The elections before the election: Primary season in Hampton Roads
As the old adage goes, it’s always election season in Virginia.
All 140 General Assembly seats are up for grabs later this year. Before that, primary elections have to happen.
Redistricting and a number of retirements have made for the most competitive primaries in a decade. Long-time allies are squaring off in some districts. In others, newcomers are brawling to get a foot in the door.
Here’s your guide to this year’s primary season.
What are primaries?
Primary elections happen ahead of general elections to determine who will be nominated by a political party to run for a seat.
In primary elections, political party members run against each other. These elections are run by the parties to determine who is on the ballot in November for the general election. That November election is where parties compete against each other.
Not every district will have a Democratic and Republican primary. It’s only necessary where multiple people are jockeying for their party’s nomination.
You can vote in any primary for a district you live in, but you have to choose only one - you can’t vote in multiple party primaries in the same election cycle.
So what do primaries have to do with redistricting?
This year’s elections will be the first for a brand new set of State Senate and House of Delegates districts.
The boundaries of election districts have to shift every ten years after new Census figures come out. The goal is to keep districts roughly equal in population.
Rebecca Green from William and Mary said states handle redrawing election maps two ways: either elected officials work out the maps themselves or an independent commission draws the new maps.
Virginia’s redistricting has been shrouded in secrecy for decades, with legislators getting to draw the lines for their own districts behind closed doors.
Lionel Spruill and Louise Lucas are both are long-time Democratic lawmakers who have been drawn into the same district and are now fighting for the Democratic Party's nomination. (Video courtesy of Spruill for Senate.)
“The process ended up being sort of horse trading in the smoky backroom,” Green said. “There was no real way for members of the public to understand or see how the sausage was being made.”
Public pressure on the General Assembly pushed legislators to allow the creation of a commission to draw the maps in full view of the public.
Lawmakers agreed to a state constitutional change to create the body. They ceded some power to a new redistricting commission but retained a hand in redrawing the district maps.
Voters approved the proposal by way of a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot. It created a bipartisan commission that is made up of half citizens and half legislators, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
That 50/50 split was a fatal flaw, Green said.
“Somewhat predictably, there was a lot of gridlock,” she said. “You had this evenly divided commission and you had a sense that it was sort of set up to fail, in the sense that there was no tie-breaking vote.”
When the redistricting process started,Republicans and Democrats brought in two different groups of partisan map drawers and two different sets of lawyers.
They deadlocked and never reconciled the maps.
What happened with Virginia’s maps?
The only avenue forward was to punt the map drawing to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The court went out of its way to enlist as neutral a group as possible to redraw the lines. The new maps were worked out in an open process and in December 2021, the finalized districts were put into place.
Green said the new maps resulted in fewer safe districts for sitting officials and a lot more competitive races.
So what does this all mean?
Redistricting is often the biggest shake-up for incumbents.
When lawmakers controlled the redistricting process, they could create district lines that ensured they would keep their seats.
But when the court drew new maps, sitting delegates and senators from the same party ended up in the same districts or with new voters who may be difficult to win over.
Earlier this year, a number of longtime state legislators announced their retirements, ceding the district to a fellow party member or setting the stage for a primary competition.
One example is Sen. Tommy Norment from Williamsburg. Norment has been the top Republican in the state Senate since 2008 but announced last year he was stepping down after 30 years in the Senate.
The district that Norment represented stretched nearly from north of Richmond down to Isle of Wight and Hampton. But the parts of the sprawling 3rd Senate District were divvied up between five Senate districts with the new maps.
Norment ended up drawn into a district that included fellow Republican Sen. Ryan McDougle of Hanover and decided to bow out.
Eric Claville, a public policy expert from Norfolk State University, said he expects as many as 15 to 20 percent of next year’s General Assembly to be new faces.
“There's going to be a major shift in power, a major shift in personality and a major shift in the priorities of the Commonwealth,” Claville said.
My opponent in the Democratic Primary opposed red flag laws for domestic abusers. Since he is up on the air making up stuff and flat out lying about my record I thought voters would like to know the truth! pic.twitter.com/AgM3jjvMV9— L. Louise Lucas (@SenLouiseLucas) May 11, 2023
What are the local races to watch this primary season?
In some cases, party members drawn into the same district aren’t ready to retire.
Down in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, one of the few significant Republican primary bouts is between Christie New Craig and Tim Anderson.
Craig was a long-time school board member in Chesapeake and was the chief of staff to Sen. John Cosgrove, who represented the area for the last decade. Cosgrove is retiring and Craig is seen as his chosen successor.
Republican Tim Anderson, a first-term Delegate, was drawn into a House district with Eastern Shore Del. Rob Bloxom. Bloxom’s represented the 100th district since 2014 and Anderson announced last year he would not contest Bloxom for the seat.
Instead, he set his sights on the new 19th Senate district seat.
Claville says Craig and Anderson are cut from the same cloth ideologically so the outcome of the race will mean more of a difference of style than substance in the safely Republican Senate district.
Others are taking on a stiff primary fight before November's general election, like in the 18th Senate district between sitting senators and former allies Louise Lucas and Lionel Spruill.
The district stretches from Lucas’ political stronghold of Portsmouth through northern Chesapeake, where Spruill is from.
Lucas is currently the state’s top Democrat, presiding over the Senate as president pro tempore. Lucas and Spruill are both long-time elected officials but Lucas’ 31-year tenure in the Senate means she rules the roost, controlling committee assignments.
That spurred accusations from Lucas that Northern Virginia Democrats are helping fund Spruill’s campaign in an effort to further their own positions in the Senate.
Spruill’s been in the General Assembly since 1994 but only in the Senate since 2016, so some Northern Virginia senators would be ahead of him to get party leadership positions on the Senate floor.
Spruill just released his third TV ad with a month of voting still to go, the kind of full-court-press typically reserved for a November election.
“They both have very good records in the community, in the district, and also for their party. So it's very hard to find something where you would say ‘this person is not a good choice for the Democratic agenda moving forward,” Claville said.
“You're seeing a lot of commercials now, mostly attacking the personalities of the two candidates as relates to how they deal with issues.”
Claville said that race and many other primaries will come down to how candidates can convert their community touch and connections.
Rallying a few dozen votes from a key constituency can be the difference between a nomination and defeat in a primary.
“Turnout is going to be extremely low, as it relates to a general election. And with that, every single vote, every single Democrat, every single interest group - your senior citizen voters, your civic organizations, your church organizations, the business community - it's going to count because it's going to decide who ultimately wins,” Claville said. “This race is going to be close.”
While the Lucas-Spruill contest is the most politically important primary, there are other high-profile face-offs happening around Hampton Roads ahead of the general election.
Norfolk’s new 21st Senate District is the city’s first majority-minority Senate district, Claville said.
Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan is running against her former council colleague-turned-state delegate Angelia Williams Graves for the Democratic nomination.
That district leans very strongly Democratic, so the outcome of the primary there will likely determine who represents the district.
How do I vote in a primary?
Virginia runs what are called open primaries. That means you can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary for your district without being a member of either party. But you can only vote in one of the party contests.
Not every district will have primaries for both parties. Some will have two, others may have one and some will have none at all. The Virginia Board of Elections website lists which districts have which primaries.
Early voting for primaries has already started. You can vote in-person or absentee by mail the same way you would in the general election.
June 20th is the date of the primary and is the deadline for submitting your vote.
Contact your local registrar or visit the Virginia Board of Elections website for more information.