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Virginia primary has lots of surprise, no clear message | TribLIVE.com
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Virginia primary has lots of surprise, no clear message

Associated Press
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Virginia 24th District Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, is congratulated by family members as he arrives at The Depot Grille for an Election Night party in Staunton, Va., Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Hanger won the primary election against challenger Tina Freitas. (Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP)
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Joe Morrissey hugs his wife Myrna with son Maverick, 17-month-old, as he celebrates his Democratic primary win in the 16th District State Senate race with his supporters at the election party of Plaza Mexico in Petersburg, Va., Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Daniel Sangjib Min/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
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Supporters of state Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, are illuminated by cell phone screens as they check results at an election party in Springfield, Va., Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Saslaw is in a close race with his first primary opponent in 39 years. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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Joe Morrissey, right, with his daughter Bella, 3, celebrates his Democratic primary win in 16th District State Senate race with his supporters at the election party of Plaza Mexico in Petersburg, Va., Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Daniel Sangjib Min/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
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Virginia 24th District Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, speaks with Virginia 25th District delegate Steve Landes during an election night party at The Depot Grille in Staunton, Va., Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Hanger won the primary election against challenger Tina Freitas. (Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP)
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Virginia 24th District senator Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, gives a victory speech during a party at The Depot Grille in Staunton, Va., Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Hanger won the primary election against challenger Tina Freitas. (Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP)
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Yasmine Taeb is greeted by a supporter during an election night party at Zaaki Restaurant and Hookah Bar in Falls Church, Va., Tuesday, June 11. 2019. She challenged Virginia Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, 79, for the Democratic slot in the 35th district. Taeb, 39, is his first primary opponent in 40 years. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via AP)
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FILE - In this Tuesday, May 29, 2018 file photo, co-chairman of the Senate Finance committee, State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, left, as he speaks during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee as co-chairman State Sen. Thomas Norment, R-James City County, right, listens at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Hanger is facing a spirited opponent in Tuesday’s election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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FILE - In a Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, Senate minority leader,Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, speaks during debate on a bill during the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Saslaw is facing a primary challenger for the first time in 40 years. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. — 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.

But 71-year-old retiree Laura Harris said she voted for Saslaw because of his long track record of getting results.

“He’s done so much in terms of human services,” she said.

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.

Democrats hope to continue a three-year streak of electoral gains in the state, powered largely by suburban voters unhappy with Trump.

But the party lost a major advantage earlier this year when its top three statewide office holders became ensnared in scandal. A racist yearbook photo surfaced in February and 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.

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.”

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