Democrats in Richmond, Va., the state capital, are scrambling to organize a primary election on Tuesday after the death of a congressman just weeks ago, and the race’s front-runner could become the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress since the state was founded in 1788.
Representative A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat who overwhelmingly won re-election in the midterms last month, died on Nov. 28 at the age of 61, following a yearslong battle with colorectal cancer.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, set the special election for Mr. McEachin’s seat for Feb. 21. Because Mr. McEachin’s district leans Democratic — the Fourth Congressional District is a predominantly Black and Latino region that stretches from Richmond into rural counties along the North Carolina border — the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary is highly favored to win the special election in February. Mr. McEachin defeated his Republican opponent by 30 points in November.
Democrats organized Tuesday’s party-run primary for just one week after the governor’s announcement, a rushed timeline made all the more complicated by holding an election five days before Christmas.
“The governor definitely chose the shortest amount of time, which has made us have to put together this nomination contest on the shortest time frame,” said Alexsis Rodgers, chairwoman of the Fourth Congressional District Democratic Committee.
A New U.S. Congress Takes Shape
Following the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats maintained control of the Senate while Republicans flipped the House.
A front-runner quickly emerged: State Senator Jennifer McClellan, a veteran lawmaker who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2021. In the first 24 hours of declaring her candidacy, she raised more than $100,000, according to her campaign.
Two of the state’s top Black elected officials initially expressed interest, Ms. McClellan and Lamont Bagby, a state delegate. They lead the influential Virginia Legislative Black Caucus — Mr. Bagby is the caucus chair and Ms. McClellan is the vice chair.
Last week, however, Mr. Bagby dropped out and endorsed Ms. McClellan. Other Democrats soon followed with endorsements of Ms. McClellan, including all eight members of Virginia’s Democratic congressional delegation, Mr. McEachin’s widow and scores of national Democratic groups.
Ms. McClellan, who has run what she called a one-week get-out-the-vote campaign and has knocked on doors with several state leaders, centered her message on her Virginia roots and legislative accomplishments. In an interview on Friday, she said being a Black woman helped shape her policies, particularly on workers’ rights and maternal health.
“I bring a new perspective to the office that will help me represent the district and those who have not had a voice, in ways that other candidates cannot,” she said. She listed her noteworthy firsts — she was the first Black woman to hold her State Senate seat and was the first person to serve in the State House of Delegates while pregnant.
Democrats in the district will hold a so-called firehouse primary on Tuesday. Named for the polling places where they are typically held, such elections are organized and funded by party representatives rather than local or state election officials. Democratic voters in the primary will be required to sign a pledge stating they will vote for the party’s nominee during the general election.
Ms. McClellan’s main Democratic opponent is State Senator Joe Morrissey, a self-described rebel within the party. Mr. Morrissey, a former defense lawyer, was disbarred twice and spent time in jail for aiding the delinquency of a minor in 2014. The minor involved later became his wife. In January 2022, then-Gov. Ralph Northam pardoned Mr. Morrissey for his conviction in the case.
Mr. Morrissey has voted against Democratic policies and has signaled his opposition to proposed state policies protecting abortion access. John Fredericks, a prominent Virginia Republican and radio host, cut an ad for Mr. Morrissey and has been encouraging his listeners to vote for him in the Democratic primary.
However, Mr. Morrissey’s criminal justice work in Richmond’s Black communities has earned him support in the district. He has also won against tough odds before. In 2019, he defeated an incumbent Democratic state senator.
Representatives for Mr. Morrissey did not respond to requests for comment.
During an episode of his radio show on Thursday, Mr. Morrissey railed against Democrats’ handling of the primary, saying that setting the primary election on a weekday instead of the weekend, as well as by placing zero voting locations in his home district, unfairly disadvantaged his supporters.
“I don’t care that you don’t like me,” he said, addressing Democrats in the district. “That’s fine. That’s your prerogative. Go vote against me.” He added, “But what you’ve done is you have set back the voting gains that we’ve made for the last 10 years in order to get the person you want.”
Other Democrats in the race include Joseph Preston, a former state delegate who served for one year, and Tavorise Marks, a businessman from the area.
Virginia Republicans have already elected their nominee for the seat. Leon Benjamin, a pastor and Navy veteran whom Mr. McEachin handily defeated in November, won the Republican nomination on Saturday, in a ranked-choice primary held by the district G.O.P. committee.