That’s more than triple the amount of primary challenges preceding the 2019 elections that gave the party its 55-45 House majority. Just three Republican House members are facing challengers on June 8.
The Democratic contests reflect a growing urgency among liberals to pursue even more aggressive reforms, particularly as Virginia begins to emerge from a coronavirus pandemic that has stymied some efforts such as affordable housing and environmental initiatives, political analysts say.
But in a year where Virginians will also elect a new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, the leftward push could backfire in more moderate House districts, where Republicans can appeal to voters wary about the state’s direction, analysts say.
“In Arlington and Alexandria, how left the candidate is may not matter much; but when you get out into the suburbs it could make a difference,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
With early in-person voting for Democratic primaries set to begin April 24 in most parts of the state, the races have begun to heat up.
Among them are contests for the seats held by three House members seeking higher office: Del. Lee J. Carter (Manassas), a self-proclaimed socialist running for governor; Del. Mark Levine (Alexandria), who is vying to become lieutenant governor; and Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones (Norfolk), who is challenging Mark R. Herring for attorney general.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman (Prince William) dropped out of the lieutenant governor’s race Saturday, citing an insufficient amount of funds to continue that effort.
She is being challenged for her House seat by three Democrats in the 31st district: transportation policy adviser Rod Hall, community activist Kara Pitek and Idris O’Connor, who chairs a coalition of Prince William County churches that provide services to the poor.
Levine said he would remain on the ballot if he wins the nomination for lieutenant governor and, if he wins both seats in November, would call for a special election for the 45th district seat.
In that race, he is competing against Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, the vice mayor of Alexandria.
The other candidates seeking higher office said a nomination would mean their names would not be on the House ballot.
But all of those incumbents are actively campaigning to retain their House seats.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” said Carter, who is facing local business owner Michelle Maldonado and community activist Helen Zurita in his 50th district primary.
Jones’s opponent, Hannah Kinder, is a campaigns director at a California-based sustainable foods nonprofit.
In the other districts, the challengers have worked to portray the incumbents as either too moderate or out of touch with their changing communities.
In the Fairfax County area — where Fairfax officials will start early voting on April 23 — Del. Kathleen Murphy (Fairfax) faces a formidable challenge from Jennifer Adeli, a small business consultant who in 2019 oversaw the county Democratic Party committee’s election efforts, including on behalf of Murphy.
Campaign finance reports released this week show Murphy ahead in fundraising after raising $124,000 since the start of the year compared to $18,400 for Adeli.
But Adeli, 48, said she’s confident the 34th district, which flipped to Democrats in 2015 when Murphy first won as a champion of gun control legislation, has become even more blue.
She argues that Murphy, 73, has been out of step with the party on criminal justice reforms — highlighting a 2019 bill Murphy sponsored that sought to impose a mandatory 60-day jail sentence for repeat domestic violence offenders.
The bill passed the House and Senate, but Gov. Ralph Northam (D) vetoed it, arguing that such “mandatory minimums” don’t allow judges and juries flexibility.
“This is not keeping pace with where the party is going, where the values are going and where the voters are going,” Adeli said about Murphy’s bill.
She added that she wants to end mandatory minimum sentencing and fight to overturn Virginia’s “right to work” law that makes it harder for unions to organize.
Murphy said Adeli is trying to “invent” faults in her record.
The domestic violence bill was meant to allow victims time enough to find safety from their attackers, Murphy said. Earlier this year, she voted in favor of another bill that unsuccessfully sought to end mandatory minimum sentences altogether.
Murphy said the district that includes wealthy portions of McLean and middle-class areas of eastern Loudoun County is more moderate than Adeli appears to believe.
“I think it’s very possible for people who maybe think a little less moderately to think that this is a great time to try and take a district,” she said. “But you don’t want to take a district that’s not going to go with you.”
Another strong challenge is being mounted by Irene Shin against Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-Fairfax) in the 86th district, which also includes portions of Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Shin has raised $92,000 so far this year compared with Samirah’s $116,000.
Samirah, who is Palestinian American and Muslim, gained some celebrity last year when he interrupted a speech delivered by President Donald Trump in Jamestown by shouting, “Virginia is our home! You can’t send me back!”
