Rep. Donald McEachin, a Democrat elected to represent Virginia’s 4th Congressional District in 2016, died Monday at the age of 61, just weeks after winning a fourth term. McEachin’s chief of staff said in her statement, “Valiantly, for years now, we have watched him fight and triumph over the secondary effects of his colorectal cancer from 2013. Tonight, he lost that battle.”
It will be up to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to schedule a special election to succeed McEachin. The 4th District, which includes the state capital of Richmond as well as eastern Southside Virginia, supported Joe Biden 67-32 in 2020, and the Democratic nominee should have no trouble keeping it blue. It remains to be seen just how that candidate will be picked, though, as Virginia regularly allows parties to choose nominees through three different means.
Each party could opt for a traditional primary; a convention; or a so-called firehouse primary, which is a small-scale nominating contest run by the party rather than the state. The last special congressional election that took place in the Old Dominion was the 2007 contest to succeed the late Republican Rep. Jo Ann Davis in an old version of the 1st District, where both sides decided to hold conventions; the eventual winner was Republican Rob Wittman, who still holds the seat.
Whoever eventually takes McEachin’s place in Congress will be replacing a longtime Richmond politician. McEachin won a spot in the state House of Delegates on his second try in 1995, and in 2001 he was the first African American to be nominated for state attorney general.
The Democrat, though, faced a tough opponent in Republican Jerry Kilgore, who ran ads attacking McEachin for never working as a prosecutor and labeling the pro-gun safety candidate as “dangerous for Virginia's families.” McEachin, who didn’t have the resources to adequately respond, also struggled in the overwhelmingly white rural areas where his ticketmates, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, won crossover support in their respective campaigns for governor and lieutenant governor. McEachin ended up losing 60-40 even as Warner and Kaine prevailed, but he was hardly done with politics.
McEachin won back his old place in the state House in 2005 after beating his successor, Floyd Miles, by 48 votes in the primary. Two years later he earned a promotion by successfully denying renomination to state Sen. Benjamin Lambert, who had supported Republican Sen. George Allen over Democrat Jim Webb in 2006.
McEachin then got the chance to run for Congress in 2016 after a federal court ruled that Republicans had illegally packed as many Black voters as possible into Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott’s 3rd District, which stretched from Scott’s Norfolk base west to Richmond, in order to strengthen GOP candidates elsewhere. The new court-approved map created a reliably blue Richmond-based 4th District, which became open when Republican Rep. Randy Forbes left to unsuccessfully campaign for the more competitive 2nd District.
Prominent Democratic officials quickly consolidated behind McEachin, who beat Chesapeake Councilor Ella Ward 75-25 in the primary. McEachin then went on to decisively defeat the Republican nominee, Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade, a win that made him only the third African American to ever represent Virginia in Congress after Scott and the late 19th century Republican John Mercer Langston.
McEachin, who had no trouble holding his new seat, soon went on to serve as a DCCC vice chair ahead of the successful 2018 campaign. The following year the congressman’s wife, Colette McEachin, was elected as Richmond’s top prosecutor.