Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced Monday that Virginia will hold a special election Feb. 21 to fill the seat of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, 61, who represented the 4th District until his death from cancer last month.
The unexpected opening in the majority-minority Democratic district — which is based in and around Richmond and extends to the North Carolina border — is already attracting interest from prominent Democrats who are part of a new generation of Black leaders in the state.
Two of these well-known Richmond-area Democrats have already announced their intentions. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, 49, is a veteran legislator who served 11 years in the House of Delegates and has been a member of the Senate since 2017. She has long held aspirations for higher office and lost a five-person primary for governor last year. If McClellan wins, she would be the first Black woman to serve in Congress from Virginia.
“I’m a strong Black woman who was raised by a strong Black woman with two sisters who, you know, has had to be resilient to succeed, particularly in politics,” McClellan said, adding that she was aware of her opportunity to make history.
“My parents saw the best of government through the New Deal and the worst of government through Jim Crow. And at a very young age, I decided I want to be a part of making government that force for good,” she said.
Her top challenger is Del. Lamont Bagby, 45 a former teacher and school board member who is the chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. In his announcement speech Monday, he talked about his goals to reform the criminal justice system.
“We need to be spending less money on criminal justice, more money on public safety and more money on education. That way, we are investing in people on the front end and not the back end,” he said.
The open seat presents an opportunity for a representative from a group of young and emerging Black leaders in and around Virginia’s capital city to move to the national level. Bagby and McClellan are part of a group of rising-star elected officials that includes Richmond Mayor LeVar Stoney and former Del. Lashrecse Aird, both of whom are Democrats.
Stoney passed on the chance to run and instead put his support behind Bagby. Aird plans a primary campaign for a state Senate seat and ruled out a bid for Congress.
McClellan has had a front row seat to Virginia’s political evolution. She was a Democratic superdelegate during the 2008 primaries, initially supporting Hillary Clinton before she ultimately endorsed and campaigned for Barack Obama. Obama was the first Democrat to win Virginia’s electoral votes in more than 40 years, and Virginia Democrats have since dominated at the statewide level. State Republicans bucked the trend last year when Youngkin led a statewide GOP ticket that swept the commonwealth.
“We are sort of the epitome of the new South that is coming to terms with its past in a way that is eventually going to leave no one behind and ... there are a lot of growing pains there and we’re not there yet,” McClellan said.
Bagby said he views the opportunity to run for Congress as a chance to usher in a new generation of Virginia leaders that mirrors the shift to young leaders in Washington.
“That’s one of the reasons why I’m so committed to running,” he said. “I think it is an opportunity for my generation to step up and lead, but lead with the community in mind and the community by your side.”
A late entry to the race is state Sen. Joe Morrissey, a firebrand Democrat who often votes with Republicans. Morrissey is a controversial figure who has had his law license revoked several times and entered into a plea agreement in 2014 for a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after admitting he had sex with an underage girl. That girl, who was 17 at the time and an employee at his law office, is now his wife. Morrissey’s conviction was eventually pardoned by then Governor Ralph Northam.
The rapid timing of the special election means both parties will have to pick their nominees quickly to have their campaigns up and running before the holidays. Candidates for the special election must be set by Dec. 23.
The parties are planning for a “firehouse primary.” The process is very similar to an unorganized caucus, in which voters go to a specific location or locations on a specific day and cast ballots to nominate their candidate. The rules of such primaries, which vary from year to year, are decided by the parties’ congressional committees. Virginia voters do not register with parties, so the nominating contests are open to everyone. In the past, both Democrats and Republicans have tried to ask voters to sign a loyalty pledge to cast ballots.
The Virginia Democratic Congressional Committee chose Monday night to hold its primary on Dec. 20. It plans to release specific details about how it will be conducted soon. Interested candidates must submit a filing fee along with 150 signatures from voters in the district to qualify for the primary.
The timing of the general election, near the end of the General Assembly’s legislative session, could also complicate things for Democrats. McClellan and Bagby serve in the Legislature, and if one goes on to win, it would tighten the margins. The Senate, in particular, is a big problem for Democrats, because they hold a scant 21-19 majority.
If McClellan vacates her seat early to move to Congress, Democrats would have only a one-seat cushion, with Morrissey not a reliable vote for Democrats in the Senate. Any tie would be broken by Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears. Republicans already control the House and the Executive Mansion. Youngkin would also set the special election to pick her replacement, and he could delay that vote until November.
Some Democratic activists worry that if McClellan’s seat is left empty, Youngkin could try to push through bills that would, among other things, restrict access to abortion. McClellan dismissed the concern, arguing that Democrats have an opportunity to pick up a seat in a coming state Senate special election and that the party would be able to kill such legislation in committee.
“I am confident that the leaders in the Senate Democratic Caucus will continue to protect our progress and stop any bad House bills in committee,” she said.
Republicans will have the opportunity to pick a candidate, as well, and several people have stepped forward. Leon Benjamin, a pastor was once a Democrat and is now a Republican, plans to run. Benjamin ran against McEachin in 2020 and this year, losing both races by more than 25 points. Dale Sturdifen, a former candidate for the state Senate, has also expressed interest in running. Republicans are still trying to decide how they will pick their nominee.
Given the partisan makeup of the district, it will be very difficult for a Republican to win, which is part of why so much is riding on the primary process for Democrats.
Stoney, the mayor of Richmond, who is supporting Bagby, made it clear that the stakes are high.
“When you send someone to Congress, you are sending them, investing in them, your hopes and your dreams, the hopes and dreams for yourselves, but also for your families, as well,” he said. “That they’re going to go to Washington and stand up for those who sometimes are forgotten.”
CORRECTION (Dec. 13, 2022, 1:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the number of candidates in last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. It was five, not three. It also mischaracterized the use of loyalty pledges in the past. Both Republicans and Democrats have tried to ask voters to sign loyalty pledges, not just Republicans.