Virginia 4 Special: Running in the River City

by Erin Covey December 12, 2022 · 2:00 PM EST

Only the third Black member of Congress to be elected from Virginia, the late Rep. Donald McEachin left a long legacy of public service after representing the Richmond area in Congress and the Virginia state Legislature since the mid-1990s. In the weeks following the congressman’s death, several names emerged as contenders, though only two candidates have all but confirmed that they’re running. 

Most of the action will take place on the Democratic side of this solidly blue district. The seat was redrawn in 2015 after a federal court ruled that the state’s map was racially gerrymandered, and McEachin easily won the 2016 election for the newly-drawn 4th District, a majority-Black district that stretched from Richmond to the southern border of the state. After the 2021 redistricting process, the 4th became even more Democratic — Biden would have won the new 4th by 36 points.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced Monday morning that the special would be held Feb. 21 — a fairly short turnaround for the candidates. Under Virginia law, special elections must be held at least 55 days outside of a regular election. Candidates have until Dec. 23 to file. 

Because of the condensed timeline, the Democratic committee in the 4th District voted to hold a firehouse-style primary (an election managed by a political party rather than the state) on Dec. 20. Democratic voters will be able to cast their ballots at eight locations across the district. Prospective candidates have until this Friday, Dec. 16, to file for the Democratic primary.

With such a tight turnaround for candidates to campaign — and a contest in the middle of the holiday season — turnout should be relatively low.

The Democratic field initially consisted of five candidates, three of which were considered top-tier contenders: state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, state Del. Lamont Bagby, and state Sen. Joe Morrissey (who had first ruled out a bid but then announced he was running this earlier this week).

Then Thursday, Bagby, who is the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and was supported by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, announced he was dropping out and supporting McClellan, who would be the first Black congresswoman elected in Virginia. 

The last-minute machinations appear to be an effort to prevent Morrisey, who has a long, scandal-ridden history in Richmond politics, from winning the nomination.

But despite Morrisey’s baggage — he was convicted of “indecent liberties” with a minor and possession of child pornography, and his law license has been revoked multiple times — he still has a decent-sized following. He was endorsed by the mayor of Petersburg and multiple Petersburg city council members after announcing his bid. While McClellan should have an advantage in next week’s primary now, it’d be premature to rule Morrissey out.

After serving for 11 years in the House of Delegates, McClellan succeeded McEachin in the special election for his state Senate seat. Running on her long record in the Virginia state legislature, McClellan came in third place in the 2021 Democratic primary for governor. She has consolidated support among many Virginia Democrats; Sen. Tim Kaine endorsed her, as did Reps. Jennifer Wexton, Gerry Connolly, and Don Beyer. The outside group EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice women, backed her as well.

During the 117th Congress, there wasn't a day when all 435 congressional seats were filled at the same time. In an almost-evenly divided chamber where Republicans only have a five-seat majority, every vacancy matters.

Updated on Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. to include new information about the Democratic primary.