A sparse crowd of Virginia Democrats turned out to nominate Ralph Northam for lieutenant governor and Mark Herring for attorney general Tuesday, setting up clear contrasts for November’s much-watched elections.
With all precincts reporting, Northam, a state senator from Norfolk, prevailed over former U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra. And Herring, a state senator from Loudoun, narrowly defeated former federal prosecutor Justin Fairfax.
“It is an honor to be the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor,” Northam said in a statement late Tuesday. “Now let’s win in November and return our Commonwealth to the years of Governors [Mark] Warner and [Timothy M.] Kaine that focused on the issues that matter most to Virginians.”
Results were initially slow to trickle in Tuesday night, as the State Board of Elections experienced technical problems that led to delayed and confusing vote totals on a night when turnout appeared to be historically low. About 140,000 people voted in statewide races, far fewer than in last year’s election.
Two Republican House incumbents who backed GOP Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s landmark transportation deal also lost in primaries Tuesday. Del. Beverly J. Sherwood (Frederick) fell to Mark J. Berg, and Del. Joe T. May (Loudoun) was toppled by Dave LaRock. The rest of the state’s incumbents who faced primary challengers survived.
The top of the November ballot was set before Tuesday, with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) running for governor as a conservative who stands by his beliefs, while former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe seeks to position himself as a consensus-building businessman. Polls have shown that both men have work to do to sway moderates and independent voters.
For lieutenant governor, Northam will face Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson (R) in a race pitting two sharply different political profiles. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, has spent six years in the Senate, and he won primary endorsements from key Democratic interest groups, including Planned Parenthood and the Virginia Education Association. Jackson, who has never held elected office, is a political outsider whose controversial remarks have sometimes put fellow Republicans on the defensive.
The stakes for the No. 2 job are higher than usual — the winner could serve as the tiebreaking vote in the evenly divided Virginia Senate.
The attorney general contest will feature two experienced legislators — Herring and state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) — in a matchup that could be a referendum on Cuccinelli’s legacy. Obenshain is a close ally of the incumbent and is running on a similar ideological platform; Herring spent much of his primary campaign vowing to be the anti-Cuccinelli.
Primary day was marked by low turnout — an indication that some of the voter enthusiasm that won Virginia for President Obama in 2012 and 2008 may have faded.
Just two hours before polls were to close, only 71 people had cast ballots at Albert Hill Middle School in Richmond.
“We’ve got 2,045 [registered voters in the precinct], and we’re at 71,” said Cheryl Graham, an election officer. “That’s pretty sad.”
Board of Elections spokeswoman Nikki Sheridan said that voter participation was light across the state and that the agency had not logged complaints of any delays. Low turnout is typical in an off-year election and was heightened this year with the absence of gubernatorial candidates on the ballot.
Pat Mullins, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said the low Democratic turnout translated into a weak ticket “incapable of winning in November.”
“The lack of enthusiasm from Virginia Democrats is understandable given that this is a ticket that is not focused on nor is credible on the primary concern of Virginians: creating jobs,” he said in a statement.
But Democratic Party Chairwoman Charniele Herring said the Democrats’ focus on jobs, transportation and education “couldn’t be more opposite of the extreme ideological agenda and rhetoric of the Cuccinelli-Jackson-Obenshain ticket.”
At the Lake Anne Elementary School precinct in reliably Democratic Reston, 50 of the 3,100 registered voters — less than 2 percent — had cast ballots Tuesday afternoon.
Among them was 78-year-old Arnold Moses. The retired CPA arrived uncertain of his vote even though he felt he had been bombarded by mailings and ads. But he also said he was confident about the Democrats’ chances in November.
After casting a ballot, Moses emerged to say only that he had split his ticket by race: He picked a person of color in one race and a white candidate in the other.
“They all sounded good,” he said. “I had to make a choice.”
In 2012, about 73 percent of the precinct voted for Obama, compared with 25 percent for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In 2009, about 66 percent of the precinct backed state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) in his unsuccessful run for governor against McDonnell.
In Loudoun, registrar Judy Brown said turnout across the county was lighter than expected. “A lot of the precincts were still in the single digits at 10 o’clock, which is terrible,” she said.
At Potomac Middle School in Prince William County, Sophie Doane had the voting stations to herself at 6:30 a.m., a stark difference from the November presidential election, when the wait to vote was at times four hours long.
Doane, 58, said she voted for Herring and Northam because she thought that they were most likely to work on transportation solutions. Public officials, she said, “keep building more places but not more roads.”
In Henrico County outside of Richmond, Adele and David Karp wanted to help Democrats choose nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general even though they didn’t see too much difference between the candidates.
“I could have flipped a coin,” David Karp, a 63-year-old lawyer, said after casting his ballot at Maybeury Elementary School.
“It’s important, especially for this county that has traditionally gone red but has been blue recently, to see that we’ve got a lot of Democrats who care,” said Adele Karp, also 63 and a clinical social worker.
At Emerick Elementary School in Purcellville, signs for May and LaRock lined the entrance to the parking lot.
But not all voters in the conservative-leaning town had come to vote in the Republican primary. Kevin Feeney, who moved there from Falls Church with his wife just a month ago, said he’d come out to support Fairfax.
Feeney said he didn’t have particularly strong feelings against Herring but thought Fairfax was more impressive. “I saw a blurb about his credentials, and they looked pretty good,” he said.
Jeremy Borden, Stefanie Dazio, Caitlin Gibson, Fredrick Kunkle and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.