Medicaid vote emerges as key in Virginia's GOP primaries

FILE - In this Tuesday, May 29, 2018 file photo, co-chairman of the Senate Finance committee, State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, left, as he speaks during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee as co-chairman State Sen. Thomas Norment, R-James City County, right, listens at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Hanger is facing a spirited opponent in Tuesday's election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE - In a Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, Senate minority leader,Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, speaks during debate on a bill during the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Saslaw is facing a primary challenger for the first time in 40 years. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. — A top Virginia Republican who upset much of his party by supporting Medicaid expansion defeated a conservative challenger Tuesday in a state legislative primary that could serve as a political barometer for the coming presidential year. But a lesser-known GOP delegate who also backed expansion lost to a more conservative challenger in a key swing district, which could make it harder for Republicans to keep their majority in the House come November.

And in an improbable political comeback, a former Virginia lawmaker who used to spend his days at the state Capitol and his nights in jail after being accused of having sex with his teenage secretary defeated an incumbent senator in a Democratic primary.

Normally sleepy affairs, the primaries for the 140 seats in the state Legislature were more dramatic this year as moderates in both parties took fire from their more extreme flanks. Virginia is the only state where the Legislature has a reasonable chance of flipping party control. Republicans currently have narrow majorities in both the House and Senate.

The state's 2017 elections were an early warning signal that a blue wave of opposition to President Donald Trump would wash over the 2018 U.S. midterms, and now political analysts are looking for clues about 2020.

On the GOP side, lingering resentment over last year's vote to expand Medicaid in Virginia fueled divisive contests.

Republican voters punished a House of Delegate member who voted to expand Medicaid last year, opting instead for a more conservative challenger who could make it harder for Republicans to keep their majority in the House. The Fredericksburg-area district won by Paul Milde over Del. Bob Thomas will be heavily contested during the November election.

But pro-expansion Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger, one of the state's most powerful senators, fended off his challenger Tuesday.

Hanger played a key role in the Medicaid expansion that made 400,000 low-income adults eligible to enroll. Opponent Tina Freitas said Hanger had betrayed constituents on the Medicaid issue and wasn't conservative enough on guns or abortion. Hospitals spent heavily to help Hanger.

Many Democratic incumbents — including Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw — were being challenged by liberal newcomers who weren't shy about attacking their opponents as ethically compromised and out of step with their base.

Democrats hope to continue a three-year winning streak, powered largely by suburban voters unhappy with Trump.

But the party lost a major advantage earlier this year when its top three statewide office holders became ensnared in scandal. A racist yearbook photo surfaced in February and almost forced Gov. Ralph Northam from office. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was then accused by two women of sexual assault, which he denied. And Attorney General Mark Herring, after calling for Northam to resign, revealed that he too wore blackface once in college.

Adding a significant new headache for Democrats on Tuesday was Joe Morrissey's victory over incumbent Sen. Rosalyn Dance in a Richmond-area senate district. Morrissey was jailed four years ago after a sex scandal involving a teenager, who Morrissey later married. He denied wrongdoing but entered an Alford plea to a misdemeanor, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence for a conviction.

Voter Melvin Washington said he picked Morrissey because he believes he understands the district's neighborhoods. Washington said he is not bothered by Morrissey's past legal problems.

"People try to blow things up more than what it is," he said. "Ain't none of us perfect."

Other races were still too close to call early Tuesday evening.

Saslaw, who is pro-business and chummy with Republicans, has not faced a primary challenger in 40 years. This year he faced two, including 39-year-old human rights lawyer Yasmine Taeb, who painted Saslaw as too conservative and cozy with special interests.

John Laszakovits a 60-year-old engineer from Falls Church, said he wants new people in office, and he voted for Taeb.

"The other guy's been in there too long," he said.

But 71-year-old retiree Laura Harris said she voted for Saslaw because of his long track record of getting results.

"He's done so much in terms of human services," she said.

Similar themes are playing out around the state. Republican Del. Bob Thomas also voted for Medicaid expansion and is trying to hold on to his Fredericksburg-area seat.

Del. Lee Carter, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who was one of the biggest surprise winners in 2017, is trying to fend off a more moderate opponent.

___

Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Matt Barakat in Falls Church and Ben Finley in Virginia Beach contributed to this report.

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