Another Blue Dog Democrat bites the
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
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
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
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
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
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