Virginia 2021 primary: House of Delegates races to watch

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more information about fundraising totals in the 50th District.

Beyond the high-profile primary contests for Virginia governor and other statewide offices, candidates seeking their party’s nod for Virginia’s House of Delegates seats are also on the ballot. Two years after Democrats won control of the chamber for the first time in more than two decades, there is an unusually high number of Democratic incumbents facing challenges from within their own party.

Across the state, voters will weigh in on 14 Democratic delegates who are facing primary challenges. That’s more than three times higher than the number of Democratic incumbents who faced primary opponents in 2019 or 2017.

“If you look back two years ago, four years ago, six years ago, you see that there are more Democratic candidates for House of Delegate races than ever before,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

In part, that’s because Democratic prospects in the Old Dominion are better than they once were.

“Now that Democratic majorities exist in the House of Delegates … it’s a more appealing time to be an elected official as a Democrat,” Farnsworth said. “You have a much greater chance to get things done. And that’s going to bring out more people to the contest.”

Most of the incumbents being challenged are in Northern Virginia, which has become, over the years, a reliable and deeper shade of blue. But there are a few races in districts considered more competitive — including in Prince William County — where Democrats have only more recently made inroads.

The candidates who emerge victorious after the primary will go head to head with Republicans who are looking to regain their hold on power in the General Assembly.

“The current Democratic majority in the House of Delegates owes its success to the ability of Democratic candidates in Northern Virginia, particularly in Prince William but also in Stafford to win seats that had historically been Republican,” Farnsworth said. “And the Republicans, as they’re trying to develop a plan for winning back the House of Delegates, are concentrating on those same suburban districts that had been historically Republican, but did flip to the Democrats during the last few election cycles.”


More Virginia primary coverage


31st District: Most crowded

The most crowded race is in the 31st District, which straddles Prince William and Fauquier counties.

Incumbent Del. Elizabeth Guzman has drawn three Democratic challengers. Guzman also launched a bid for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor but she dropped out of the running for that office to focus on keeping her seat in the house of delegates.

Guzman, who was elected in the 2017 Democratic wave was reelected in 2019 with just under 53% of the vote.

While incumbents usually get renominated relatively easily, the primary race in the 31st District is shaping up to be a “pretty rough contest,” Farnsworth said.

R.D. “Rod” Hall, a transportation policy adviser and former Federal Aviation Administration official, has racked up endorsements from influential state lawmakers, such as Sen. Scott Surovell, House Appropriations Chair Luke Torian and Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Chair Del. Lamont Bagby.

Idris A. Jibowu-O’Connor is another challenger. He represents the Neabsco District on the Prince William County Social Service Advisory Board, and is the chair of the Cooperative Council of Ministries, a coalition of Prince William County churches.

Also on the ballot is Kara A. Pitek, a project manager for a small federal contracting firm and serves on the Prince William Housing Board. She is a former Commissioner on the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The Virginia Public Access Project, which crunches state election data, considers the district “competitive,” between Democrats and Republicans citing past voting trends.

50th District: Running 2 races

In the 50th District — also in bellwether Prince William County and parts of Manassas City — Del. Lee J. Carter, who won election to the seat in 2017 is facing two challengers.

Helen Anne Zurita is a community activist and was active in the efforts to organize residents of the East End Mobile Home Park when the community was in danger of being shut down.

Michelle E. Lopes-Maldonado is a former attorney and small business owner.

At the same time he’s seeking reelection to his seat in the House of Delegates, Carter is also making a bid for the Democratic nod for governor.

“The possibility that Lee Carter could be distracted does create an opportunity for other Democrats to run,” Farnsworth said. “It’s very hard for a member of the house of delegates to run for a statewide office, which requires campaigning all over the Commonwealth and at the same time, run for reelection in the house of delegates.”

Carter began the year with a hefty fundraising advantage. However, in the most recent quarter, which ended March 31 Lopes-Maldonado raised $25,853 to Carter’s $16,264, according to VPAP campaign finance data. Overall, Carter has raised $71,904 in his reelection campaign, according to VPAP.

“Although some people may have underestimated Lee Carter in the past, I think it’s clear that he has been quite successful in the 50th District,” Farnsworth said.

Carter won reelection in 2019 with 53% of the vote.

2nd District: An incumbent by 6 months

In the 2nd District, which includes parts of Prince William and Stafford counties and which VPAP says “leans Democratic,” Del. Candi King carries the mantle of incumbent — just barely.

She won the seat less than six months ago, after narrowly defeating Republican Heather Mitchell in a special election to replace Democrat Jennifer Carrol Foy, who stepped down to run for governor. Before her election, King served as a special needs parent advocate and volunteer at Freedom High School.

King is facing a challenge from Pam Montgomery, who currently serves as chief of staff to Prince William County Supervisor Margaret Franklin. Montgomery is a former Army JAG officer and civil rights attorney.

On the other end of the incumbents’ spectrum: In the 36th District in Fairfax County, a reliable Democratic district, Ken Plum, the current longest-serving member of the house of delegates is facing a primary challenge for the first time in more than two decades, according to RestonNow.

Plum, who’s held the seat since 1982, is facing a challenge from Mary K. “Red” Barthelson, a data systems and systems engineer.

An April 23 debate between the two candidates was abruptly canceled after Barthelson said she had to “step back from actively campaigning to deal with a personal matter.”

51st District: Republican contest

Prince William County is the scene of a Republican primary contest.

Vying for the Republican nomination in the 51st District are Jeffery A. Dove Jr., an Army veteran who works as an IT contractor for a defense contractor, and Tim D. Cox, a U.S. Navy veteran, a commanding officer in the U.S. Navy reserve and contractor.

The district is considered competitive. The seat is currently held by Hala Ayala, who was elected in 2017, but who is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. Briana Sewell, the chief of staff to Prince William County Board Chair Ann Wheeler, is unopposed for the Democratic nomination for the seat.

What will happen come June 8 when the votes are counted?

“It’s really hard to predict elections during COVID times,” Farnsworth said. “It’s not clear how many people are going to participate and primaries traditionally in Virginia are low turnout affairs.

An average renomination campaign typically sees turnout well below 5,000 votes.

“This creates a great deal of opportunity for candidates who are really, really aggressive in terms of reaching out to the voters, if they can build a cadre of really loyal people who are going to turn out and turn out for them,” Farnsworth said. “That can really upset the plans of incumbents who might have to work harder because of that kind of challenge.”

As it stands now, Democrats maintain a tight 55-45 majority in the house of delegates. In the fall, all 100 seats will be on the ballot.

Farnsworth said in both the primary and in the general election, suburban voters likely hold the key to success.

“The key question when you’re thinking about 2021 in Virginia is: What happens to Republican voters in the suburbs who didn’t like (President Donald) Trump and may have not voted for Republicans for an election or two?” Farnsworth said. “Will they come back to the Republican Party? Or will they continue to vote Democratic? The fortunes of the Republican Party statewide and prospects for any Republican return to power in majority status in the General Assembly depends almost exclusively on suburban voters.”

Other Northern Virginia primaries for House of Delegates

House of Delegates 34th District

District includes parts Fairfax County and Loudoun counties

(Democratic primary)

House of Delegates 38th District

District is in Fairfax County

(Democratic primary)

House of Delegates 45th District

District includes parts of Alexandria City and Arlington and Fairfax counties

(Democratic primary)

Levine is also seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

House of Delegates 49th District

District includes parts of Arlington and Fairfax county

(Democratic primary)

House of Delegates 86th District

District includes Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

(Democratic primary)

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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