Democrats in a vacant Richmond-based congressional district nominated Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan for the seat, putting her on a path to becoming the state’s first Black woman in Congress.
McClellan was one of four Democrats on the ballot Tuesday in the Virginia 4th Congressional District’s quick-turnaround “firehouse primary,” along with state Sen. Joe Morrissey, Joseph Preston and Tavorise Marks. The seat was previously held by the late Democratic Rep. Don McEachin, who died on Nov. 28, just weeks after winning reelection.
McClellan received 85 percent of the vote, compared to 14 percent for Morrissey, and less than 1 percent each for Marks and Preston. A firehouse primary, also known as an unassembled caucus, is a party-run vote where people can vote in-person as they would on a typical Election Day. More than 27,000 voters in the district turned out on Tuesday — a number that state Democratic party officials say is the largest firehouse primary turnout in Democratic Party of Virginia history. The vote counting began at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. That hand counting process, conducted by volunteers, finished at around 4 a.m. on Thursday.
The district is heavily blue, so McClellan is very likely to win the special election on Feb. 21, when she’ll face off against Republican Leon Benjamin. This is Benjamin’s third time running for the seat; McEachin beat him with more than 60 percent support in both 2020 and 2022.
The district spans 15 cities and counties, but the largest chunk of voters is in Richmond, a city with a predominantly Black population.
McClellan raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in the week after the party-run primary was announced, and she raked in dozens of endorsements from local and national Democratic politicians and groups. That includes the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, EMILY’s List, End Citizens United/Let America Vote, NewDem Action Fund, Virginia’s entire Democratic congressional delegation and Colette McEachin, the wife of the late congressman.
McClellan is the vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and a former gubernatorial candidate. She spent more than 10 years in Virginia’s House of Delegates and succeeded McEachin in the state Senate after he was elected to Congress in 2016.
McClellan’s biggest challenger in the primary was Morrissey, a moderate Democrat who has described himself as “pro-life” — a contrast to the pro-abortion-rights platform McClellan emphasized in the short week of campaigning.
Morrissey is an outsize figure in Virginia politics — with decades of experience and a litany of scandals in his past. That includes throwing punches in the courtroom, being disbarred twice, and resigning from the House of Delegates in 2014 after being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor — a 17-year-old receptionist at his law firm, whom he later married as an adult and now has a family with. He then won the special election to fill his state House seat as an independent while in jail.
Conservative radio host John Fredericks was encouraging Republicans to vote for Morrissey in the primary. Any registered voter in the 4th District who brought a photo ID and signed a statement declaring themselves to be a Democrat was eligible to cast a vote Tuesday. It’s difficult to say how many Republican voters did come out, but it wasn’t enough to propel Morrissey to victory.
The firehouse primary was run by the state Democratic Party. Rather than a normal primary run by state and county election officials, the Virginia Department of Elections said it’s the parties’ responsibility to run the special election nominating processes. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin called the special election last Monday, and nominees from the parties had to be decided by this Friday, leading to the compressed timeline.