Fiery House election on Virginia's coast tests whether GOP can rebound in an increasingly blue state

Key Points
  • The smear-ridden race in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District pits incumbent Democrat Elaine Luria against Republican and former Rep. Scott Taylor.
  • Luria ousted Taylor two years ago as part of a broader Democratic sweep to win back the House. The two have remained fierce opponents.
  • Polling experts say Trump's appearance on the 2020 ballot may hurt Taylor's odds in a military-heavy district skeptical of the president's love for the armed services.
  • A poll shows Luria in the lead and benefitting from double-digit leads among female and college-educated voters.
Rep. Elaine Luria answers questions on a variety of topics during a town hall at New Hope Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, VA, on Thursday, October 3, 2019.
Parker Michels-Boyce | The Washington Post | Getty Images

A bitter election in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District over a crucial House seat is boiling down to which of two Navy veterans better represents a historically Republican region that now finds itself increasingly drawn toward Democrats.

The contest, as muddy as its Tidewater setting, pits incumbent Democrat Elaine Luria against a familiar rival: GOP challenger and former Rep. Scott Taylor.

Luria ousted Taylor in an nasty contest two years ago as part of a broader Democratic sweep to win back the chamber. The two have remained fierce opponents.

The vitriolic race between Luria and Taylor isn't without cause: The district has quickly become a key battleground for Democrats and Republicans in their attempts to control the House.

Democrats, who on Nov. 3 hope to regain control of the Senate, are favored to hold on to their 232-seat majority in the House.

Despite the candidates' common background in the Navy, the two could not appear further apart on issues ranging from gun control to climate change. Nor could they appear happier to remind voters of just how much they disagree through incessant smears and pithy quips.

Scars from their first contest remain.

A 2018 fraud scandal dogs Taylor, whose former campaign staffers were charged with forging signatures on a petition to support a third-party spoiler candidate on the ballot. Though Taylor himself has not been charged, two staffers have pleaded guilty and a third was indicted in September.

A debate Tuesday evening hosted by WTKR television served as a perfect opportunity for each to malign the other. The pair swapped insults and accused each other of misrepresenting their legislative records and obscuring their positions on numerous of issues.

"The only thing that he said in his answer that was true is that we have real differences," Luria said during a question about gun control. The first-term representative said she favors universal background checks and is open to legislation that would ban certain gun-silencing instruments that she says contributed to a 2019 mass shooting at Virginia Beach that claimed 12 victims.

Taylor, incredulous, parried by asking: "Who is Mrs. Luria to tell us, American citizens, how many rounds we can have in a magazine to protect themselves, or their families or their businesses?"

Neither campaign had offered comment to CNBC at the time this article was published.

Luria has a slight lead in the race, according to a poll released Wednesday by Christopher Newport University's Wason Center for Public Policy.

The survey, which had a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points, shows Luria leading Taylor by 7 points. Luria enjoys double-digit leads among female and college-educated voters, the poll showed.

"The enthusiasm that seems to be animating Democrats nationally is evident in this 2nd District race," said Wason Center research director Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo. "But the election fraud scandal of 2018 appears to be weighing Taylor down even beyond that."

The Wason Center found in the same poll that 2nd District voters prefer Democrat Joe Biden over Trump by 9 points.

Statewide, an average calculated by FiveThirtyEight shows Biden up 12.9 percentage points over Trump. A similar average generated by RealClearPolitics shows Biden's lead at 11.4 points.

Experts say the fact that Biden and Luria's leads have been moving in tandem in the 2nd District is not necessarily surprising since dissatisfaction with Trump continues to be a motivating factor for the region.

That marks a change from the 2016 election, when the Tidewater favored Trump over Hillary Clinton. The 2nd District, which includes the cities of Virginia Beach and Williamsburg, as well as portions of Norfolk City, favored Trump by 3 percentage points in 2016.

But voters have since gone Democratic— supporting Gov. Ralph Northam in 2017 — and helped the party recapture the U.S. House in 2018.

Though surveys on Biden and Trump are far from a perfect read on how 2nd District voters feel about Luria and Taylor, Farrah Stone of Virginia Commonwealth University said her polling that the president may nonetheless have an impact on down-ballot contests.

Former Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Va., talks with reporters in the Capitol after a meeting of the House Republican Conference.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

Military maybes

Though an endorsement from Trump can often buoy a Republican's odds, Farrah said many of the military families that make up the Eastern Shore have grown skeptical of the president's supposed love for the rank-and-file soldiers.

"In that Tidewater area, the military is definitely top of the list," Stone said. "Traditional kind of military values: Taking care of the military, taking care of veterans. Those are really preeminent values there."

Virginia receives a disproportionate amount of defense spending, providing the commonwealth with hundreds of thousands of jobs.

If one includes the jobs created by defense-related spending as well as the thousands of contractors supporting the armed services, federal spending supported more than 880,000 jobs in Virginia as recently as fiscal 2016, according to Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.

