While Virginia Democrats will be relieved that the scandal-plagued Joe Morrissey went down in flames on Tuesday night, he wasn't the only conservative Democrat to lose a primary this week. In fact, at least four other incumbent state senators did as well—more in a single night than in the last two-and-a-half decades combined —including three other Democrats and one far-right Republican.
One high-profile loser was Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen, who was arguably the most conservative member of the caucus apart from Morrissey. Financial consultant Saddam Azlan Salim overcame a huge fundraising disadvantage to beat Petersen 54-46 in the 37th Senate District, a Northern Virginia constituency that gave Joe Biden 70% of the vote in 2020. This was the first election to take place using a revamped Senate map drawn by the state Supreme Court, which left Petersen representing only around 45% of the new district.
Petersen won a previous version of this seat by unseating a Republican incumbent in 2007, but he continued to pick fights with progressives well after this part of the state had transformed into solidly blue turf. “I may have been a Joe Manchin type, but I was one of a few Joe Manchins in the Senate,” he told the Associated Press in 2021, a year after he helped kill an assault weapons ban. Salim, for his part, argued to FFXnow that voters wanted to replace the incumbent with “somebody who’s progressive,” saying that “when it comes to affordable housing, when it comes to the environment, when it comes to reproductive rights … they’re not getting that from their current senator.”
Major progressive donors, though, largely focused their efforts elsewhere. While the well-funded environmental group Clean Virginia backed several challenges to Democratic senators, the organization was one of Petersen’s top donors for this campaign. However, he also received a smaller contribution from Dominion Energy, the mammoth energy producer that Clean Virginia argues has too much influence in state politics. Altogether, the incumbent outraised Salim by a massive $1.1 million to $190,000 margin through June 8.
Petersen also hoped he could benefit by forming an informal alliance with two other prominent candidates in Fairfax County: County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid and defense attorney Ed Nuttall, who was waging a primary bid against Steve Descano, the county's progressive prosecutor. However, while the senator ran ads imploring primary voters to back all three, only Kincaid prevailed.
Next door in the comparably blue 35th District, Fairfax County School Board member Stella Pekarsky defeated Sen. George Barker 52-48 after arguing he was “inconsistent” on matters like gun safety. Barker, who co-chairs the powerful Finance and Appropriations Committee, defended his record, and his backers highlighted the role he played both in stopping a vaginal ultrasound bill in 2012 and saving Medicaid expansion six years later. However, he still struggled in a redrawn seat where only 6% of the residents were his current constituents. Clean Virginia and its allies made large donations to Pekarsky, while Dominion was for Barker.
Meanwhile, the expensive incumbent vs. incumbent between battle two Black Democrats in Hampton Roads' safely blue 18th District ended in a 53-47 victory for Louise Lucas over Lionell Spruill. Lucas, who has served in the upper chamber since 1992, pointed to her huge advantage in seniority, but ideology was also very much a concern here. Lucas insisted that Spruill was too close to Republicans and faulted him for avoiding votes on LGBTQ+ rights. She also went so far as to compare him to “those individuals who sold their own people into slavery” in an interview with the Washington Post.
The only Republican incumbent to fall was Chase, whom former Sen. Glen Sturtevant defeated by a tiny 39-38 margin. Sturtevant argued that the incumbent could have jeopardized the party’s hold on the 12th District, a suburban Richmond constituency that favored Donald Trump 52-46. That seat may have been too red for even the self-described "Trump in heels," to lose, though her colleagues will still be relieved to no longer deal with a member who spent years getting into fights with just about everyone.
While Chase's defeat may have taken her seat off the table in November, the losses of her four Democratic colleagues will almost certainly see the party move in a more progressive direction as their more liberal challengers will all be overwhelming favorites this fall.