that Fredericks “doesn’t speak for me, he doesn’t manage my campaign. I’m not paid any money, he’ll do what he wants,” according to Virginia Scope. He said people across the political spectrum “should be outraged by what the Democratic Party did.”

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Leon Benjamin Sr., a Navy veteran and pastor of New Life Harvest Church, who was chosen in a GOP party canvas held Saturday. Benjamin lost to McEachin in November.

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