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Ugly Virginia primaries could hint at election trend in 2020

June 6, 2019
FILE- This Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015 file photo shows Senate minority leader, Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, gestures during debate on a bill during the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Saslaw is facing a primary challenger for the first time in 40 years. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Just as Virginia’s 2017 elections were an early warning signal that an anti-Trump blue wave was headed for the 2018 U.S. midterms, this year’s legislative elections could offer strong clues about national trends in 2020.

So far, ugly infighting seems to be the norm. Primary elections are days away and both Republicans and Democrats are in the midst of nasty battles over their respective parties’ identities and values.

An unusually high number of Democratic incumbents are being challenged by newcomers in the mold of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has emerged as a leading liberal voice after an upset win in a Democratic primary in New York last year.

On the GOP side, lingering resentment over last year’s vote to expand Medicaid is helping fuel unusually divisive primary contests. One nomination battle has both candidates claiming victory in a fight that’s become a proxy battle between the state’s top two Republicans.

“The anger and the hatred and the venom that has been cast our way has certainly been surprising,” said Republican Del. Chris Peace, a low-key House incumbent representing a Richmond-area district, and one of those voting for expansion.

All 140 legislative seats are up for grabs this year and Virginia is the only state whose legislature has a reasonable chance of flipping partisan control. Republicans currently have narrow majorities in both the House and Senate.

Democrats are hoping they can continue a three-year winning streak, which has been powered in large part by suburban voters unhappy with President Donald Trump who are fleeing the GOP. A new court-ordered state House map, is also helpful for Democrats, although there is still a chance that the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn it.

But the party lost a major advantage earlier this year when its top three statewide office holders became ensnared in scandal, limiting their ability to raise money and lend other assistance. A racist yearbook photo surfaced in February and almost forced Gov. Ralph Northam from office. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was then accused by two women of sexual assault, which he denies. And Attorney General Mark Herring revealed that he’d worn blackface during his college days after calling for Northam to resign for similar behavior.

Democrats have been divided on how to respond.

State Senate hopeful Kim Howard of Virginia Beach recently lambasted one of her opponents for having called on Northam to resign. A few months earlier, however, virtually every significant Democrat in the state had also pushed Northam to quit.

One of the most closely watched Democratic races involves Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a canny veteran of Capitol politics who is ardently pro-business and chummy with Republicans. Saslaw hasn’t faced a primary challenger in 40 years. This year he has two opponents.

One of them, 39-year-old human rights lawyer Yasmine Taeb, has been aggressive in painting Saslaw as too conservative and too cozy with special interests.

“This is our best opportunity to pick up Democratic majorities, and I want to make sure that we’re electing the right Democrats,” she said.

Saslaw has a massive cash advantage and has been pitching himself to voters as someone with a long record of accomplishments on kitchen table items — such as boosting spending on traffic improvement — and a solid record on liberal issues including gun control and raising the minimum wage.

Saslaw said the Taeb campaign has been telling voters that “we need to get all of these old white men out of office,” and is part of an anti-incumbent crowd that wants radical change that he says is opposed by most voters in his district.

“It is what it is. You deal with it,” he said.

On the GOP side, the state’s two most powerful Republicans — Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment and House Speaker Kirk Cox — are waging a proxy battle over an unusually divisive nomination contest for a safe Republican House seat.

Peace is facing challenger Scott Wyatt, who claimed victory after a convention picked him earlier this month to be the Republican nominee. Peace and others have said the convention was rigged in Wyatt’s favor and wasn’t a legitimate way of deciding the contest. Peace is claiming victory after winning a modified primary, known as a party canvas, on June 1, which Wyatt said is illegitimate.

The disagreement has divided party officials. Norment publicly rebuked Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson for siding with Peace. Cox publicly came to Wilson’s defense in an indirect jab at Norment. Cox and Norment also clashed last year when Cox joined with several other Republicans to pass Medicaid expansion in Virginia after years of near unanimous Republican opposition.

Wyatt said Peace’s support for Medicaid expansion shows he is out of touch with what Republicans want. The district includes hardline conservative voters who helped former U.S. Rep. Dave Brat defeat U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor five years ago in a historic political upset.

“The folks out here voted for Donald Trump,” Wyatt said. “They’re hard conservatives.”

Peace said he is being targeted because hard-core tea party Republicans want to look relevant after years of defeat in Virginia. Their scorched-earth tactics, he said, are why they haven’t been successful.

“It doesn’t help grow the tent, and that’s how we win,” Peace said.

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This story has been edited to correct that primaries are in a few days, not a few weeks.

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