The Race to Replace Dead Congressman Don McEachin Is a Race Against Time

When voters in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District went to the polls last month, they were well-acquainted with their options—and their winner.

Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin had represented the district since 2017, and his re-election was a foregone conclusion.

But even before McEachin could be seated for his fourth term, he died, in November after a long battle with colorectal cancer. And now, voters will have just days—not weeks or months—to choose his successor.

Earlier this week, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) just set the special election to fill McEachin’s seat for Feb. 21, 2023. A day later, the Virginia Democratic Party announced it would hold a so-called “firehouse primary” on Dec. 20.

That leaves voters in this majority-minority district with roughly one week to choose their Democratic nominee. And in a safe-blue district like this, that nominee is virtually guaranteed to win the general election in February, and to have little contest from the GOP in retaining the seat in future elections.

There is no early voting or mail-in option. There won’t be as many polling locations as usual. And voters will have to show in person.

Not everyone’s psyched about that reality. Some are livid that Virginia Democrats didn’t opt for voting on a Saturday instead, when working-class voters might have a more open schedule. And plenty have concerns about potential disenfranchisement of voters who—for whatever reason—don’t have time to spare on Tuesday.

But with little time to wrestle with the complexities of a firehouse primary, candidates for the seat are trying to turn these particularly sour lemons into lemonade.

“It’s all unfortunate. It’s unfortunate that we lost our congressman, Donald McEachin. But what I will say is, we can’t make any excuses about the timing of this race,” said state Del. Lamont Bagby (D-VA), who announced his candidacy for the seat Monday.

“We’re gonna be working aggressively to talk to voters to continue the lines of communication that we already have and amplify their voice in a traditional fashion,” Bagby told The Daily Beast.

Bagby isn’t alone in the race. He’s notably joined by state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-VA). The duo currently leads the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus together, with Bagby as chair and McClellan as vice chair. Both considered McEachin a friend and have publicly mourned his loss.

But they also have a contest to run. Both contenders are highlighting a message of carrying on the congressman’s legacy.

“I could pick up and carry on his work seamlessly. I could never replace him and you know, we’re different people and have different styles, but our work ethic or passion for public service, our policy positions are very similar… But you know, as a woman, I have a little bit of a different perspective,” McClellan said.

If elected, McClellan would be the first Black woman from Virginia to serve in the House.

State Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-VA) has also hopped in the race, starting much of his candidacy with ire over the choice to run the election on Tuesday.

“For 10 years, the Democrats—and I’m one—have been talking about access to the polls, wider, expanded access, early voting, no excuse voting, about dropbox, no photo ID… What do they do? They chill people’s rights. I think it’s disgraceful,” Morrissey told The Daily Beast.

Former Del. Joseph Presto (D) and entrepreneur Tavorise Marks are also running for the seat. On the Republican side, Leon Benjamin, the Republican who faced McEachin in November, is running again, as is former Mecklenburg County School Board Chairman Dale Sturdifen.

It’s a complicated situation all around. Candidates are left trying to mount a campaign operation within a week. By noon on Friday, Democratic hopefuls have to submit $3,480 and 150 signatures to the state party in order to qualify for the ballot, along with all of their necessary paperwork. State Democrats are relying on volunteers to help mount voting sites and logistics by Tuesday, at which point candidates will need to have made their entire pitch.

Both McClellan and Bagby told The Daily Beast they’re counting on their existing volunteer networks to help get out the vote, given the limited time to hire staff. Bagby’s team also noted they will rely on pastors to help mobilize their congregations ahead of Tuesday’s election.

Still, candidates like McClellan say a Saturday primary would have been too soon, though she shares concerns about a primary the Tuesday before Christmas, when many people are likely to be traveling.

“But all of this is the governor’s doing. He could have scheduled it for March. He could have scheduled it for April. He chose February 21,” she said.

The Virginia Democratic Party said this was the best option to ensure Democrats have a nominee by the Dec. 23 filing deadline.

“A Firehouse Primary allows as many candidates and voters to participate in the democratic process as possible,” Alexsis Rodgers, chair of the Fourth Congressional District Democratic Committee, said in a statement. “The Fourth Congressional District Democratic Committee is committed to holding a smooth, transparent, and expedient process to select a nominee.”

Henrico County Democratic Chair Alsúin Preis told The Daily Beast much of the legwork over the next few days will fall to local leadership. She says it’s incumbent on county Democratic chairs to maximize constituent awareness of the election and its unusual logistics.

“The biggest part of this is making sure that we get the information out to people and that they make a plan and they go and vote. It’s about turnout. And it’s about the candidates, making sure that they get their machines rolling,” she said.

Whoever backfills McEachin will also fill a gap in Democrats’ numbers in the House. Although in the minority, Democrats are behind Republicans by a narrow margin. With bitter fights over the debt limit, government funding and more bound to ensue in the next term, the left will need every resistance vote it can get.

McEachin was part of that. He was a reliable Democratic vote with a knack for issues around environmental justice. He aligned himself with the moderate New Democratic Caucus and was an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

For now, however, Preis said she’s eager to see where pieces fall at the local level after Tuesday’s votes. Given the roles in the state legislature of Democrats’ leading contenders, she expects backfill elections will be in order. The ball keeps on rolling.

“Everybody knows these players and it’s kind of interesting to see how these chess pieces are going to move. Because it’s not just about the race for the 4th, but what happens after that, because it’s kind of a domino effect,” she said.

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