State Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s emphatic victory in this week’s Democratic primary for the vacant 4th District Congressional seat is setting up as a historic moment for Virginia.
McClellan, who won 85% of the more than 27,000 votes cast, will now face Republican Leon Benjamin in a special election on Feb. 21 to fill the seat previously held by U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, who passed away on Nov. 28 after a long battle with cancer. It’s a heavily Democratic district, however, which likely means McClellan is poised become the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress.
How the so-called firehouse primary was structured clearly advantaged McClellan, a 16-year veteran of the General Assembly. Across eight polling locations in the district, there was surprisingly robust turnout, especially for a party-run election the week before Christmas.
The quick-turnaround primary and McClellan’s collective endorsements — which included all eight Democratic members of Virginia’s congressional delegation, along with nearly every prominent Democrat in the state — helped the corporate attorney easily overpower fellow state Sen. Joe Morrissey, who garnered just 13.5% of the vote.
It was a rare display of power by the Democratic Party of Virginia, which clearly mobilized to ensure that the controversial Morrissey, a twice-disbarred attorney whose retail prowess and political cunning are unmatched in Richmond, was unable to mount a serious challenge. Attorney and longtime Democratic strategist Paul Goldman, a former law partner with Morrissey, filed a federal lawsuit challenging the primary’s timing and organization — none of the eight polling locations, for example, were in Morrissey’s home district in Chesterfield — but the high turnout and overwhelming result “are not optimal for further developments” in a suit that largely argues Democrats were attempting to suppress voter participation, says Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.
McClellan also benefited from running, but ultimately losing, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary last year, Farnsworth says. While she placed a disappointing third in the 2021 primary, ceding the nomination to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the campaign raised her statewide profile considerably.
“It really speaks to the advantage of Sen. McClellan having run a statewide primary recently,” Farnsworth said on Thursday. “She was much better known across the district.”
It didn’t hurt that abortion rights remains top of mind for Democratic voters. McClellan has been a vocal opponent of restricting abortion access in Virginia in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this year. It had the opposite effect on Morrissey, the rare Democrat who has publicly voiced opposition to abortion and represents a possible swing vote in the state Senate, particularly if Republicans hold on to the 7th District seat vacated by Jen Kiggans, who won the 2nd District Congressional election in November. A special election to fill the vacated 7th in Hampton Roads will be held on Jan. 10, but it’s seen by many as a tossup.
In the end, the waters were parted for the deserving McClellan, who is widely considered an effective lawmaker who eschews power politics and has become a prominent voice on social and environmental issues in Richmond. She’s not a brawler, which some see as a knock on her political ambitions. But winning 85% of the vote against “Fighting” Joe Morrissey, who once famously punched a defense attorney in a courthouse hallway, is a hopeful sign: Organization, good policy and patience sometimes pay off.
Once again, the Richmond Police Department is at a crossroads.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, Democratic congressional nominee in the 4th District, discusses her victory and campaign plans ahead of the Feb. 21 special election at state Democratic Party headquarters Thursday.