SUFFOLK, Va. (AP) — In the closing days of her campaign, Rep. Elaine Luria stood on a wooden porch in a far-flung part of her newly drawn district, microphone in hand and a 7-year-old Black girl at her side, to make her final case for what is at stake in the midterm elections.
The Virginia Democrat, quoting the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, pointed toward the girl and said: “Our children are a window into the future that we will never see.” That future, Luria argued, will look much bleaker if her Republican challenger wins one of the most contested House races in the country.
In her first two congressional races, Luria, a former Navy commander, would more likely have been seen in settings with a military backdrop or theme. But this time she is in Suffolk, a new part of her district and one that has a Black population of 40% whose votes could well determine if she gets a third term.
“If Luria is going to have a chance at winning, she absolutely needs to win over Black voters,” said Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, research director at the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University. “Even in our polling, we see that Black voters are more likely to say they’re undecided than white voters, and that suggests that there’s some vulnerability there for Luria and a need to reach out.”
Luria has gained a higher profile over the past year because of her seat on the House committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But there is scant evidence it has helped her politically, and it may have even cut into her support.
Still, she also frames this race as a referendum on democracy itself. It is a country-over-party appeal that will be tested in a district that has among the nation’s highest concentrations of families with military connections.
“This is about a lot more than just Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District. It’s certainly about a lot more than getting Elaine Luria reelected,” she said to a predominantly Black crowd of constituents on Sunday. “It is truly about the future of our country and the direction we go. It’s about our democracy.”
Recent polling from the Wason Center showed that Luria and her opponent, Jen Kiggans, a state senator, are tied at 45% among likely voters, with 8% undecided. Kiggans declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Suffolk is really the key to winning this race and holding this seat,” Luria said in her closing remarks. “And this seat is the key to holding the majority in the House of Representatives.”
The 2nd Congressional District ranks No. 217 on the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s partisan voting index, making it the median between the most Republican and most-Democratic House seats in the nation — effectively the country’s swingiest swing district.
The district, which first elected Luria in 2018, was redrawn recently to be more Republican. Donald Trump, a Republican, carried it in his successful 2016 presidential campaign, but in 2020, Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 to carry Virginia Beach, part of the district.
Luria’s moderate bearing and record would seem suited to the district, but Kiggans has emphasized economic issues and tried to tether Luria to Biden, and both are appealing to a broad cross section of voters for the first time.
“The year after redistricting is always interesting, slash challenging, because you do in some instances have to reintroduce yourself to new voters, to a new constituency,” said Susan Swecker, chair of the Virginia Democratic Party.
And that’s what Luria has been doing for the past year with the 40% of voters who are new in the sprawling district, including voters in Suffolk who face issues that are different from those in other parts. The 2nd District, in southeastern Virginia, continues to include Virginia Beach and curves from the Eastern Shore into Suffolk, Isle of Wight and other localities.
Luria’s campaign has fine-tuned its pitch to focus on access to abortion, military and veterans issues and what she calls the ongoing threat to American democracy. She has cited her service on the Jan. 6 committee as “the most important thing” she’s ever done professionally — more than the two decades she served in the Navy, including as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer who commanded 400 crewmembers in the Persian Gulf.
“People said to me, ‘Elaine, you’re the only Democrat in a Republican district on this committee, what’s that going to mean? When you go back home, this might not be popular,’” Luria told volunteers at an event Oct. 29. “And I said it doesn’t matter. This is the right thing to do.”
“And if that means I don’t get reelected,” she added, “that’s OK. Because I’m on the right side of history.”
Luria has invoked her service oath as a major reason she chose to be on the committee, which is a message that has connected with some in a district where the population overwhelmingly includes active-duty military, veterans and residents who work at the local shipyards.
But, according to the Wason Center polling, voters said economic concerns were driving their choices in the election, with nearly 40% considering it the most important issue, followed by abortion at 17% and threats to democracy at 14%.
Luria’s opponent, Kiggans, also a Navy veteran, has said the election won’t be decided by the Jan. 6 committee.
“I have never had a single voter, or person (whose) door I’ve knocked on, or civic league I’ve visited or event I’ve attended, I’ve never had a single person come up to me and say that this is the main issue they’re focused on,” Kiggans told The Associated Press in July. “On a daily basis, I hear over and over and over again about gas prices and grocery prices and grocery shortages and how much everything is costing them.”
But for a number of Black voters in the district, the issue of the economy is not the most important thing on the ballot.
“We understand that the economy is going to ebb and flow. But when we start dealing with overturning women’s rights, it takes us back to the issue of our civil rights,” said Ebony Wright, a Navy veteran and Black resident of Suffolk. “And so when we start scaling back, it’s scary. And then it makes us wonder what is next.” She said she will vote for Luria.
Her neighbor Selena Thornton, who is also a Black veteran, said the reality and history of the Suffolk area, miles away from where the Nat Turner slave rebellion took place in 1831 and near sundown areas, constantly remind her that she is not as far removed from her ancestors as some may believe. And she said that is why Luria is also her choice.
“If you want to know the Black vote, that it’s right there: There’s always going to be a fear of us moving backward instead of forward,” Wright said.
Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections.