Virginia 4 Special: McClellan Poised for History

by Jacob Rubashkin December 22, 2022 · 11:00 AM EST

The first House race of the 2024 cycle is well underway — and for all intents and purposes may already be over.

On Tuesday, Democrats in Virginia’s 4th District chose state Sen. Jennifer McClellan as their nominee in the Feb. 21 special election to replace the late Rep. Donald McEachin. She defeated state Sen. Joe Morrisey, 85-14 percent, in a party-run “firehouse primary.”

McClellan’s nomination capped off a frenzied week-long campaign that began when GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin set an early special election date that required both parties to select their nominees no later than Dec. 23. Ultimately, 27,900 voters cast ballots in what the state party says is the largest firehouse primary in their history.

Next February, McClellan will face Republican Leon Benjamin in the general election, which she is heavily favored to win given the district’s decidedly Democratic lean. If elected, she will be the first Black woman to represent Virginia.

The Lay of the Land
The 4th District is anchored by the state capital of Richmond and extends due south to the North Carolina border.

By population, the district is dominated by Richmond proper and the surrounding suburbs in Henrico and Chesterfield counties, which together account for three quarters of district residents. To the south, Petersburg is the other major metro area in the district, accounting along with its neighboring towns and cities for another 12 percent of the district’s population.

The district is plurality Black at 44 percent, with 42 percent white population, 10 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian according to the 2020 Census.

In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden would have carried the seat by 36 points, 67-31 percent, a mild improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 63-32 percent margin in 2016. And in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe would have carried the seat, 61-37 percent over Youngkin — indicating that the district moved in line with the state overall as it swung from a 10-point Biden victory to a 2-point Youngkin win. 

McEachin most recently won re-election in 2022 by 30 points, 65-35 percent. 

The Democratic Nominee
McClellan, 49, currently represents the 9th District in the state Senate, a heavily-Democratic, majority-Black seat based primarily in northeast Richmond and the Henrico County suburbs north and east of the city. She won the seat in a 2017 special election after McEachin, who previously represented the area in the state Senate, was elected to Congress.

Prior to that, she represented Richmond’s 71st state House district from 2006-2017.

A 1994 graduate of the University of Richmond and 1997 graduate of the University of Virginia law school, McClellan also works as a corporate lawyer for Verizon (the Virginia state legislature is part-time). 

In 2021, McClellan ran for the Democratic nomination for governor, placing third with 12 percent, behind McAuliffe (62 percent) and former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (20 percent) but ahead of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (4 percent) and state Del. Lee Carter (3 percent).

Neither McClellan nor Carroll Foy were able to establish themselves as the primary opposition to McAuliffe, who outraised the combined field and was never in serious danger of losing the primary, ultimately winning every single county and city in the commonwealth. With two pro-choice women running, EMILY’s List and other women-focused groups stayed out of the race, and the presence of three Black candidates — plus McAuliffe’s own appeal to Black voters — meant there was little consolidation racially.

Despite the disappointing result, McClellan’s regional strength was evident in the returns; she placed second in the Richmond metro area, including in Richmond City, Henrico County, and Chesterfield County, which make up the bulk of the 4th District.

In the state legislature, McClellan developed a reputation as a hard worker with a focus on womens’ rights and voting rights. She was the chief Senate sponsor of a sweeping abortion rights bill that became law in 2020 and a voting rights bill signed into law in 2021. 

McClellan has scored a 100 percent rating from the Virginia chapters of, NARAL (in 2021), the League of Conservation Voters (in 2022), and the AFL-CIO (in 2019), and a 92 percent rating from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (in 2022). Her top donors throughout her political career include New Virginia Majority (a progressive advocacy group that backed her in 2021), the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Virginia Clean Energy Fund, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

Conversely, McClellan received a 12 percent rating from the American Conservative Union (2021), a 0 percent from the NRA (2019), and an 11 percent from the Family Foundation of Virginia (2021).

The Campaign So Far
The frenzied pace of the calendar means McClellan is still building up her campaign even as she comes out of the primary. The Democrat raised and spent about $300,000 in the week before the nominating contest, but only had time to do one round of direct mail, and has not yet aired any broadcast or cable TV ads. Nor has the campaign conducted a poll.

The race largely played out over the radio waves, with McClellan and Morrissey both airing ads, and in person, with McClellan storming all corners of the district alongside an army of high-profile endorsements.

Given the condensed nature of the race, McClellan’s team moved quickly to wrap up support from as many prominent Democrats as possible. All six Democrats in the U.S. House delegation backed McClellan, as did Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. One Democrat familiar with the race noted the particular importance of Rep. Bobby Scott, who represented much of Richmond and Henrico County for part of the 2010s, and who cut a radio ad for McClellan.

She was supported by all of the Democratic state legislators whose districts overlap with the 4th, including state Del. Lamont Bagby, who briefly ran in the special election, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. While McClellan benefitted from a long career in Virginia politics and a reputation as a solid legislator, she was also boosted by a strong desire among Democratic leaders to avoid a Morrissey victory (there was concern Bagby and McClellan, as two high-profile Black candidates from Richmond, would split votes and allow Morrisey, who is white and has a base in Petersburg, to win). The pro-life state senator, who once won a term in the state House while serving a jail sentence, has twice been disbarred and has a lengthy criminal history that most seriously includes a conviction for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”   

Morrissey’s most notable endorsement was Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham. Morrissey’s strength in Petersburg was evident in the results — one Democratic source estimated that he won about 40 percent of the city’s votes — but was not nearly enough to make him competitive with McClellan district wide. 

McClellan’s campaign team includes media consultant David Eichenbaum of Eichenbaum Skinner Strategies, Terrance Green of 4c partners for radio ads, direct mail consultant Alan Moore of Moore campaigns and pollster Pete Brodnitz of Expedition Strategies.

The Republican
Leon Benjamin is a Navy veteran and former chairman of the Richmond City Republican Committee. He is also the head pastor and founder of New Life Harvest Church in Richmond. He was selected by Republicans as the party’s nominee at a Dec. 17 party canvas, beating out former U.S. Department of Transportation official Derrick Hollie and Rep. Bob Good staffer Dale Sturdifen.

Benjamin was the GOP nominee against McEachin in 2020, when he lost 61-38 percent, and in 2022, when he lost 65-35 percent. Benjamin claimed without evidence that the 2020 results in his race were fraudulent.

The Bottom Line
McClellan is well-positioned to win the February special general election. The partisan lean of the district and her likely financial advantage — campaigns will not have to file FEC reports until Feb. 9 but McClellan has already raised in one week roughly what Benjamin raised over the entire 2022 cycle — make her the unquestionable favorite. There was little in the broader 2022 results to suggest that the political environment is so terrible for Democrats that seats such as this one are at risk, and nothing in the data since then suggests that has changed. 

Barring some unforeseen event, McClellan is on track to be the next congresswoman from Virginia. Solid Democratic.