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Virginia prepares for special election with national implications

The race will determine who represents Virginia's 4th Congressional District in the narrowly divided U.S. House of Representatives.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginians will head to the polls this month for a special election to send a new representative for the 4th Congressional District to Washington following the death of Democratic Congressman Donald McEachin.

McEachin, a three-term congressman, died of complications from colorectal cancer last November. The Feb. 21 election will decide whether his seat will be filled by Democratic state Senator Jennifer McClellan or Republican pastor Leon Benjamin.

The 4th District tends to lean Democrat, encompassing the capital Richmond and stretching south to the North Carolina border. 

"This is a Richmond-Petersburg district, so it represents the interest of mostly Democrats," said Rich Meagher, professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College, in an interview. "It's an urban, mostly strongly Democratic district."

McClellan and Benjamin are both African Americans vying for voters in a district that is nearly 50% Black. McClellan would be Virginia's first Black woman to represent the state in Congress. 

"From the outside looking in at Virginia, it might be a little bit more racially diverse than people might expect," said Karen Hult, a Virginia Tech political science professor and chair of the university's Center for Public Administration and Policy.

The composition of the neighboring 3rd District was found unconstitutional in 2016, leading to court-ordered redistricting that transformed the 4th District from a Republican-leaning district to a safely Democratic seat.

With the GOP's slim majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the election could have national implications, according to Jesse Richman, associate professor of political science and international studies at Old Dominion University.

"This is an important race because of just how close the margin in the House of Representatives is," Richman said. "Every vote that Democrats gain in the House if McClellan wins means that Republicans have to work that much harder to try and pass legislation." 

The two parties handled their primaries differently, with Republicans opting for a canvass nominating event in Colonial Heights, where Benjamin won 57% of the votes in the first round of ranked-choice voting. Democrats held a so-called "firehouse primary" on Dec. 20 – a similar canvass-style event but with voting at a few select locations – with over 27,000 ballots cast, the largest turnout in a firehouse primary in state history, according to the Virginia Democratic Party. McClellan defeated polarizing state Senator Joe Morrissey with 85% of the votes. 

Benjamin has run for the seat twice, losing to McEachin both times, with the most recent defeat coming last November. The Republican challenger mustered 36.2% of the vote in the most recent election.

Hult said Benjamin's familiarity to voters in the area could be a boost. 

"He has raised money and has traveled around the district," she said. "He's known throughout this newly drawn district." 

According to the professor, high voter turnout for a special election can be expected thanks to the candidates' strong followings. 

"Both candidates have a fairly intense following that would suggest that, indeed, one could see a little bit higher than expected turnout in a special election," Hult said.

McClellan gained a statewide following the 2020 gubernatorial election, in which she came in third in the Democratic primary behind eventual nominee Terry McAuliffe and Jennifer Carroll Foy after receiving 11% of votes.

Meagher said if McClellan wins, it would have implications for the 2025 gubernatorial race.

"That would kind of clear a route for some other folks," he said. "Other folks might step up."

Meagher said that Democrats would be excited to see her in Congress as opposed to the governor's mansion because she's a skilled lawmaker.

"Her real strength is legislating," he said. "She works well with others. She plays nice — somebody who gets things passed." 

Some of the pivotal issues for the candidates include their views on abortion and education. McClellan led the passage of the Reproductive Health Protection Act in 2020, the first expansion of abortion rights in Virginia legislative history. Meanwhile, Benjamin seems to be among the growing number of Virginia Republicans looking to shake up how education is handled in the state. 

"Let's embrace our differences and do away with a one-size-fits-all approach to families and education," his website states. "Parents know what is best for their children and should be the ultimate decision-makers, especially when it comes to their education."

Due to the overwhelming amount of Democratic voters in the 4th District, many viewed the race as over after the firehouse primary. 

"The job has been done," Meagher said. "The threat to the choice of candidate is not going to come from the Republican candidate."

The professor said he expects a lower voter turnout than usual due to the election happening in February. 

"I think turnout will be low," Meagher said. "It won't be anything like what you normally see in an election at this level."

He said early voting will be crucial to the election as many voters will be working on Feb. 21, a Tuesday.

"The turnout would be absolutely anemic without it," Meagher said. "I think early voting and the fact that McClellan is a very practiced candidate who is taking this race very seriously means that it would be a miracle for Benjamin to pull off a win." 

Every seat in the Virginia General Assembly will be up for grabs this November, meaning McClellan's Senate seat would need to be filled should she win the congressional race. 

"That seat is going to get a lot of attention," Hult said. "There are many people arguably waiting for the results of this election in February." 

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