"While Virginia contributes much to our nation's defense, the commonwealth also reaps some benefit as the DoD contributes to our economy by providing hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in expenditures," Wittman wrote in 2018. "To that end, defense spending accounts for 20 percent of all economic production across the commonwealth."

Given the district's deep ties to the armed services, it has for much of the 21st century voted Republican and is often represented in Congress by veterans.

But Virginia voters in Delmarva have undergone a change since 2016, Stone explained, as military-heavy districts across Virginia began to doubt Trump's respect for the Pentagon's top brass.

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A resident of the state's 7th District, Stone said voters in her region underwent a change similar to that seen on the Eastern Shore.

"[Trump] has had significant issues with military leadership over the past few years, disagreeing with them and disparaging them," Stone said. "And then you had at the beginning of September the whole thing of him disparaging soldiers ... that they're 'losers.'"

"One could presume that that could be something driving the people to believe that maybe he's not as pro-military as we might have thought."

Hoping to appeal to the district's sizable pro-military faction, Luria and Taylor have stressed their prior legislative work to improve the lives of the nation's veterans.

Luria, a former Navy commander, has in recent weeks trumpeted legislation she sponsored to boost disabled veterans' benefits.

Her Veterans' Compensation Cost of Living Adjustment Act directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to boost veterans' disability compensation, clothing allowance and dependency benefits. That bill, which the Senate passed in September, was signed into law this week.

The Democrat also made headlines in 2019 when she grilled Navy brass on why the new, $13 billion Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier had fallen so far behind schedule thanks to various glitches and a novel electromagnetic system for launching jets.

Taylor often refers to passage of his 2018 bill that placed more responsibility on the VA secretary for problems at the department's hospitals.

The former member of Navy SEAL Team 4 said at the time that the bill helps prevent the VA from reassigning underperforming executives from one hospital to another. The legislation, he argues, emphasizes retaining only the best employees and bolsters accountability.

Surf and turf

Consistent with trends seen across the country, 2nd District voters say the economy is the most pressing issue driving their choice at the ballot box this year, according to the Wason Center.

Nearly a quarter (24%) of district voters say the economy is their No. 1 concern. Nineteen percent said the Covid-19 pandemic was their top priority while 13% said health care ranked highest. No other issue reached the 10% threshold, including gun policy, racial justice, national security, Supreme Court appointments, the environment or immigration.

"Considering the heavy military presence throughout the region and with both candidates emphasizing their Navy service, it's notable that only 7 percent of voters say national security is an issue that drives their vote," Wason Center academic director Quentin Kidd said in a press release.

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The Tidewater region's focus on the economy in the 2020 election is far from surprising since a significant portion of its annual revenues stem from tourism along the mid-Atlantic coast.

Luria, an advocate of the popular Paycheck Protection Program, raised the alarm earlier this year for the region's aquaculture, comprised of dozens of small-time commercial fishermen who make their living off the Chesapeake's famed blue crab.

Between Covid-19 forcing many restaurants to shutter and a smaller number of H2B visas for immigrants who usually pick crabs, Virginia's seafood output had already been on track for a tough year.

But when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that Virginia would receive only $4.5 million CARES Act funds for its seafood industry, Luria wrote a letter of complaint to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

The Democrat argued that since Virginia fisheries account for 7.4% of all aquaculture in the U.S., the state should receive the same proportion of the CARES Act funds instead of the 1.5% apportioned.

Asked for his thoughts on whether states and local governments should receive more federal aid, Republican Taylor said he would be in favor of more relief for certain municipalities.

That view may put him at odds with other Republicans, who have criticized Democrats for demanding significant relief for state and local governments during stimulus talks between the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"I think that localities and cities — not the ones who have been irresponsible in Democrat states, of course, with pensions and other things — but I'm talking about the localities and cities who are responsible," Taylor said during Tuesday's debate.

"There's no question about it, that they understand the need better locally for businesses and people. They know their people better than anybody, certainly better than Washington," he added.

Later in the debate, Taylor said he thinks Trump is doing a good job handling the pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 Americans, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

But he also reserved some criticism for Democrats and said that efforts by Northam and other Democrats to shut down businesses amid the Covid-19 outbreak have put many of the state's businesses in dire straits.

He also called the governor's decision to deem certain businesses nonessential "insane."

"The reality is, when I speak to business owners, they're hurting," Taylor said.

"Representatives and leaders of any position should be fighting for their people. And Elaine Luria has remained silent. And if you go and speak to businesses all over this district, they'll tell you the same thing: 'Where's Elaine? Where has Elaine been?'"

Luria objected to Taylor's description and said that she has visited hundreds of businesses in the district that are trying to access federal aid.

With Congress still at an impasse over stimulus, whether businesses and patients in the 2nd District ultimately receive the aid will hinge on how its residents vote next month.

But if the animosity between Luria and Taylor is evidence that bipartisanship is all but dead in Washington, the 2nd District must again decide which party it believes can best navigate uncertain times.