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Virginia Beach Republican congressman tries to weather scandal and wave of Democratic spending

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Virginia Republican Rep. Scott Taylor speaks in his campaign office in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2016. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Republican congressman Scott Taylor has been outspent significantly in a Virginia Beach district won by a Democratic governor just a year ago, all amid a scandal surrounding Taylor’s campaign.

But the former Navy SEAL, first elected in 2016, continues to maintain a small lead over Democrat Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander whose biography also has obvious appeal to the military-heavy electorate in the Second District, which includes parts of Newport News and all of Virginia’s eastern shore.

The race is one of the most competitive in Virginia, a state that is a microcosm of the country in its demographic changes and voting patterns. The results of the Nov. 6 elections in the district, along with challenges to incumbent Republicans Rep. Barbara Comstock in the northern Virginia suburbs, and Rep. Dave Brat around Richmond and Fredericksburg, will yield valuable insights about what drove voters to the polls and will set the playing field for the 2020 election as well.

Taylor adviser Chris Jankowski told Yahoo News that the lawmaker’s reelection effort was sailing along until a scandal erupted in August around fraudulent signatures collected by members of his campaign to help get an independent candidate on the ballot in the race, in hopes of taking votes away from Luria.

“This race probably wouldn’t have been on anybody’s radar but for the petitions scandal. That unforced error attracted some national attention from Democrats,” said Jankowski, who was brought into the Taylor campaign after the scandal broke.

Jankowski replaced Taylor’s former campaign consultant, who was fired for his part in the plot but whose name has not been made public.

Luria speaks during the Women’s Summit in Herndon, Va., on June 23, 2018. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Taylor was aware of the signature gathering but has said he didn’t know his campaign was forging petitions, and no evidence has emerged to the contrary. Yet a number of campaign staffers involved in the fraud stayed on the campaign for several weeks, and several said they planned to invoke their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination if called to testify. The independent candidate was removed from the ballot by a state judge.

A flood of TV advertising has entered the race since early August, with $3.7 million spent for the Democrat, compared to just $2.1 million for the Republican.

Luria’s campaign and outside groups supporting her aired around 9,800 ads in the Hampton Roads TV market since early August, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. That’s compared to just over 4,300 ads aired by Taylor and outside groups on his side, which didn’t start running TV ads until early September.

The saturated advertising campaign is significant for a race that drew just 172,736 voters in the last non-presidential election in 2014.

Republican Mitt Romney won the Second District in 2012, but that was before the latest round of redistricting. The district as it exists now would have been won by President Barack Obama by a single point, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Trump won the district in 2016 by three points, but then Democrat Ralph Northam won the district during his gubernatorial election campaign in 2017 by four points. 

Jankowski said that the Democrats have focused more on hitting Taylor for the petitions scandal than they have on introducing Luria to voters. “There’s a certain amount of cynicism built in to the electorate at this point when it comes to politics and shenanigans,” he said.

Taylor has carved out a profile as pro-military and independent of Trump on issues like Chesapeake Bay cleanup and climate change, according to Jankowski. The Trump administration proposed a budget that slashed funding for the bay, but Taylor fought to keep the money, and also worked on legislation to allow military bases to access federal funds to help them combat the effects of sea-level rise.

Taylor is also running ads on radio stations with a majority African-American audience in which he touts his work on criminal justice reform, and in 2017 he spoke at the national convention of the NAACP.

Vice President Mike Pence, right, campaigns with incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Taylor at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., Oct. 24, 2018. (Photo: Steve Earley/Virginian-Pilot via AP)

The fact that the latest federal budget this year included the biggest pay raise for the military in nearly a decade also helps Taylor.

Taylor’s district, compared to Brat’s in central Virginia, has fewer college-educated women, Jankowski said. That’s a crucial demographic for Democrats in this election. Trump is toxic to these voters and is driving many of them to the Democratic column. If Taylor were to win and Brat were to lose, Jankowski said, “that will be the difference.”

Brat is a college economics professor who in 2014 defeated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary, sending shock waves through the GOP.

Taylor is also widely lauded for his talents and work ethic. Shaun Kenney, a former executive director of the

Virginia Republican congressman Scott Taylor has been outspent by his Democratic rival and was weakened by a campaign scandal, but the former Navy SEAL continues to maintain a small lead over Democrat Elaine Luria.

Republican Party of Virginia, has often been critical of the GOP in the Trump era, and of Virginia Republicans like Brat. But Kenney said Taylor “is perhaps one of the best Republicans to run in that seat in a long time.”

However, Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic incumbent at the top of the ticket for his party in Virginia, has a huge war chest of money — he had raised $20 million and had $5 million on hand at the end of September — and is able to spend much of that on get-out-the-vote efforts. His Republican opponent, Corey Stewart, has failed to mount a serious challenge, leaving Kaine free to help run up the score in key districts like the Second District and Brat’s Seventh District.

There are more than a dozen organizers from the coordinated campaign funded largely by the Kaine campaign focused on turning out voters over the next two weekends who have indicated they plan to support Kaine and Luria, said Kaine spokesman Ian Sams. That’s in addition to the Luria campaign’s staff.

The Kaine-backed effort in Taylor’s district has also sent more than 200,000 text messages “for volunteer recruitment, persuasion and mobilizing voters,” Sams told Yahoo News.

Nonetheless, Jankowski said the campaign data he has “shows me we can hang on even if this turns out to be a true wave” for Democrats.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Second Congressional District candidate Elaine Luria at a Democratic fundraiser in Virginia Beach, Va., on Sept. 22, 2018. (Photo :Vicki Cronis-Nohe for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

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