In the proverbial political graveyard, we can examine the burial places of many a political career from years gone by. For some the cause of death — metaphorically speaking, of course — is “scandal” or “got on the wrong side of an issue.” For others, it’s simply “casualty of redistricting.”
We will probably add some names to that list on June 20.
We’ve already had some of those already. The tsunami of retirements we’ve seen in the General Assembly this year is partly prompted by some legislators finding themselves in districts that are inconvenient one way or another. Take, for instance, state Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County. He initially found himself drawn into a district with two other legislators: Democrat Creigh Deeds of Bath County and fellow Republican Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County. Deeds moved to Charlottesville, a city that’s been in his district for about two decades and one that is far more likely to elect Democrats than the one he was placed in, but Hanger wasn’t inclined to challenge Obenshain. He thought about moving — into a district that ran from Augusta County to Roanoke County and Craig County. If so, he’d have found himself going up against Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County. In the end, Hanger decided to retire but surely wouldn’t have if the maps looked different.
That was an unusual case — three legislators drawn into the same district. However, even some legislators who found themselves the only incumbent in a new district might come to find their new district politically difficult, even if it’s still strongly in favor of their party.
How can a lone Democrat in a strongly Democratic district, or a lone Republican in a strongly Republican district, find that new district not in their favor? The answer: If it includes a lot of new territory that a) forces that incumbent to appeal to a lot of new voters and b) produces a challenger who might be more familiar to those new voters.
The Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks Virginia elections and the money associated with them, has compiled profiles of what it considers the key primaries on June 20, most of which involve sitting legislators. As part of that, it’s computed what percentage of the district is new to those legislators. Some of the figures are pretty eye-popping.
Let’s start with a district that hasn’t gotten a lot of statewide attention — yet.
House District 50 Republican primary: John Marsden vs. Del. Tommy Wright
Update, June 7: Marsden has now dropped out of the race.
House District 50 is a strongly Republican district (64% for Glenn Youngkin in 2021) in the heart of Southside. Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg County, has been in Richmond for 22 years, elected and reelected 12 times, often without opposition and never with a primary challenger.
The new maps reshape the district so much that 54% of the voters are new to Wright. One of those is also his primary challenger, John Marsden of Farmville, who so far is outspending him. If Wright loses, it may not be because he’s done something wrong, but that the district simply changed.
House District 47 Republican primary: Del. Marie March vs. Del. Wren Williams
One of the most closely watched primaries in the state is the one we’ve dubbed the Blue Ridge Cage Match, because Dels. Marie March, R-Floyd County, and Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, have found themselves drawn into the same district. They’ve faced each other in court; now they face each other in a primary. Both candidates find themselves before a lot of new voters.
For Williams, 65.3% of the voters in this district are new. That’s almost a home field advantage compared to March — for her, 80.6% of the voters in this district are new. If we assume that the candidates win their home counties, then the real battleground will be Carroll County and Galax, which are new to both candidates. Carroll is now the most populous county in the district, accounting for just over one-third of the voters. Between Carroll and Galax, they add up to 41.3% of the new district.
Senate District 11 Democratic primary: Sen. Creigh Deeds vs. Del. Sally Hudson
One of the storylines in this year’s election cycle is how state Deeds moved from Bath County to Charlottesville to run in a more politically advantageous district. That’s only part of the story, though. He’s already represented Charlottesville for two decades; he just didn’t live there. When the district was reconfigured, he simply moved to where most of his previous constituents were. While we have to get used to seeing “Deeds, D-Charlottesville” instead of “Deeds, D-Bath County” in news stories, he’s not really new to the district. The VPAP analysis confirms this: Only 31.6% of Senate District 11 is new to Deeds. Meanwhile, 62.1% of it is new to Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, who is trying to move from the House to the Senate. Of course, any delegate running for a state Senate seat is going to find themselves facing a lot of new voters (the Senate has fewer members than the House, so Senate districts are bigger), but it’s wrong to think of Deeds as the outsider here. If he loses, it’ll be because Democrats in that district want a generational change, not because of redistricting because, geographically, Deeds has the advantage.
Senate District 17 Republican primary: Del. Emily Brewer vs. Hermie Sadler
The other Senate primary we’ve been following is in eastern Southside, where Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler of Emporia are bumper-to-bumper going into turn three. The same principle with Hudson above applies to Brewer here: As a delegate running for a Senate seat, she’s naturally going to be before a lot of voters for the first time. In her case, redistricting means a lot of her former House constituents can’t help her because they’re in a different district. For Brewer, 77.6% of the voters are new. Of course, for Sadler, a first-time candidate, they’re all new.
