By Hastings Wyman –
There are more congressional elections in Virginia that could flip from R to D than in any other Southern state, except maybe Texas, which is about three times as large.
Virginia’s recent political history favors the Democrats. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried the state by 5 points. In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam easily defeated Ed Gillespie in the governor’s race. In addition, Republicans are very worried that Corey Stewart, the GOP’s US Senate challenger to US Sen. Tim Kaine (D) and an ardent defender of Confederate monuments, will be a weak top of the ticket, potentially hurting Republican congressional candidates.
The Republicans are not without some clout, however. They are especially strong in non-urban districts and most of their congressional candidates have roots in the politics of their districts.
In the 2nd District (Virginia Beach, etc.), 1st-term US Rep. Scott Taylor (R), a former Navy Seal, is facing a competitive challenge from Elaine Luria, a former Navy Commander. Both have backgrounds with appeal in this coastal district with the world’s largest Naval base. The mostly urban district also has the largest number of female veterans in the nation.
Geoffrey Skelley with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics notes that Taylor “has also made an effort to fit the district. He’s conservative, but not too conservative. He’s not a bomb thrower.” He focuses on issues of interest to his constituents, such as appropriations for defense, a good issue in this Navy-laden district.
Taylor may be hurt by accusations that his campaign aides forged signatures on a petition to get an independent candidate on the ballot, potentially to divide the anti-Taylor vote. The Virginia Democratic Party has sued the Board of Elections, requesting that the independent be taken off the ballot. The independent is Shaun Brown, who was the 2016 Democratic congressional nominee when Taylor won with 61%; she is currently awaiting trial on federal charges that she falsified records in her non-profit to receive more government funds. Taylor has fired a campaign consultant; he had already fired his campaign manager.
Former US Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) acknowledges that Taylor “is having some problems,” referencing the improper signatures on the Brown petition. He adds that “Taylor has refused to debate.”
Luria joined the Navy at age 17 and worked her way up to Surface Warfare Officer and nuclear engineer. She was often deployed abroad on US missions. Last year, after 20 years in the Navy, she retired to her home in the 2nd District with her family. In addition to being an accomplished veteran, she started a small business, the Mermaid Factory, which now has ten employees to help folks make clay models of a mermaid or a dolphin, symbols of Hampton Roads.
Luria is a good fundraiser. In the mid-year FEC reports, Luria had raised $1,319,000 and had $818,000 cash-on-hand. Taylor is also a good fundraiser; at midyear, he had raised $2,741,000 and had $1,007,000 on hand, more, but not too much more, than Luria.
Trump won the 2nd District by three and half points in 2016, but Democrat Ralph Northam carried it over Republican Ed Gillespie in the 2017 governor’s race. The race is “pretty much 50-50,” says Skelley. Tossup.
In the 5th District (Charlottesville, etc.), after incumbent Tom Garrett (R) resigned due to problems with alcohol and amid charges he used his staff for personal errands, the GOP nominated distillery owner Denver Riggleman “who is sort of a libertarian conservative,” says Skelley.
Riggleman is a graduate of the University of Virginia, served in the Air Force as an avionics technician and with the National Security Agency. Today, he and his wife, Christine, operate Silverback Distillery, which distills and distributes gin, vodka and whiskeys.
In the money chase, Riggleman started late, but he last reported raising $217,000, with $208,000 on hand.
Democrat Leslie Cockburn has an impressive career as a journalist, including stints with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” PBS’s Frontline, and teaching journalism at Princeton. She has been active in environmental issues, including the location of pipelines, in Rappahannock County, where she and her husband live on their farm,.
Cockburn has been a good fundraiser, with $1,289,000 raised and $483,000 on hand. The 5th “is a pretty Republican district,” says Davis, “but the Democrats will spend some money.” Trump carried it by 11 points.
Cockburn “is an easy target for Republicans to attack as a liberal,” says Skelley. She’s “a documentary filmmaker” and owns a house in Washington, DC. Leans Republican.
In the 7th District (Richmond suburbs, etc.), in 2014, political upstart and conservative economics professor David Brat (R) shocked the GOP when he defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican Primary. In 2016 Brat was reelected with 58%, while Trump carried the district by 6.5 points. Then, in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, the GOP’s Ed Gillespie scraped by with 51% in this once-hardcore Republican district.
“Brat doesn’t seem to realize his district is more competitive,” says Skelley. Moreover, Brat’s very conservative voting record may not offend many Republican voters, but it has turned off a lot of independents.
Nevertheless, in his campaign ads and fundraising material, Brat highlights his 2014 upset of fellow Republican Cantor, seemingly oblivious to its weakness as a campaign message today. Says Republican Davis, “Brat has not really closed the deal with the Cantor people.”
“He has to tell people what he has done for the district,” an anonymous GOP strategist told the Washington Post.
Democrats have homed in on Brat’s vulnerability. Abigail Spanberger (D), a former CIA operative, came out on top of a multi-candidate primary. “She’s a good money raiser,” says Skelley; “She could outspend Brat in the General. She has made it a toss-up.”
As of midyear, Brat had raised $1,333,000 and had $917,000 on hand. Spanberger raised a bit more, $1,352,000, but due to primary campaign expenditures, she had a smaller cash-on-hand, $465,000. Toss-up.
The 10th District (Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs) “is a real tough race” for US Rep. Barbara Comstock (R), says Skelley. The numbers bear this out. Clinton carried it by 52% to 42%. Then in 2017, Ralph Northam did even better in the district.
Comstock is a lawyer and previously served on the staff of Frank Wolf (R), the district’s previous congressman. She served two terms in Virginia’s House of Delegates and was elected to the US House in 2015, where she is completing her second term. In Congress, Comstock has been a highly visible advocate for victims of sexual harassment and has worked on other issues important to the 10th District, such as the interests of federal employees, health care, transportation and tax relief for families. She has also worked on veterans’ issues, rebuilding the US military, and funding to combat opioid and heroin addiction.
Comstock is known for her focus on local concerns. She recently completed a tour of farms in the districts and joined a round table discussion with dairy farmers on issues that affect them.
In Comstock’s favor, she had raised $3,819,000 by midyear, and had $1,717,000 on hand.
But Comstock’s assets may not be enough to save her in this election.
“The Democrats have a most experienced candidate in Jennifer Wexton,” says UVA’s Skelley. In 2014, she won a three-way race for state senator, winning with 53% and carrying 44 of 47 precincts. She was reelected in 2015 with 56%. In her competitive congressional primary, she had strong backing from Gov. Northam.
Moreover, she’s a good fundraiser. By June 30, she had brought in $1,934,000, with $766,000 on hand.
Wexton has worked in public service for nearly 20 years. She has been a prosecutor and a children’s advocate. She has done extensive pro bono work and her campaign website emphasizes children’s issues, combating drug addiction, access to healthcare, easing traffic congestion, and jobs. She passed 40 bills in the state senate, all with bipartisan support.
Republican Davis says, “The 10th is the tough one,” adding that “Democrats will be increasing their spending” as Election Day comes closer.
“We rate it leaning Democratic,” says Skelley, “a slight edge to the Democrats.” Ditto, says SPR.
In sum, two tossups (2nd & 7th), one leaning Republican (5th), and one leaning Democratic (10th).