The late U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin. Official portrait.
The late U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin. Official portrait.

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When I was a kid, my grandmother always got a Whitman’s Sampler of chocolates each Christmas. I don’t remember who gave it to her; I just remember I wound up eating most of them. We have a lot of political news happening around the state right now, so consider this a Yancey’s Sampler of commentary. As with chocolates, some are chewier than others.

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. Courtesy of House Oversight Committee
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. Courtesy of House Oversight Committee
  1. The death of Rep. Don McEachin may scramble the 2025 governor’s race. Here’s how: After their 2021 wipeout, Democrats were left with no obvious candidates for the next governor’s race. Lots of names have been bandied about – from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn to Loudoun County Del. David Reid, who has been traveling the state, ostensibly in his role as chairman of the Virginia Commission on Manufacturing Development, which isn’t exactly a household term but does provide some rationale for his visits. (I wrote about him in a column earlier this year, “Meet rural Virginia’s unofficial delegate.”) The one name consistently on everyone’s list, though, was that of state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. McClellan is a serious-minded legislator who sought her party’s nomination for governor in 2021. She finished a distant third – taking just under 12% of the vote in a five-way primary where Terry McAuliffe took 62%. Despite the low percentage, she was seen as having run a credible race and it’s been widely assumed that she’d run again.

Now, though, it looks like she’ll be running for Congress instead. Both she and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico County, have already filed the official paperwork to seek the 4th District seat left open by McEachin’s death, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. If McClellan wins, she’d seem to be out of the gubernatorial picture for 2025. If she loses, she’d likely be out, as well – it’s hard to argue electability statewide if you can’t win a nomination battle on your home turf. Will McClellan’s interest in the congressional race cause some other Democratic names to surface as possibilities for 2025?

Personally, I’m surprised by McClellan’s interest in Congress: As governor, you get to do stuff. Being one of 435 members of Congress seems a pretty thankless job, especially if you’re a member of the minority party, which she would be here if she wins. On the other hand, this is an easier path: Win the nomination and you’re essentially guaranteed a congressional seat for life. The 4th District seat, which runs from the Richmond area down Interstate 95 to Emporia and the North Carolina line, is safely Democratic. The Virginia Public Access Project says the Democratic vote in the district has never been below 61% in any election in the past six years; McEachin took 64.9% in his reelection last month. Nonetheless, there will be a Republican nominee. Right now, there are two candidates: Leon Benjamin, who lost in 2020 and again this year, and Dale Sturdifen, the former Mecklenburg County school board chair who is now field director for Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, in the 5th District next door. Mecklenburg’s not in the 4th District but House members aren’t required to live in their district.

On Monday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin set Feb. 21 as the date of the special election to pick McEachin’s successor. We don’t have a timeline yet for when the two parties will pick their nominees, but should McClellan win the nomination, and then the election, that has some implications for the impending vote on abortion restrictions in the 2023 General Assembly as well, which Times-Dispatch reporter Michael Martz detailed in this story. The short version: Right now the state Senate is 21-19 but that’s in flux two ways. One of the Republicans, Jen Kiggans of Virginia Beach, is leaving because she was elected to Congress, and we don’t know how the special election to fill her seat will go. Meanwhile, one of those 21 Democrats is Joe Morrissey, who has indicated he might support some restrictions on abortion. If Democrats win that special election in Virginia Beach, that would give them a 22-18 margin. However, if the Republican won and the Senate stays 21-19, then we have this scenario:

If McClellan were to be the Democratic nominee, and she won the congressional race on Feb. 21, she’d be leaving the state Senate before the chamber adjourns. That would take things to 20-19 for a while – which means a Morrisey vote could pass abortion restrictions. How many 4th District Democrats will be taking that math into account as they decide between McClellan and Bagby? Speaking of Congress …

Bob Good
  1. Bob Good has emerged as a leading voice against Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the speakership. The 5th District congressman voted against McCarthy in the Republican caucus but now has signaled he’ll vote against him on the House floor, as well. CNN recently described Good as a “hard no” against McCarthy. “How many members vote for someone else will show the strength [of the anti-McCarthy group],” Good told CNN. “I think the second ballot is going to have more candidates. … There are already Republicans letting us know they’d like to be considered.”