Fellow liberal Democrats applauded the move, but it rankled some in the party's leadership and kept Samirah, 29, on the party’s liberal fringe.
That showed when state Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) — chair of her chamber’s powerful finance and appropriations committee — recently endorsed Shin, 33, saying the head of a nonprofit voter advocacy group would “bring effective, pragmatic leadership” back to the district.
Shin, who wants to work on guaranteeing Virginians paid family medical leave and paid sick leave, argues that Samirah has been ineffective since he was elected to his seat in 2019.
Shin accused Samirah of “single-handedly” killing a bill last year that would have made it possible for police officers in Virginia to be sued for excessive force.
Samirah did vote against that bill, along with four other Democrats, explaining that he wanted to add language limiting local police funding. But he later moved for the same bill to be reconsidered and supported it. The bill passed the House, then died in a Senate committee.
Samirah, a dentist, touts his work to expand affordable health care in Virginia, including a recently signed law that increases Medicaid coverage for a child whose parent is receiving child support in legal separation or divorce cases.
He has lately been occupied by an ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit he filed last year against a former employer, in which he alleges he was discriminated against for being Muslim. He has also struggled with plans — delayed by the pandemic — to open his own dental practice, for which he secured a $83,000 loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program last May.
The trying year shows voters “I’m experiencing the same things that they’re experiencing in their everyday lives,” Samirah said.
In the nearby 36th district, Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) is immersed in his first primary election challenge since he won his seat in 1982.
Mary Barthelson, a systems engineer in Reston, said she decided to take on the House’s longest-serving member after she spoke to doctors’ offices and other businesses who were frustrated by the national shortage of personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic.
“There was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty and they were just not getting that feedback from the incumbent, or that support,” Barthelson, 27, said about Plum, 79. “I think I can be a better champion for some of the challenges the community is facing.”
Barthelson set up an online business last April that procured surgical masks and other supplies from outside the United States, then either donated or sold them at a discount to those who needed them.
Now, she says, she hopes to use her engineering background to advance legislation on green technology while also fighting to make it easier for Virginians with criminal records to get certified in trade professions that offer more economic stability.
So far, Barthelson has not raised any campaign funds, while Plum has nearly $45,500 available after raising another $19,000 since Jan. 1, the latest filings show.
Plum, a former state party chairman, said he is bewildered by Barthelson’s contention that his office was unresponsive.
“I wish we’d kept a tally on how many people reached out to us on the covid pandemic that we helped,” he said. “It was a bit overwhelming but to suggest somehow that we weren’t responding won’t hold up to scrutiny.”
A veteran liberal who has worked to end the death penalty, increase school funding and stop pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, Plum sees the increase in primary election challenges as a healthy turn for his party as it seeks to increase its majority.
“Now that people see a potential for progress, they want to play a role in that,” he said. “And that’s good. Not having an opponent is convenient for me, but having an opponent is what democracy is all about.”
Special interest groups see the extra Democratic enthusiasm as a lever to wield greater influence in Richmond.
Brennan Gilmore, director of the Clean Virginia environmental group founded by hedge fund manager Michael Bills, said his group’s political action committee plans to “be substantially involved” in the primary elections in the coming weeks.
The organization works to diminish the influence of the politically powerful Dominion Energy utility company on Virginia politics by backing candidates who pledge that they won’t accept donations from the company.
So far, Clean Virginia hasn’t donated to House candidates. But it has poured $900,000 into the primary elections for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — mostly backing former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (Prince William) in her gubernatorial campaign with $600,000 so far.
“We’ll be looking at all the primary elections through the lens of where the candidates stand on our issue,” Gilmore said.
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said such pressures could place some incumbents in a tricky, vulnerable position — even if they prevail in June.
Either they tack left during the primaries and risk losing moderate voters in November, or they hold firm in their positions and risk sapping the party’s base of its enthusiasm in their districts, Kidd said.
“That’s where you’re going to get the occasion where a moderate Democrat challenged by a progressive ends up losing the general, either because they moved too far to the left themselves and lost moderate voters or because they don’t move left and lose their base,” he said. “They’ve got to balance two very serious competing demands.”