Top prosecutors survive challenges in Virginia’s primary elections

Pivotal races have been called in Virginia’s fiercely contested party primaries, with voters determining who advances to a potentially game-changing election this fall.

Winners were quickly named in Virginia’s Democratic and Republican primaries for top prosecutor, state legislature, county board and more. Tuesday set the stage for a November election that could redefine the balance of power in the Old Dominion, and the results are sure to be closely scrutinized for hints about which direction a bitterly divided General Assembly could swing.

Commonwealth’s Attorney

All three of Northern Virginia’s reform-minded Commonwealth’s Attorneys performed strongly on Tuesday night, surviving primary challenges from opponents who billed themselves as tougher and more efficient prosecutors.

Incumbent prosecutor Buta Biberaj of Loudoun County was projected to win her primary, leading Democratic opponent Elizabeth Lancaster by a 10-point margin with over 94% of the vote counted. Biberaj moves to November after a campaign emphasizing value-centric prosecution and an expansion of diversionary programs. Lancaster, a public defender, had presented herself as a consensus builder who sought to address “incompetence and mismanagement” within Biberaj’s office.

Biberaj was seen as particularly vulnerable after criticism over her office’s handling of high-profile school sexual assault cases. She goes on to face Republican candidate Bob Anderson, who served as Loudoun’s Commonwealth’s Attorney from 1996 to 2003.

Incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti was projected to take the nomination in deep-blue Arlington County, staving off a challenge from Josh Katcher. Dehghani-Tafti had pitched voters with a balance between ensuring justice for the accused and maintaining safety for the community. She led Katcher, who formerly worked in her office, by more than 13 points with 95% of the vote counted.

In neighboring Fairfax County, prosecutor Steve Descano stood poised to coast through a challenge from trial lawyer Edward Nuttall. The Associated Press called the race for incumbent Descano, who had campaigned on his staunch support for abortion rights, steps to mitigate gun violence and efforts to eliminate prosecution bias. Descano had opened a 15-point lead over Nuttall with around two-thirds of the vote in.

Commonwealth’s Attorneys are elected officials who serve important roles in setting policy direction, deciding on priorities and dedicating resources to safeguard the community. Descano, Biberaj and Dehghani-Tafti were propelled into their roles with a progressive vision for prosecution, including a reduction in prison populations, community support programs and better mental health treatment.

But after allegations of mismanagement, and amid public concerns over violent crime rates, each were met with primary challengers who presented themselves as tougher prosecutors, while at the same time being better equipped to deliver on the reform promises of their opponents.

Analysts often look to Virginia’s odd-year elections for insights on voter sentiment heading into midterm and presidential years. Tuesday’s prosecutor races might shed light on whether suburban voters are still committed to criminal justice reform after Republican criticism that reformers are soft on crime.

State legislature

Republicans won a slim 52-48 majority in the state House of Delegates during the 2021 elections. Conservatives aim for a definitive grip on the state’s legislative agenda by reclaiming the Senate, currently controlled by the Democrats with a 22-18 majority. This year marks the first cycle in which legislative candidates are running in districts created during the redistricting process that ended in late 2021.

Democrats have the largest number of competitive primary races in Northern Virginia, with races to watch in the state Senate, House of Delegates and Board of Supervisors. The only Republican Senate incumbent who faced challengers in Virginia on Tuesday was Amanda Chase, a right-wing firebrand who lost the nomination contest to attorney Glen Sturtevant.

In the newly-drawn Senate District 36, the Democratic primary vote was called for Stella Pekarsky with 52.2% over opponent Sen. George Barker. Fairfax County school board member Pekarsky had eked out a thin margin of less than 1,000 votes over Barker, who faced an uncertain future running for reelection in a new district that had cut away much of his original constituency.

Former CIA officer Russet Perry declared victory in Senate District 31 over Leesburg council member Zach Cummings, clinching the Democratic nomination in a redrawn district whose near-even split between suburban Loudoun and rural Fauquier counties positions it as a key battleground this November.

Jennifer Carroll Foy took the Democratic nomination in Senate District 33 with a 20-point margin over opponent Hala Ayala. A former member of the House of Delegates, Foy mounted an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2021 as a progressive outsider. Her win places her as a strong contender to secure the repositioned 33rd District later this year, which includes blue-leaning areas of Prince William and Fairfax counties.

In nearby Senate District 35, Sen. Dave Marsden easily withstood a challenge from fellow Democrat Heidi Drauschak, an activist and nonprofit founder who campaigned against government corruption with backing from the big-spending advocacy group Clean Virginia.

Elsewhere in Virginia, The Associated Press called a dramatic loss for scandal-scarred incumbent Sen. Joe Morrissey against challenger Lachrecse Aird with 69.3% of the vote in a closely-watched race for the redrawn 13th Senate District.

Morrissey’s self-described “pro-life” stance on abortion, and allegations of physical abuse levied by his estranged wife, had made the Democrat a pariah within his own party. Aird, who described herself as “100% pro-choice” compared to Morrissey, clinched the nomination for Virginia’s first state legislative elections since the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

County board

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Jeff McKay claimed victory over primary challenger Lisa Downing. Incumbent McKay, formerly the Lee District supervisor, held a 13-point lead over Downing with all but one precinct reporting as of midnight. McKay had campaigned for a second term on strengthening public education, public housing, green energy investments and transportation infrastructure.

Arlington County’s experiment with ranked choice voting had Democrats Susan Cunningham, Natalie Roy, Maureen Coffey and Julius Spain each earning between 20% and 25% of the vote in the race for county board, but falling short of the 33% threshold needed to proclaim a winner. Candidates Tony Weaver and Jonathan Dromgoole were vying for last place, meaning that ballots cast for either could be redistributed in a second round.

Arlington officials were asking for public feedback on ranked choice, with this election marking Virginia’s first venture with the alternative voting method. The Virginia Department of Elections said tabulating the results in the Democratic primary for Arlington County board could take up to a week after Election Day.

In Prince William County, Deshundra Jefferson ousted incumbent Ann Wheeler, marking voters’ change of heart against Wheeler following her support toward the rampant development of the data center industry in the county. Jefferson, a single mother new to county politics, won 52.3% of the vote — 13,135 votes to Wheeler’s 11,993.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

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