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Thursday September 19th, 2019 12:28AM

Virginia primary has lots of surprise, no clear message

By The Associated Press
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia's closely watched off-year primary contest produced plenty of surprises Tuesday, but little in the way of a coherent message.

The top Democrat in the state Senate narrowly won his primary despite heavily outspending a progressive challenger, and another incumbent lost her seat to a former Virginia lawmaker who used to spend his days at the state Capitol and his nights in jail after being accused of having sex with his teenage secretary. Conservative challengers upset with Republican incumbents who backed Medicaid expansion had mixed results. One delegate in a key swing district lost to a more conservative challenger, while a moderate senator easily cruised to victory.

Once a key swing state that's been tilting increasingly toward Democrats, Virginia's 2017 elections were an early warning signal that a blue wave of opposition to President Donald Trump would wash over the 2018 U.S. midterms. Now political analysts are looking for clues about what message voters may send for the 2020 presidential race.

The main takeway won't come until November, when all 140 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs. Democrats will try to wrest control from Republicans, who have narrow majorities in the House and Senate.

Normally sleepy affairs, this year's primaries had drama, as moderates in both parties took fire from their more extreme flanks.

On the Democratic side, progressive challengers looking to upset the status quo failed to generate much enthusiasm, as most incumbents easily won. One glaring exception: Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw's near-loss to human rights lawyer Yasmine Taeb in a northern Virginia district.

"The other guy's been in there too long," said John Laszakovits, a 60-year-old engineer from Falls Church, who said he voted for Taeb.

Saslaw, who is pro-business and chummy with Republicans, has not faced a primary challenger in 40 years. This year he faced two, including Taeb, who painted Saslaw as too conservative and cozy with special interests.

"I'm not gonna lie. It was closer than I thought it was going to be," Saslaw said in a brief interview at his victory party.

He attributed the close nature of the race to the momentum for candidates who promise change. "People want new," he said.

In a sign of unease with established Democratic politicians on the local level, two long-tenured northern Virginia prosecutors lost to reform-minded challengers intent on making changes to what they view as a heavy handed criminal justice system. Parisa Dehghani-Tafti defeated incumbent Commonwealth's Attorney Theo Stamos in Arlington County and Steve Descano unseated incumbent Raymond Morrogh in Fairfax County.

On the GOP side, lingering resentment over last year's vote to expand Medicaid in Virginia fueled divisive contests.

Republican voters in a swing district punished Del. Bob Thomas, who voted for the expansion. They opted instead for a more conservative challenger, Paul Milde, who could make it harder for Republicans to keep their majority in the House.

But Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger, one of the state's most powerful senators, easily fended off his challenger.

Hanger played a key role in the Medicaid expansion that made 400,000 low-income adults eligible to enroll. Opponent Tina Freitas said Hanger had betrayed constituents on the Medicaid issue and wasn't conservative enough on guns or abortion. Hospitals spent heavily to help Hanger.

Both parties said they are feeling optimistic about their chances in the general election. Democrats are hoping anti-Trump energy powers them to victory and they've shown an eagerness to run in seats they've traditionally ignored, including in southeast Virginia where three Democrats fought to run in a district Trump won by 14 percentage points in 2016.

Republicans were cheering Tuesday's turnout in key districts. More people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary in an open Virginia Beach Senate district that could determine the upper chamber's balance of power.

Republicans were also counting on a wave of scandals earlier this year involving the state's top Democrats to help GOP candidates.

A racist yearbook photo that surfaced in February almost forced Gov. Ralph Northam from office. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was then accused by two women of sexual assault, which he denied. And Attorney General Mark Herring, after calling for Northam to resign, revealed that he too wore blackface once in college.

Adding a significant new headache for Democrats was Joe Morrissey's victory over incumbent Sen. Rosalyn Dance in a Richmond-area senate district. Morrissey was jailed four years ago after a sex scandal involving a teenager, who Morrissey later married. He denied wrongdoing but entered an Alford plea to a misdemeanor, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence for a conviction.

Republicans wasted little time trying to exploit Morrissey's victory, tweeting a sarcastic congratulatory note and adding "You'll fit right in with Justin Fairfax."

Voter Melvin Washington said he picked Morrissey because he believes he understands the district's neighborhoods. Washington said he is not bothered by Morrissey's past legal problems.

"People try to blow things up more than what it is," he said. "Ain't none of us perfect."

___

Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Matt Barakat in Falls Church and Ben Finley in Virginia Beach contributed to this report.

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