McCarthy is not well liked by the more conservative Republicans in Congress, of which Good is certainly one. CNN reported last month that Good was unhappy with McCarthy for an additional reason: McCarthy didn’t call to congratulate him after he won his nomination. It’s unclear whether this was his renomination this year or after he ousted then-Rep. Denver Riggleman in 2020. According to that story, which reported on a House Republican meeting:  “McCarthy replied that he directed $2 million to Good for his race. Good had to be gaveled down in order to cut him off from speaking so they could move to the next question, the source said.” Axios reports that Good will be voting for Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, a fellow member of the Freedom Caucus, for speaker. Don’t count on Biggs winding up with the speaker’s gavel – there are said to be only about 20 hard-core conservatives who oppose McCarthy but those are enough to deny him the majority. In any case, Good has become one of the most prominent anti-McCarthy voices in the land, quoted in almost every story I’ve found about this unfolding drama.

Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, and Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County.

3. More evidence of how nasty the Marie March-Wren Williams nomination fight is going to be. Or already is. Over the weekend, The Roanoke Times reported that somebody – we don’t know who – posted a racist image on the website of the Patrick County Republican Party. The state party has condemned this and vows to investigate. What’s curious to me is that the tipster here is March. She is not known for her willingness to talk to the news media but made a point of texting The Roanoke Times about this offensive image in Patrick County. Naturally, she said that Williams should bear some responsibility for this, although it’s unclear how, other than that he’s a Republican from Patrick County. In any case, the point here is how anything is going to be a flashpoint for this knock-down, drag-out fight, at least figuratively. Williams is due in court later this week on the assault charge that March had filed against him after an incident at a Republican meeting this fall; Williams says he only inadvertently bumped into March as he was leaving the building. (For more on this Blue Ridge Death Match, see my previous column that looks at the dynamics of the race.)

Georgia Johnson of Bristol in the store at 2118 Euclid Ave. Photo by Susan Cameron.
Georgia Johnson of Bristol in the store at 2118 Euclid Ave. Photo by Susan Cameron.
  1. Those storefronts full of so-called skill games in Bristol will change the politics of such machines. The question is, how? First, I refer you to the story that Cardinal’s Susan Cameron and Markus Schmidt had last week. These so-called “skill games” – operators claim they involve skill, others dispute that – have always been controversial. Casino interests have wanted them banned entirely. In fact, the General Assembly did ban them, but then Emporia truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler (who’s now a Republican candidate for the state Senate) signed up state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County and his attorney, and they won an injunction that has kept the games legal. All those machinations have also meant these so-called “gray machines” are in a gray area legally. When they were legal, they were taxed. Now, under the injunction, they’re not, because that taxing authority has expired. And, as our story showed, they’re now proliferating. Once you saw maybe two or three in a convenience store. Now we’re seeing some stores add whole “game rooms” – and now, in Bristol, we’re seeing whole storefronts with nothing but such games. One is directly across from the Bristol Casino, which creates this uncomfortable contrast. Over here is a highly regulated, highly taxed business with games of chance. Over there is a completely unregulated and untaxed business with what may or may not be games of chance, but sure feels like a mini-casino.

In my columns, I’ve always been sympathetic to these games, although I’ve never played one and don’t intend to. I’ve just never bought the argument that having a few of these games in the Quickette convenience store in Fincastle discourages people from driving three hours to the casino in Bristol. Indeed, I’ve pointed out that, when they were taxed, these games brought in a disproportionate amount of income for some (not all, but some) rural localities – and not entirely rural localities, either. In Lynchburg, skill games brought in enough to fund almost six teachers; Roanoke, seven; in Virginia Beach more than 17. Just based on the math, the quest to ban skill games seemed something that would hurt the western part of the state more than any other. (Virginia Beach, with its boardwalk, is very much an outlier.)

However, there seems to be a big difference between a few games in a convenience store and a whole building devoted to them, especially one directly across from a casino – that’s just a different order of magnitude. How will that change the politics of skill games? For now, the politics are in abeyance, thanks to the court case, at least officially, but politics are never truly in abeyance. If Sadler and Stanley prevail, though, and the games remain legal, what regulations might be coming?

That’s all that’s in this sampler box today. Tomorrow I’ll be back with even more to chew on.

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Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.