Senate District 18 Democratic primary: Sen. Louise Lucas vs. Sen. Lionel Spruill
The only other legislative primary in Southwest and Southside is for the Republican in House District 39 in Franklin County and part of Roanoke County — see Emily Hemphill’s story on that race — but both candidates there are first-time candidates so all the voters are new to them. So let’s take a look at some primaries elsewhere in Virginia where incumbents are finding themselves on new territory. We in Southwest Virginia have our March-Williams showdown; the Hampton Roads equivalent is the Democratic primary between two veteran state senators who have been drawn into the same district: Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Lionel Spruill of Chesapeake. The ads the two campaigns have been running are, umm, quite strong. Both candidates are also introducing themselves to lots of new voters. For Spruill, 57% of the voters are new. For Lucas, 62.9% are new. There may be lots of things that make the difference in this election, but one of them might be which candidate does the best job of appealing to those new voters.
Senate District 12 Republican primary: Sen. Amanda Chase vs. Tina Rameriz vs. former Sen. Glen Sturtevant
The Richmond area has two high-profile primaries with polarizing figures — one on the Republican side, one on the Democratic side. The Republican in question is state Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County, who is so at odds with her own party that she’s not a member of the Senate Republican caucus. She faces two opponents (and a three-way race might have the effect of splitting the vote to allow her to win with a plurality). For Chase, 46% of the voters are new. For former state Sen. Glen Sturtevant, 60.1% are. The third candidate is Tina Rameriz, for whom all the voters are new. Will Chase do better (or worse) with voters who know her or ones who don’t?
Senate District 13 Democratic primary: Former Del. Lashrecse Aird vs. Sen. Joe Morrissey
And then there’s Joe Morrissey. The Democratic state senator from Richmond has a long, colorful and sometimes pugilistic history. Has he finally met his match in former Del. Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg? We’ll find out. There’s been a lot of attention to all the Democrats lining up to endorse Aird, most recently U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond. There’s been less attention paid to this: 61% of the voters in this district are new to Morrissey. Of course, as a former delegate now running in a Senate district, 74.1% are new to Aird.
One asterisk to the figure that 61% of the voters here are new to Morrissey. They’re new to him in a general election. However, he sought votes from some of them earlier this year when he sought the Democratic nomination for the 4th District congressional seat in a party-run firehouse primary against Jennifer McClellan. For that, he ran in all these localities — and lost, with just 13.56% of the vote. McClellan has now endorsed Aird in this race.
Senate District 37 Democratic primary: Sen. Chap Petersen vs. Saddam Salim
Let’s wrap up with some districts in Northern Virginia where four incumbent Democratic senators are facing challenges on unfamiliar turf. We’ll look at these in ascending order of new voters. The first one up is the state Senate district where Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, faces challenger Saddam Salim. For Petersen, 54.1% of the voters are new.
Senate District 29 Democratic primary: Del. Elizabeth Guzman vs. Sen. Jeremy McPike
Next up is the district where state Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County, faces Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William County. As a delegate running for the Senate, Guzman is before a lot of voters new to her: 63.9%. Perhaps more important is this figure: 59.2% of the voters are new to McPike. This has often been seen as a progressive challenge to an incumbent, but how much of it will turn simply on most voters not knowing the incumbent?
Senate District 35 Democratic primary: Heidi Drauschak vs. Sen. David Marsden
State Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax County, first won election in 2010 by a margin of just 1.3 percentage points — and then has been reelected ever since by increasingly wide margins. Four years ago, he had no opposition at all. Now he’s got a primary opponent, Heidi Drauschak, in a district where 70.7% of the voters are new to him. At the last campaign finance report, the two were pretty evenly matched in fundraising. Keep an eye on this one.
Senate District 36 Democratic parimary: Sen. George Barker vs. Stella Pekarsky
Finally we come to this one. All these races have statewide implications but this one more than most. State Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County, is co-chair of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, so a legislator of some consequence. His fellow co-chair, Janet Howell, is retiring, so Barker’s star is set to shine brighter if Democrats retain control of the state Senate — but first he has to get past a primary challenge by Fairfax County School Board member Stella Pekarsky. She’s already been before most of the district’s voters in her school board campaign — only 44.3% of the district’s voters are new to her. For Barker, though, 92.6% of the voters here are new. Here’s one of the most important legislators in Richmond who has to run as if he were a first-time candidate, introducing himself to voters.
For anyone who was wondering about the impact of Virginia’s new redistricting method, which takes the power away from the General Assembly and gives it to a special commission or the Virginia Supreme Court, these examples help show what happens when incumbents don’t have a hand in drawing their own districts.
For a full list of who’s running in Southwest and Southside, see our election guide.