RICHMOND, Va. (AP) —
In Virginia’s statewide and legislative primaries Tuesday, some intraparty scores will be settled.
Democrats will pick their nominees for lieutenant governor from between state Sen. Ralph Northam and former Obama White House technology chief Aneesh Chopra, and for attorney general between state Sen. Mark Herring and Fairfax lawyer Justin Fairfax.
But the real bad blood is lower on the ticket, where seven House incumbents — five of them Republicans — representing 112 years of combined legislative experience face nomination challenges from newcomers who believe they’ve broken faith within their parties.
Among Republicans facing primaries is House Speaker Bill Howell and three committee chairmen: Del. Joe May, who heads the Transportation Committee; Del. Beverly Sherwood who chairs the Agriculture Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee; and Del. Bobby Orrock, chairman of the Health Welfare and Institutions Committee.
Their challengers are conservatives who take issue with the party’s legislative lions supporting bills that rankle the Republican Right. But the unifying issue appears to be their support for the recently passed first overhaul of a failing state transportation funding formula in 27 years.
Among Democratic challenges, none is as heated as the one that political newcomer Evandra Thompson, a 30-year-old banker who works in a northern Richmond suburb, is waging to deny Rosalyn Dance a fifth term in the House.
Her motivation is similar to those of the Republicans in that she considers Dance, a former Petersburg Mayor, an apostate to her party because she voted with Republicans on several key issues. These include a state takeover of Petersburg’s failing public schools, a Republican-written budget that did not provide for Medicaid expansion, and a Republican ambush-style effort to redraw state Senate districts to benefit the GOP and break a stalemate in which each party now holds 20 Senate seats.
Sure. But that’s what primaries are about: a reckoning within a political party to determine its direction. And the challengers are almost always those who are more ideologically driven and who argue that the incumbent is too cozy with the opposing party.
And its importance is multiplied in a time when the art of politically driven redistricting intended to maximize the strength of a majority party is elevated to a science by ever more powerful technology. It is capable of synthesizing precinct-by-precinct voting results with census data on the most minute level and rendering intricate geopolitical boundaries where a desired partisan outcome is virtually guaranteed.
Because of that, districts have become so solidly Republican or Democratic that incumbent legislators worry more about a June challenge from activists in the outer flanks of his or her own party than general election fights in November, and it further balkanizes a legislature increasingly riven by reflexive partisanship.
“We can’t just keep electing people because they’re incumbents,” said longtime GOP loyalist and first-time challenger Dave A. LaRock, who has waged a determined fight to unseat Joe May, who won his seat in the Virginia House 20 years ago when Republicans were still a minority accustomed to being shoved around by Democrats.
“Joe May has been in there a long time and the Democrats don’t oppose him for a good reason: They’re satisfied with his votes for their policies,” LaRock said.
That’s stretching it. May, a high-tech inventor and manufacturer who is among the General Assembly’s wealthiest members, has a voting record that’s heavily weighted toward his party’s initiatives. But in the rare cases when he’s gone his own way, it was on issues that make the conservatives see red. He opposed the repeal of Virginia’s one-handgun-purchase-per-month law, and he opposed the 2012 bill that would have mandated a vaginally intrusive ultrasound exam before women could undergo abortions.
But what outraged his Republican detractors was his support for the bipartisan transportation bill that increases a handful of taxes to generate more than $1 billion a year in additional revenue to maintain the state’s deteriorating 58,000-mile network of roads and jump-start Virginia’s moribund road construction program. The bill split House Republicans between those who feared that world-class highway gridlock would cripple economically vibrant but overbuilt northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and anti-tax hawks such who labeled the bill, pushed by Howell and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, as the largest tax increase in Virginia history.
Across the aisle, Dance had already disillusioned some fellow Democratic delegates before she committed what Del. Joe Morrisey and state Sen. Henry Marsh considered an unpardonable heresy by siding with the GOP on the surprise Senate redistricting bid that even some Republicans rejected because of its notorious bushwhack tactics.
On Jan. 20, Marsh, a Richmond Democrat and long-serving black lawmaker, was away to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama. With the Democrats down a seat and the GOP holding a 20-19 one-day numerical advantage, they amended a House bill that previously made only small technical corrections to legislative lines without warning and with limited debate and muscled it through on a strict party-line vote. Its advantages to the GOP would have easily given Republicans an additional three seats.
The bill died in the House when Speaker Howell ruled the Senate’s amendments were not germane to the original bill, but the damage was done when Dance spoke in a private Democratic Caucus meeting and in newspaper interviews in support of the Senate amendments. Morrissey was livid.
“I became outraged that there are two Rosalyn Dances — one that goes back to Petersburg and pretends to be a Democrat’s Democrat and one in the House that votes with the Republicans. I said, ‘Enough is enough,”’ he said. “But I decided to either say nothing at all unless I go do something about it, so I did.”
He began looking to recruit potential challengers. Three came forth last winter and Thompson survived as the consensus challenger. She also carries into the primaries rare endorsements of sitting legislators, Morrissey and Marsh.
Dance did not respond to repeated telephone and email requests for comment.