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Leaders in both main parties claim victories after Va. primaries ahead of fall showdown

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RICHMOND, Virginia — Leaders in both Republican and Democratic parties got what they wanted out of Virginia's primary elections and said they are now well positioned for the November general election.

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe saw his preferred candidates win a crucial state Senate primary and knock off a conservative Democrat House delegate who often sided with Republicans. Meanwhile GOP House Speaker William J. Howell presided over a string of wins by establishment Republicans over the party's tea party wing, including his own primary contest against a former political protege.

McAuliffe is determined to win back control of the state senate, where Democrats need only flip one seat in November's election to be in charge. The party has set its sights on winning retiring Republican Sen. John Watkins' Richmond-area district. McAuliffe endorsed Dan Gecker, a developer and Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors member who the governor and other Democrats believe has the best chance of winning the general election. Gecker won handily last night against a more liberal challenger and former House delegate.

The governor also extracted some payback against the lone Democratic legislator who opposes Medicaid expansion, which has been a top priority for McAuliffe. The governor's aides helped recruit and advise Portsmouth attorney Steve Heretick, who defeated longtime Democratic Del. Johnny Joannou.

McAuliffe political aide Brian Zuzenak said the governor's aides were "instrumental" in helping Heretick, and the governor also "made sure progressive allies were aware of his support as a green light to take on an incumbent."

Zuzenak also said Democrats feel confident about November's election after Tuesday's primary.

"We have a great slate of candidates who are already running on a message of standing up for the middle class and working with Gov. McAuliffe to build a new Virginia economy," he said.

On the GOP side, Howell easily dispatched tea party favorite Susan Stimpson in a contest that seemed driven by personal animosity as much as policy differences.

The ongoing clash between tea party and establishment Republicans has been a dominant theme in Virginia politics, and it was a year ago that Dave Brat, a little-known tea party backed economics professor, defeated then U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Richmond-area GOP primary.

A year later, the tea party has little to cheer.

Tea party backed Frederick County Republican Del. Mark Berg, who won a surprise victory over a more moderate candidate in 2013, lost his primary Tuesday. And Augusta County Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger, the only nonretiring Republican legislator who supports Medicaid expansion and was targeted by two tea party challengers, easily won his. And in a hotly contested four-way GOP primary for an open Henrico County seat, Siobhan Dunnavant won with strong establishment support.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Howell and other top state House Republicans said they were focused on unifying the party ahead of November's elections, where party leaders hope to expand their current supermajority in the House.

"It's important that we all work together," Howell said.

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