House District 50. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
House District 50. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

Update, June 7: Marsden has now dropped out of the race.

In a newly created, mostly remote House of Delegates district in Virginia’s deeply rural Southside, an incumbent of 22 years who has been able to avoid media scrutiny for more than two decades for the first time faces a primary challenge from a fellow Republican determined to oust him. 

John Marsden, a lifelong resident of Prince Edward County and a practicing attorney in Farmville, is seeking to take the nomination on June 2 from Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg, who has represented what currently is the 61st House District since 2001, succeeding Frank Ruff, who won a special election to the state Senate.

John Marsden. Courtesy of the campaign.
John Marsden. Courtesy of the campaign.

Of the 11 elections that Wright has won since he was first elected, he ran unopposed seven times. During the four contested elections he never won by less than 60% of the vote. In 2021, the most recent election,  he defeated Democrat Trudy Berry and Libertarian Joe Paschal with 67% of the vote. 

The newly created 50th District, which was approved by the Virginia Supreme Court in December 2021, includes Mecklenburg, Charlotte and Lunenburg counties, and parts of Prince Edward and Halifax counties. 

“Wright certainly has the incumbent advantage. Although the new district lines incorporate areas he did not previously represent, he is well known in the area, having run and won 11 times,” said David Richards, a political analyst and chair of the Political Science Program at the University of Lynchburg.

Del. Tommy Wright. Courtesy of House Republican Caucus.
Del. Tommy Wright. Courtesy of House Republican Caucus.

A Richmond native, Wright earned his B.A. in political science from Old Dominion University in 1970. Prior to joining the House, Wright was a member of the Lunenburg County Board of Supervisors from 1993 to 2000, serving as chair from 1995 to 1997.

Wright currently is a member of the Agriculture Committee and the General Laws Committee, which he co-chairs. He was also tapped by House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, to serve on the Broadband Advisory Council, the Volunteer Firefighter Rescue Squad Workers Service Award Board and on the Small Business Commission. He is also a member of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center.

In the General Assembly, Wright has proven a lawmaker with a consistently conservative voting record. During the 2020 session, he was one of just five delegates who voted against a bill to eliminate a law banning sexual intercourse before marriage. The bill passed 91-5 with bipartisan support in the House.  

During the same session, Wright made news after failing to inform the House of Delegates that he had tested positive for the coronavirus but had warned his home church that he had contracted the virus. 

Other than that, his more than two decades in the General Assembly have been rather uneventful, with Wright sponsoring little significant legislation. 

“His record is pretty thin. Most of the bills he has introduced recently have been fairly technical in nature and are often not directly related to Southside,” said Richards, the political analyst. “He does not have anything flashy or hot-button-issue related. This may reflect the mostly rural nature of his previous district.”

For example, of the just seven bills Wright sponsored during the 2023 legislative session, four were non-controversial resolutions of mere symbolic value that passed. 

Of his three other bills, two were killed, including a measure that would have prohibited the state from imposing a penalty or interest upon taxpayers who had failed to pay a state tax or file a return without first notifying them that a return is required. 

A Wright proposal that would have eliminated a requirement for the Department of Environmental Quality to report annually the results of the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Advisory Committee’s examinations and related recommendations to the state also failed.

The only legislation sponsored by Wright this year that was signed into law was House Bill 1622, which removes the requirement that a health regulatory board receive information that a medical practitioner may be subject to a disciplinary action in order for the board to order informal fact-finding proceedings.

Despite his rather lean legislative record, Wright has not made any big missteps either, Richards said. “This year the House and Senate elections in Virginia are big news because of redistricting, but most election cycles are pretty sleepy absent a big scandal.” 

When Cardinal News reached out to Wright twice to discuss his legislative record for this story, he declined to be interviewed both times, citing his “busy schedule.” Wright also has no campaign website and no social media profile. 

Marsden, Wright’s Republican primary challenger, announced his primary challenge in March, just days after Wright submitted his reelection bid. He did not respond to several emails and voice messages asking for an interview.

“With this new district, it’s time for fresh representation,” Marsden, 43, said in a statement on the day of his announcement. “I am running to represent the 50th district because we deserve more than career politicians who spend decades in office while our area continues to lose out; by losing jobs, population, and having our citizens and businesses struggle without basic modern infrastructure.”

Marsden is a graduate of Prince Edward County High School and nearby Hampden-Sydney College, where he majored in political science and history. He received a law degree from Penn State University Dickinson School of Law and returned to Southside to establish a private law practice, representing clients for nearly two decades.  

Marsden also serves as the Assistant Commissioner of Accounts in Prince Edward County, Institutional Attorney for Buckingham and Dillwyn Correctional Centers, and as counsel for indigent defendants.  

He has been married to his wife, Polly, since 2015 and the couple has one daughter who attends Prince Edward County Public Schools. 

Although Marsden’s bid for the General Assembly is his first, he is no newcomer to politics. 

Starting in 1995, Marsden has worked for “conservative and Republican candidates at all levels,” and still does to this day, according to his campaign website. He has served twice – in 2009 and again in 2022 – as the chairman of the Prince Edward County Republican Committee. 

In this role, he recruited and helped elect the first Republicans to the Board of Supervisors since the 1980s, and he continues to “play an integral part in the support and election of conservatives across Southside and the Commonwealth to protect, defend, and preserve our way of life.” In 2011, Marsden was an unsuccessful candidate for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Prince Edward County.

Richards, the political analyst, said that Marsden is not running too much further to the right of Wright. 

“He has been critical of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 15-week abortion ban, and he seems to want a shorter time period ban. He seems to be mainly critical of Wright’s tepid legislative track record in the House of Delegates,” Richards said. 

Marsden’s experience in running elections as the former local GOP chair might also benefit him, as he may be able to pull in favors and support from local Republicans, Richards added. “Although I would think they would want to stick with a proven and reliable candidate in Wright,” he said. 

Marsden so far has also outraised his opponent. As of March 31, he had raised a total of $72,000 – more than twice the $30,000 that Wright reported for the same period, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracking money in politics. 

But in addition to his own campaign coffers, Wright’s Political Action Committee has another $55,000 in cash on hand. “So they are fairly evenly matched, although Wright’s donor base is much wider and varied, probably due to his 22 years in the House,” Richards said. 

At this time, no Democrat has filed a candidacy in the 50th District. “So it will come down to the June 20 primary,” Richards said.

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at or 804-822-1594.