Why you should care
Because this race is emblematic of the shaky battlegrounds Congress is being fought on.
Former Navy SEAL Scott Taylor has seen plenty of firefights in his military career, including time as a sniper in Iraq. In early September, the battle was joined against the slippery foe of political scandal. The first-term incumbent already faced a tough race in the Virginia 2nd Congressional District that backed Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam last year, and where President Donald Trump’s approval ratings are underwater. Now, he was facing a scandal of his campaign’s own making, in which his supporters allegedly forged signatures to get a competing candidate into the race to split his Democratic opponent’s votes.
The Republican briefly went into hiding, with only a few campaign stops while being subpoenaed for a court hearing in the state capital of Richmond. Meanwhile, his opponent, Elaine Luria, also a Navy vet, barnstormed the district and appeared on national television, adding fuel to the flames. The Richmond judge found “out-and-out fraud” in the signature scandal, and the third-party candidate’s name was taken off the ballot, although Taylor’s team wasn’t punished further for its role.
Just a month later, though, OZY’s exclusive election model in partnership with Republican data firm 0ptimus finds that Taylor has largely weathered the storm. Taylor now is holding strong with a 58.2 percent chance of reelection. Two nonpartisan publicly released polls have him up by at least seven percentage points. But one poll, conducted Sept. 5–8 during the height of the scandal, showed Luria ahead by eight points herself, which cast doubt in our forecasters’ minds. The polls in this district “have been all over the place,” says Scott Tranter, one of 0ptimus’ founders. “It’s likely not 8 [points] up or down, but certainly within 5.”
[Taylor is] winning the military vote, he doesn’t have Donald Trump around his neck weighing him down and he’s been able to avoid the taint of that signature scandal.
Quentin Kidd, Christopher Newport University political scientist
If national Democrats or Republicans start spending money on campaign ads next week, it will be a sign of a close race, Tranter adds. But Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University political scientist and pollster whose recent survey found Taylor at 50 percent and Luria at 43, says his poll’s internal data show some of the reasons Taylor is looking surprisingly healthy.
One key takeaway: Taylor has bolstered his advantage with service members in a congressional district boasting among the highest numbers of retired and active military members in the nation, with the massive Naval Station Norfolk close by. Taylor currently leads Luria 59–37 among that key demographic, while he has avoided being tied to Trump. “He’s winning the military vote, he doesn’t have Donald Trump around his neck weighing him down and he’s been able to avoid the taint of that signature scandal,” Kidd says. And that’s despite the Democrats having a 10-point voter enthusiasm advantage in the district, according to the CNU poll.
The incumbent Taylor has reflected his district well, Kidd says, adopting a pro-military and pro-business conservatism while being pro-LGBT rights, agreeing that climate change is real — an urgent issue with frequent floods in the Norfolk area — and rarely mentioning Trump other than to say he will be an “independent” voice in Congress, no matter the president. Luria hasn’t done enough to tie Taylor to Trump, Kidd says. “She’s allowed him to define himself in this election.”
Luria is trying to reverse that with late television ads hitting Taylor for his vote to repeal Obamacare, which would have removed insurance coverage guarantees for people with pre-existing medical conditions. “Congressman Taylor acts like a big fish in his ads,” she says in one ad, in which she goes deep sea fishing to upbeat music, “but he’s something totally different out of water.”
With time running short for Luria to turn the race, Taylor’s resilience among military voters may yet keep the much-forecasted blue wave from sweeping him out to sea.