Snap contest for U.S. House seat has crackle and pop

BY JEFF E. SCHAPIRO Richmond Times Dispatch

At a politician’s funeral, perhaps the people standing around are more important than the person being lowered into the grave.

Such was the case at the service and funeral of Rep. Donald McEachin last week. Only one of his potential successors had a speaking role: fellow Democrat Lamont Bagby, who holds the House seat enshrined by McEachin in east Henrico. Bagby was also an honorary pallbearer.

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Normally taciturn, Bagby was ebullient and heartfelt in his praise of McEachin. Bagby’s taking center stage – despite his deep, personal ties to McEachin – was taken by some as a sign that he should be seen as the heir to the McEachin Congressional seat. Why would Bagby argue otherwise?

The swift campaign to elect McEachin’s successor in James’ blue, stark black, mostly southern 4th Precinct – particularly the weeks-long struggle for the Democratic nomination – is shaped by actual and symbolic appearances.

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The outcome of Tuesday’s Democratic primary and Feb. 21 special election will depend on the grassroots: which candidate does a better job of mobilizing voters, many of whom aren’t used to, during the year-end holidays or early ones Months of the New Year to cast ballots year.

In the Democratic field, only three of the five announced candidates count: Bagby and Sens. Jennifer McClellan and Joe Morrissey, both from Richmond. They are perennial MPs in secure majority-minority seats decided largely in the spring primary because there is little or no Republican competition in the fall.

Four factors are driving the so-called Firehouse Primary, a partisan affair with far fewer polling stations than a state-controlled primary where all districts are open to all voters. The reason for the difference: A fire department primary is intended to largely limit participation to the true believers of a party.

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The emphasis on party control and the dampening effect of pre-Christmas elections are a recipe for tight turnout. Estimates range from 5,000 to 10,000 voters, but staff say they just don’t know. When McEachin won a third term in Congress in November, 245,000 votes were cast.

First, the geography: the eight polling stations generally reflect the respective bases of McClellan, Bagby and Morrissey.

There are two in Richmond, which makes up most of the 4th Ward at 30%. McClellan lives in the city’s tony fan district. Another polling station is in suburban North Chesterfield, adjacent to McClellan’s Senate district. This piece of Chesterfield is the second largest part of the 4th – 24%.

A polling station is located east of Henrico where Bagby lives. That’s 19% of the district. Another station is located next door in Charles City County. It is located in the Bagby Legislative District and accounts for less than 1% of the congressional district.

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Morrissey stood over 4th. He is most closely associated with Petersburg. It accounts for only 4% of the district. Morrissey carried the city when he denied the reinstatement of Rosalyn Dance to the Senate in 2019. In addition, Morrissey ran strongly in South Richmond as a legislative and mayoral candidate.

There is one polling station in each of two rural areas – Lawrenceville, on the southwest edge of 4th, and northeast, Surry County. There aren’t many Democrats in the normally red country, but with the high-ranking candidates crowding the Richmond area, the hunt for votes will veer into the Farm Counties.

Second, organization: Despite being thrashed in the 2021 gubernatorial primary, McClellan needed to design a voter mobilization operation with a nationwide reach. For the congressional nomination, McClellan is running in all or part of five cities and 10 counties, locations where she could build on a residual presence from last year.

Bagby’s contacts with constituents span black churches, council housing — including the project he grew up in — and childcare programs for which he worked. The fact that Henrico’s polling station is in a union hall speaks to his reputation at work.

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Bagby’s campaign manager is Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s top associate and, having overseen Stoney’s two victories, is familiar with the generational, racial, and cultural shifts that are transforming city politics.

Morrissey relies on a mixed-race, working-class coalition he cobbled together over years as a defender despite having his license to commit ethical misconduct revoked. Morrissey, with his tireless one-on-one style, also has a radio show that focuses on his vivacity – professional, political and personal.

With little time for postal and radio advertising, endorsements — circulated through social media — can help attract voters. McClellan received a valuable endorsement from US Senator Tim Kaine on Wednesday.

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Third, gender: More than race, gender could shape the campaign. McClellan and Bagby are black, Morrissey is white. McClellan is the only female candidate and does not hesitate to emphasize gender, noting that Virginia Democrats have yet to elect a woman of color to any state office or to Congress.

The first black woman to win here nationally is Republican Winsome Earle-Sears, who was elected lieutenant governor in 2021.

Women make up the majority of voters and are directly affected by a thorny issue that has yet to be fully tested: abortion rights in the post-Roe era. It’s being raised by McClellan and Bagby – even by Morrissey, whose support for a 20-week ban on most abortions places him far to the right in the Democrat field.

Finally, the problems: With the vote just days away, there is not much time for debate, although the candidates are becoming problems.

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Morrissey complains that the nomination process was rigged in McClellan’s favor. Morrissey’s scandal record is always water for his enemies, although it hasn’t always derailed him. McClellan’s yuppie credentials — she’s a corporate lawyer — are seen by some as evidence she doesn’t so much stand out from grassroots Democrats as look down on them.

The biggest problem is probably keeping the seat democratic. Every seat counts in the closely divided, soon-to-be-republican US House of Representatives. That alone is reason for national Republicans to compete.

And the GOP could be backed by Democrats — if they’re badly split after Tuesday and dampen their vote in February.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or [email protected] Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @RTDShapiro. Listen to his analysis Friday at 7:45 am and 5:45 pm on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.

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