Democrat Jennifer McClellan has made history as the first Black woman elected to represent Virginia in Congress, NBC News projected Tuesday.
McClellan, a state senator, defeated Republican Leon Benjamin in Tuesday’s special election in the 4th Congressional District. She will fill the seat of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, who died from cancer shortly after he won re-election in November.
“It still blows my mind that we’re having firsts in 2023,” McClellan said in an interview. “My ancestors fought really hard to have a seat at that table, and now not only will I have a seat at the table in Congress; I’ll be able to bring that policymaking table into communities that never really had a voice before.”
McClellan was heavily favored to win in the reliably blue district, which covers Richmond and reaches counties bordering North Carolina. President Joe Biden won 67.1% of the vote in 2020, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated the House race as Solid Democrat.
McClellan will join 29 other Black women in the House. There are no Black women in the Senate.
“I feel a responsibility to ensure I’m not the last,” she said.
The White House said Biden called McClellan Tuesday night "as she was headed to her historic win." Biden "looks forward to working with the Congresswoman-elect," the White House added.
McClellan served 11 years in the House of Delegates and has been a member of the state Senate since 2017. She ran for governor in 2021, losing in a five-person primary to Terry McAuliffe, who ultimately lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin.
McClellan’s campaign focused on her legislative victories, highlighting efforts to protect voting rights and domestic workers — issues that resonated with her family’s experiences and that she said helped shape her policy views.
She said her commitment to voting rights stems in part from the challenges family members faced in their efforts to vote. Voting officials tried to stop her great-grandfather from voting in Alabama because of his efforts as a Black community leader and teacher, she said. She also said her grandfather was forced to take a literacy test before he could vote.
“I brought those experiences and those stories with me into the public policy arena,” McClellan said, adding that her family’s struggle enabled her to “be a voice that for a long time was missing in the halls of the General Assembly.”
In 2021, as Republican-led states passed legislation to restrict voting rights, McClellan co-sponsored Virginia’s voting rights law to protect elements of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.
As a state senator, McClellan also helped pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and has said she plans to push for similar legislation in Congress, although such a bill be would likely to fail in the Republican-controlled House.
As she was campaigning, she highlighted a family background with roots as domestic workers, until her mother became the first in her family to continue her education beyond eighth grade.
McClellan said she sees her win as a continuation of that fight.
“I realize that in a lot of ways, I am fighting the same fight that my mom and my grandmother and my great-grandmother fought, and rather than getting despondent over that or giving up, I dig deeper,” she said. “I’ve got to keep fighting those fights so my daughter doesn’t have to.”
McClellan’s campaign also touched on abortion rights, which was a key issue for Democrats in last year’s midterm elections. She pledged to support passage of a federal law to codify Roe v. Wade.
Benjamin, a pastor and Navy veteran who is also Black, had painted himself as an advocate for religious freedom and an anti-abortion candidate opposed to teaching critical race theory in classrooms.
Benjamin, who twice lost to McEachin, refused to concede his election loss in 2020, citing election irregularities.
Last month, Benjamin — who had campaigned on a message that division was destroying America — faced backlash over a Facebook post from 2011 in which he promoted New Life Harvest Church, where he is a pastor, and urged people to bring their “sick, disease, gay, homosexual, lesbian, transvestite, bipolar, alcoholic, drug addiction friends and love ones.”
MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart pressed Benjamin about the issue in an interview last month, asking him how he would deliver on a campaign promise to serve as a "bridge" in Congress in light of his social media post.
“I think that the LGBTQ and the homosexuals are dealing with high gas prices, inflation, the high crime, the education," Benjamin said. "I don't think my opponent has the compassion for all people, but I do."