Another Blue Dog Democrat bites the dust
Longtime state senator in Northern Virginia ousted by left-wing primary challenger
Virginia state Sen. John Chapman “Chap” Petersen and I have a couple things in common. We both are the same age, 55, and we both grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia. We both also remember a time when there were lots of moderate Democrats holding elective offices in Fairfax.
Petersen’s defeat last week in the Democratic primary to left-wing challenger Saddam Salim brings the Petersen era to an end, and with it an era of centrist Democrats in Fairfax. Perhaps not forever, but certainly for the foreseeable future.
Due to redistricting, Senate District 37 included some of Falls Church, which made up about 12 percent of the electorate. That was new territory for Petersen, and very helpful to Salim, who made an issue of the incumbent’s opposition to an assault weapons ban and to extended masking in schools.
Still, Petersen’s loss was a major upset and an indicator of how far left the Democratic Party has moved. Democratic primary voters also rejected a moderate challenger to Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano, a soft-on-crime prosecutor backed by leftist billionaire George Soros.)
Even though I’m a conservative Republican, I admit to be saddened by Petersen’s loss. To me, he was the last sensible, elected Democrat in my home county.
I first heard the name “Chap” Petersen in 2001, when he challenged Republican state Delegate Jack Rust. Rust was in line to become speaker of the House of Delegates, but the hardworking Petersen snuck up behind him in a fairly major upset. Some Republicans did see it coming. I recall GOP state Sen. Jane Woods telling fellow Republicans: “Don’t underestimate Petersen.” Apparently, Rust did just that and lost.
That upset victory helped Petersen acquire the moniker the “scrappy fighter.” Years later, I found myself in his office and noticed that he had an editorial cartoon of him being depicted as the “scrappy fighter” hanging on his wall. He was proud of that sobriquet.
When Petersen entered the House of Delegates in 2002, I was working for a conservative group in Richmond, and my job was to track various bills. My view of Petersen formed in that first session. I watched and concluded that Petersen was generally a moderate Democrat who would buck the Democratic then-governor, Mark Warner, from time to time.
He probably enjoyed the attention, and no doubt took pride in having an independent streak. His House district probably had a high percentage of centrist Democrats who appreciated Petersen’s moderation. In 2002, the party still had a sizable number of moderates.
In 2008, Petersen moved up to the state Senate after making a quixotic 2005 run for lieutenant governor, in which he came in third in the Democratic primary.
Petersen’s victory in the state Senate race in 2007 was also considered an upset. The “scrappy fighter” had struck again. He ran against moderate Republican then-Congressman Tom Davis’ second wife, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, and the Davis machine. Some Fairfax Republicans were not at all disappointed by Devolites Davis’ loss.
But the politics of Fairfax County have changed greatly since Petersen was first elected to the state Senate. Consider this: Just two years later, Republican Bob McDonnell was elected governor in 2009, and he carried Fairfax County. That would be unlikely to happen now.
The earnest and hardworking Petersen no doubt thought that he could remain a moderate, and through some combination of constituent services and personality, along with fidelity to Democrats on a few high-profile issues could remain in office. Petersen probably thought that his Democratic base would grant him some leeway. After all, in his mind, he had earned it, and they owed him. He had beaten Rust. He had beaten the Davis machine. Surely, he would be afforded some independence, some votes of conscience, some occasional wandering from orthodoxy—off the reservation, as it were.
But Petersen was too much of a moderate, too much of a free thinker for a party that’s now more in sync with far left Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at least in Fairfax County.
Petersen generally supported in the Second Amendment. He realized some of the constitutional problems with red flag laws. He also seemed uncomfortable with woke highway name-change campaigns taking place in Fairfax County. He believed that then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a fellow Democrat, was wrong to shuttered our state and closed schools down for so long during the COVID-19 pandemic. Petersen thought it was wrong to keep masks on kids in schools. Nor was he onboard with the transgender ideology.
In other words, Petersen was a rational, reasonable person. Nowadays, such a person is not going to win in a Democratic primary in Fairfax County.
University of Virginia professor and pundit Larry Sabato has opined that if Ronald Reagan were still alive today that he couldn’t get the Republican nomination for office.
Well, Sabato doesn’t have to speculate about a historical figure. When it comes to examining the ideological shift of a political party, all he has to do is look at what happened on June 20 in Virginia. The Democratic Party has moved so far left that Petersen was denied his party’s renomination for a state Senate seat he has held since 2008.
David Shephard is the author of “Elections Have Consequence: A Cautionary Tale,” a roman-a-clef novel based loosely on actual Virginia politics, published last summer.