Virginia primary sets stage for confrontations in November
In November's senatorial election in Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine (left) will face off against white supremacist Corey Stewart (right) who won the GOP primary in a squeaker. | Composite photo, both AP

Virginia held its primary elections on Tuesday April 12.  At stake were the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Tim Kaine, some but not all of the state’s eleven House districts, and some local races.

In recent years, Virginia has trended Democratic. Especially in last year’s elections to the House of Delegates (the lower house of the General Assembly, the state legislature) and to the state’s three elective executive offices, the Democrats chalked up major victories. They won the posts of governor, lieutenant governor and state attorney general, and very nearly won a majority in the House of Delegates.  This was made possible by a sharp increase in the turnout of the Democratic Party base since the last state elections.

The question now is whether, in the November federal midterm election, the Democratic voter turnout will work the same charm it did with the state elections last year. If it is once again high, it could mean the loss of at least one and perhaps a couple more Republican-held House seats to the Democrats.  But in fact, in Tuesday’s primary, the turnout appears to have been rather low.

In the Senate race, the incumbent, Kaine, ran unopposed. On the Republican side, the three candidates were white supremacist Corey Stewart, who is the chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, Koch and National Rifle Association-backed right wing “libertarian” Republican Delegate (state representative) Nick Freitas, and Evangelical Christian candidate Bishop E.W. Jackson.

Stewart, who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, was true to his far right wing form, concentrating on bashing immigrants, extolling the “heritage” of the old slave South (even though he is from Minnesota) and its monuments, denouncing the state legislature’s recent vote to expand Medicaid,  and singing the praises of Trump. However, Freitas gave him a run for his money, and the election was fairly close.

Stewart won with 44.9 percent of the vote, followed closely by Freitas with 43.1 percent.  Jackson trailed badly with just 12 percent.  The total number of votes in the Republican column came to 304,078.  Since Kaine ran unopposed, it is not clear how this compares to support for the Democrat. However, Kaine is a popular former governor and is heavily favored to win in November.

In a number of Virginia Congressional districts, there was neither a Republican nor a Democratic primary, because candidates were running unopposed.  This makes it harder to judge, at this point, the relative strengths of the candidates who will be on the ballot in November.

For example, in the 11th Virginia Congressional District (Washington D.C. suburbs and exurbs), the Democratic Party incumbent, Gerry Connelly, was supposed to have had a challenger “from the left” in the Democratic primaries, Jonathan Park .But Park was not able to get on the ballot.  The Republican candidate, Jeff A. Dove, also ran unopposed.  Connelly tends to the right on some issues; for example he was one of the few Democrats in the House of Representatives who did not support President Obama’s opening to Cuba.  Dove, who is an African-American Iraq War veteran, criticizes Connelly for being too interested in foreign affairs (Connelly serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee), and beyond that puts out a standard right wing Republican line about low taxes, strong military and a balanced budget.  Libertarian Stevan Porter and Whig Peter Carey have also thrown their hats into the ring, but probably won’t have much of a chance in this heavily Democratic district.

The most watched federal House primary was the 10h Congressional District in the far north of the state.  This is a wealthy district that stretches all the way from the Washington D.C. suburbs to the West Virginia border.  It has elected Republicans to Congress for a long time, and is currently represented by Republican Barbara Comstock.  The authoritative Cook political report has rated the district as a toss-up.  Comstock has presented herself as a moderate Republican, for example voting against repeal of “Obamacare” but Democrats say this is a sham.  For example, she is one of the top recipients of National Rifle Association funding, which led her to be sharply criticized in the context of recent school shootings. Her votes in the House have very often aligned with the wishes of the Trump administration on issues as diverse as labor rights, abortion, immigrants’ rights and the environment.

When it became clear that the 10th Congressional District seat might be in play, at least 11 people announced they would be running in the Democratic primary.  By Tuesday, that list had boiled down to just six.  These included State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, who was endorsed by many of the major political leaders in the state, and scientist Julia Biggins, who got the endorsement of the Northern Virginia branch of Our Revolution on the basis of her progressive positions on issues including health care, in which she favors single payer.  But Wexton won by a very large margin over all of her opponents, with 41.3 percent of the vote or 22,530 in total.   Biggins did not do well, with only 1,530 votes.  The total votes for all Democrats was 53,843, while the Republicans – incumbent Comstock and right wing extremist challenger Shak E. Hill—totaled 46,575 between them – a good augury for Wexton in November.

More Virginia Congressional Districts may be in play for November.  In the Fifth District, the Democratic Party candidate, journalist, author and activist Leslie Cockburn, may have a shot against distiller Denver Riggleman, who was recruited by the Republicans in a last-minute panic when the incumbent, Republican, Congressman Tom Garrett, pulled out of the race at the last minute, citing problems with alcoholism.  So incumbent advantage will be lost to the Republicans, and how effective candidate Riggleman will turn out to be is yet to be seen.

More surprising is a sudden possibility that Republican Congressman Scott Taylor, in the Third Congressional District, which includes the port of Norfolk, Virginia Beach and the Virginia tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, may have something to worry about. Scott easily beat back a primary challenge from ultra-Trumpite Mary K. Jones, with 75.9 percent of the vote to her 24.1 percent. On the Democratic Party side, the primary was won by former Navy officer and current businesswoman Elaine Luria with 62.3 percent of the vote to 37.7 for Karen Powers Mallard.  However, what may spell trouble for Taylor is that the combined Democratic vote for Luria and Mallard was 28,144 while the combined Republican vote was 37,186:  Still a long shot for Luria, but who knows?

Finally, in the 7th Virginia Congressional District, far right wing Republican incumbent David Brat is not having it as easy as he probably expected. He did not have a primary challenger, but two people competed for the Democratic nomination.  It was won by former CIA (!) official Abigail Spanberger with 72.65 percent of the vote as opposed to 27.35 percent for her opponent, Dan Ward.  What is cause for Brat to worry is that the total Democratic primary vote was 45,693.  Since Brat did not have a primary challenger, there was no Republican primary and thus nothing to compare that total to, but still, that’s a pretty big Democratic vote in a low-turnout election.

Now on to the main event in November.

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Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.