FILE - In this Tuesday, May 29, 2018 file photo, co-chairman of the Senate Finance committee, State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, left, as he speaks during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee as co-chairman State Sen. Thomas Norment, R-James City County, right, listens at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Hanger is facing a spirited opponent in Tuesday's election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Feisty Virginia primaries closely watched for national trend

June 11, 2019 - 12:39 pm

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Voting in primary elections began Tuesday in Virginia, where off-year contests for all 140 seats in the state Legislature could serve as a political barometer for the coming presidential year.

The state's 2017 elections were an early warning signal that a blue wave of opposition to President Donald Trump would wash over the 2018 U.S. midterms, and now political analysts are looking for clues about 2020.

Normally sleepy affairs, the primaries are more dramatic this year as moderates in both parties take fire from their more extreme flanks. Virginia is the only state where the Legislature has a reasonable chance of flipping party control. Republicans currently have narrow majorities in both the House and Senate.

On the GOP side, lingering resentment over last year's vote to expand Medicaid in Virginia is fueling divisive contests. Many Democratic incumbents are being challenged by liberal newcomers who aren't shy about attacking their opponents as ethically compromised and out of step with their base.

Democrats hope to continue a three-year winning streak, powered largely by suburban voters unhappy with Trump.

But the party lost a major advantage earlier this year when its top three statewide office holders became ensnared in scandal. A racist yearbook photo surfaced in February and almost forced Gov. Ralph Northam from office. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was then accused by two women of sexual assault, which he denied. And Attorney General Mark Herring, after calling for Northam to resign, revealed that he too wore blackface once in college.

Asked about the Northam scandal, several voters said they were ready to move on from it.

"God says, 'If you can't forgive your brother, how can I forgive you?' You've got to learn to forgive," said Gail Parker-Coefield, a 65-year-old home health nurse who cast her ballot in Virginia Beach. The African American voter chose state Senate candidate Cheryl Turpin, who is currently a state delegate.

Threatened incumbents include two of Virginia's most powerful senators, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw and Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger.

Saslaw, who is pro-business and chummy with Republicans, has not faced a primary challenger in 40 years. This year he has two, including 39-year-old human rights lawyer Yasmine Taeb, who paints Saslaw as too conservative and cozy with special interests.

Hanger played a key role in the Medicaid expansion that made 400,000 low-income adults eligible to enroll. Opponent Tina Freitas said Hanger betrayed constituents by supporting Medicaid and that he isn't conservative enough on guns or abortion. Hospitals have spent heavily to help Hanger.

Similar themes are playing out around the state. Republican Del. Bob Thomas also voted for Medicaid expansion and is trying to hold on to his Fredericksburg-area seat.

Del. Lee Carter, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who was one of the biggest surprise winners in 2017, is trying to fend off a more moderate opponent.

Tuesday's vote also featured a comeback attempt by Joe Morrissey, who used to spend his days at the state Capitol and his nights in jail after being accused of having sex with his teenage secretary. He's looking to unseat incumbent Sen. Roslyn Dance in a Richmond-area Democratic primary.

Voter Bella Weinstein, a 31-year old prop stylist and clothing designer, said it was easy for her to choose Dance. She cited Morrissey's checkered past, and she doesn't believe he's honest.

Dance "just seems like she's a decent person and cares about the people she represents," Weinstein said.

She also said she doesn't believe that Dance's decision to align herself with Northam will hurt her, despite the blackface scandal.

"I'm against what he did. I'm hoping it doesn't represent who he is today," she said of Northam. "Our president is a pretty good example of people having a pretty short-term memory. I don't think it will hurt her (Dance). I think she's trying to protect the party."

Melvin Washington said he picked Morrissey because he believes he understands the district's neighborhoods. Washington said he is not bothered by Morrissey's past legal problems.

"People try to blow things up more than what it is," he said. "Ain't none of us perfect."

In Virginia Beach, 63-year-old Debbie Sorensen said the blackface scandal didn't affect her vote because she would have voted Republican anyway.

"But if I had not been a Republican, I would have definitely voted Republican because of that scandal," she said.

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Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie in Richmond and Ben Finley in Virginia Beach contributed to this report.

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