RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After a landslide victory in an unusual nominating process, state Senator Jennifer McClellan has a good shot of becoming the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress. But first, the Democratic Party of Virginia faces a lawsuit from one of their own alleging voter suppression.
McClellan is expected to face Republican Leon Benjamin in a special election set for Feb. 21. Voters will decide who should succeed Congressman Donald McEachin, who died weeks after winning a third term representing District 4.
“I feel him here,” McClellan said while holding back tears during a victory speech on Thursday morning. “I will carry on his legacy.”
McClellan has built a legacy of her own during 17 years in the General Assembly, where she sponsored laws lifting abortion restrictions, expanding voting rights and setting clean energy goals. Now, she is hoping to replicate those reforms at the federal level.
The campaign lasted only one week but the contest had record turnout for a party-run nominating process overseen by Virginia Democrats, according to a press release.
In a deep blue district, McClellan is heavily favored to win the special election and secure the historic milestone.
“This country was built on the backs of Black women. It is time for us to take the lead in shaping how public policy is going to impact, not only our communities, but every community,” McClellan said.
McClellan secured the nomination at 4:05 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 22, after roughly 18 hours of ballot counting that started on Wednesday. The Democratic Party of Virginia said 27,900 voters cast a ballot in the firehouse primary held on Tuesday, Dec. 20, dwarfing turnout during the last state-run primary in District 4.
“I think everyone was surprised to see the level of participation,” political analyst Rich Meagher said. “It was really, really unexpected. Just a huge wave of enthusiasm.”
Meagher believes that enthusiasm is, at least in part, explained by the challenge mounted by state Sen. Joe Morrissey, who has a well-documented rebel streak.
“He is such a wild card. I think that helped to spur turnout in the sense that people didn’t want to leave anything to chance,” Meagher said.
Morrissey thanked his supporters and swiftly conceded in a statement on Thursday morning.
“Virginia has never sent a Black woman to congress. That will change next year. This is progress of which we all can all be proud of. I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure she prevails in the general election,” Morrissey wrote.
Despite “historic” levels of participation, the Democratic Party of Virginia continues to face harsh criticism over the nominating process.
Another Democratic candidate, Tavorise Marks, is pledging to support McClellan while moving forward with a lawsuit accusing his party of voter suppression. He said his goal is to prevent rushed nominations in the future, but the lawsuit also aims to stop the election from being certified.
“This lawsuit is purely about equal access to the ballot box,” Marks said. “A lot of voters who had the opportunity to vote could not have voted because they didn’t have a polling site close enough to them.”
A spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia said the party does not comment on active litigation but McClellan addressed the lawsuit. She said Democrats did their best under the tight timeline set by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
“We worked our tails off to make sure every voter in this district knew where and how to vote. If they needed a ride, they would get there,” McClellan said.
Republicans selected their nominee at a party canvass on Saturday, Dec. 17, using ranked-choice voting.
Leon Benjamin, a pastor and U.S. Navy Veteran, has already lost two bids for the 4th District seat. Prior to his death, McEachin defeated Benjamin by more than 73,000 votes.
In an interview on Thursday, Benjamin said he is still confident his priorities will unite voters.
“Protecting our children, the economy, and getting the drugs and the criminals off of the streets are a high priority right now for the 4th,” Benjamin said. “We will transcend party lines in this election.”