PETERSBURG, Va. – On a recent Monday afternoon, Virginia state Sen. Joe Morrissey got a warm reception as he made his way through a neighborhood in Petersburg, knocking on doors, touting his credentials and asking residents for their votes in the upcoming Democratic primary.
“I'm with you. I always have been," James Dennis, a 56-year-old nurse, told Morrissey.
The greeting was much the same at other homes he visited that day. Voters called Morrissey “down-to-earth,” “on our side” and “someone who listens.” He spoke with them on front porches and in driveways in this hardscrabble city south of Richmond that makes up a small slice of the blue-leaning 13th District where Morrissey and challenger Lashrecse Aird are competing. Theirs is one of the most closely watched nomination contests in a year when all legislative seats are up for grabs.
Morrissey, a veteran lawmaker and twice-disbarred attorney, has survived an extraordinary series of personal and political controversies in his decades in public office, while also enjoying a reputation as an effective grassroots campaigner and criminal justice reform advocate who takes care of bread-and-butter issues for constituents. But his primary battle with Aird is testing the limits of that support.
Morrissey is contending with a redrawn Senate district and political pressure over his centrist voting record on abortion at a time when Virginia Democrats are trying to fend off new abortion restrictions backed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The senator also faces a bitter public dispute with his decades-younger estranged wife, who says Morrissey physically abused her. Morrissey vehemently denies the allegations.
“He does have a reputation as a good, strong campaigner," Aird acknowledged. “But it is different this time.”
Aird, a former member of the state House of Delegates who lost a 2021 reelection bid, is seeking to convince voters that Morrissey should be ousted, largely for his position on abortion.
Virginia is an increasingly rare abortion access point in the South: The state currently has no abortion ban in place but limits third-trimester abortions to cases in which doctors attest that a woman’s life or health are at risk. Youngkin pushed unsuccessfully this year for a 15-week ban with exceptions and recently recommitted to doing so in the future.
The prospects of any future ban will depend on the outcome of this year's elections. Every vote on the issue could matter in a quasi-swing state where just a handful of seats currently sets the balance of power in each chamber.
Morrissey is a rare Democrat who identifies as “pro-life," though he supports some access to abortion.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, he both endorsed the position that the decision to have an abortion should be between a woman and her doctor and the position that the procedure should be banned after the point at which a fetus can feel pain. He says he most likely wouldn't support the governor's proposed 15-week ban, however, because he hasn't seen any empirical evidence to suggest that is the point at which a fetus begins to feel pain. Morrissey also says he generally supports exceptions to any abortion restrictions in cases of rape or incest.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after at least 24 weeks, though some U.S. states have restricted abortion earlier in pregnancy based in part on claims that pain can be felt sooner.
Last year, Morrissey co-sponsored with Republicans an unsuccessful bill that would have banned most abortions after 20 weeks. But during his campaign this year, he ran an ad noting that he never actually voted to restrict abortion access. He also said he thinks Aird's position is extreme.
“My opponent is a one-trick pony: ‘Let me just talk about abortion; let me borrow a half-million dollars from my billionaire friend in Charlottesville; let me flood the airwaves with that and let me try to steal a state Senate seat,’" Morrissey said, referencing the backing Aird has received from the advocacy group Clean Virginia, which was founded by a wealthy investor.
Aird describes herself as “100% pro-choice,” and insists that it's not the government's place to make decisions about abortion.
“My opponent is the only anti-choice Democrat in the Senate," Aird, 36, told potential constituent Tonisha Kinney of Henrico County as she canvassed last week.
Aird, who works in higher education administration, has also touted her legislative work on criminal justice reform and economic development.
Morrissey is a former prosecutor turned defense attorney turned lawmaker who overcame a history of fistfights, contempt of court citations and other scandals to win election to the Senate in 2019.
In 2014, he resigned from the House after entering an Alford plea to a misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a 17-year-old receptionist at his law firm. For a time, Morrissey — then in his 50s — spent his days at the General Assembly and his nights in jail as he served a work-release sentence. Democratic former Gov. Ralph Northam pardoned him last year.
Morrissey and Myrna Morrissey later married and had three children together. But the two are currently separated and in the midst of a divorce and other legal disputes.
As Morrissey attempts to hang on to his position, running a lean operation with no official campaign manager, he said he's being backed by more than 30 local officials in his district, including six of the seven members of the Petersburg City Council. But an unusual number of Democratic members of Congress and legislators have supported Aird, including all of Morrissey's female Democratic Senate colleagues, who issued a statement condemning his “destructive” behavior.
Aird is also enjoying support from a union, abortion rights-advocates and liberal advocacy groups who are helping knock on doors ahead of the June 20 primary. And she's got the backing of well-connected elected officials in Henrico County, part of which makes up a key share of the redrawn majority-minority district.
As Aird made her way around a Henrico neighborhood on a recent afternoon with one of those supporters, Henrico Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Tyrone Nelson, a handful of voters indicated they were familiar with Morrissey's controversies but were noncommittal about the race.
Kinney told Aird her pitch resonated but she had to give the contest more thought.
“We know Joe, you know? So that’s the only thing,” Kinney said.
Rankin reported from Chesterfield and Henrico counties.