RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – While national headlines may point to the re-election of the state’s most notorious legislators, Virginia voters made a number of surprising choices in Tuesday’s primary election that some say paved the way for Democrats to take full control over the once deeply red state.
Democrat Joe Morrissey, a former House delegate and lawyer who served the end of his last term in jail, overtook incumbent Rosalyn Dance for the state’s 16th Senate District. Morrissey, known as “Fighting Joe” since he got in a fist fight with another lawyer inside a Richmond courthouse in the 1990s, has long been a Democratic firebrand with a history of unconventional actions. He once brought a loaded AK-47 onto the House floor to demonstrate how easy it was to purchase such weapons under Virginia’s loose gun laws.
But after impregnating a 17-year-old employee at his legal office, he was indicted on several felony charges. He ended up serving three months of a 12-month sentence for a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and retiring from his House of Delegates seat. He later married the woman.
But he trounced his primary opponent Tuesday night and will now take the seat in 2020 as the safely blue district has no GOP challenger in November’s general election.
Other standout wins include incumbent Republican Emmet Hanger beating the low-experience, high-drama Tina Freitas for the 24th District Senate seat. As polls opened, Freitas claimed Democrats were bussing in voters to sway the race for Hanger in the state’s open primaries, but the incumbent won by nearly double digits after Freitas lambasted him for voting for Medicaid expansion, an Obamacare policy that saw 400,000 more Virginians – many of where in Hangar’s district – receive health care.
Other GOP primary attacks were targeted at those who supported the health care expansion vote. While Hanger hung on, incumbent Delegate Bob Thomas succumbed to the attacks in his primary race for the 28th District House seat.
But Thomas’ loss will add another convicted criminal, Paul Milde, to the race this November. Milde, the Republican former supervisor for Stafford County, served one year of a six-year prison term for felony possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute in the 1980s. He claims he was helping a friend, but he’ll now have that record to run on when he takes on Democrat Joshua Cole for the House seat this fall.
Cole lost the district to Thomas in 2017 by one of the smallest margins in Virginia history, and political analysts think Milde’s win will give Democrats the push needed to flip the district.
Some incumbent Democrats got lucky Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, who has represented Virginia’s affluent D.C. suburb of Alexandria in Senate District 35 for almost 40 years, squeaked ahead of a more progressive challenger by only a few hundred votes.
Military veteran and democratic socialist Lee Carter also held on to his seat, but this time to a more moderate Democrat in the state’s 50th House District. Carter will go on to take the seat as the GOP secured no opponent to run against him despite the district being held by Republicans for over 40 years prior to Carter’s win in 2017.
And while there was bigger turnout on the right in the three districts that had primaries on both sides, experts are still predicting big wins for Democrats with all 140 House and Senate seats up for grabs in November. Republicans currently hold a slim majority in both chambers.
Democrats could regain control of both chambers in addition to holding the governor’s office, a massive shift from decades of Virginia being a conservative bastion. For Republicans, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
Whichever party wins the Legislature will be responsible for drawing legislative districts after the 2020 census, which undoubtedly will influence the politics of the state.
Add to that a mass shooting last month in Virginia Beach, which inspired Democratic Governor Ralph Northam to call a special legislative session this summer to address gun violence, and you’ll see moderate Republicans forced to make tough votes and possibly lose their seats in the fall.
“[Republicans’] chances worsened tonight,” Virginia political analyst Chaz Nuttycombe said in an interview. He said GOP voters kicking out moderate candidates, added to wins on the left in competitive districts around the state, have pushed his predictions for both state houses toward Democrats.
Virginians go to the polls for the statewide general election on Nov. 5, in what could be an early indication of the country’s mood ahead of the 2020 presidential election.