- Associated Press - Monday, June 8, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia voters are set to head to the polls for 18 legislative primary elections around the state Tuesday, with all eyes watching whether GOP House Speaker William J. Howell can dispatch a tea party foe in his Fredericksburg-area district.

Susan Stimpson is a former political protégé of the speaker who says Howell has become too cozy with special interests. Though Howell, a prodigious fundraiser, has a massive cash advantage against Stimpson, Stimpson has been helped by outside spending from anti-tax and pro-gun groups attacking Howell. Stimpson also received a $2,500 donation from Foster Friess, a prominent national GOP donor.

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said he doesn’t expect Stimpson to upset Howell. But Farnsworth predicted a Stimpson victory would make the already-conservative GOP state lawmakers veer sharply to the right. Farnsworth said tea party-backed Dave Brat’s historic upset over then-U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary last year coupled with a Stimpson victory would send a message difficult for any GOP pol to ignore.

“It would mean even less cooperation in Richmond and it would mean even fewer moderates in the state legislature,” he said.

There are also a handful of Senate primaries Tuesday that could help shape how Republicans and Democrats battle over control of the state Senate in the November general election.

Democrats need to pick up only one seat in order to regain control of the 40-member chamber, in which Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam casts tie-breaking votes. A key race in the fall will be the Richmond-area Senate District 10, a swing seat currently belonging to retiring Republican Sen. John Watkins. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has endorsed developer and Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors member Dan Gecker to win Tuesday’s primary. His defeat to liberal challenger Emily Francis or to the self-financed Alexander McMurtrie, could upend Democrats’ plan for the general election.

Similarly, whoever wins the fight for retiring Henrico County GOP Sen. Walter Stosch’s seat could affect how Republicans navigate the November elections. The race to succeed Stosch has been an expensive and sometimes nasty four-way fight in the GOP primary between former Del. Bill Janis, Stosch-endorsed Siobhan Dunnavant, Vincent Haley and Edward Whitlock.

Polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 a.m. Voters can find their polling locations at elections.virginia.gov.

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