The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. Sen. Kiggans, congressional hopeful, leads hot-button GOP bills banning ‘divisive concepts’ in school, restricting trans athletes

Virginia state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), speaks with Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) during a session in Feb. 2021. (Alexa Welch Edlund/AP)

The bills were already doomed in the Democratic-controlled Senate committee, but as she took her seat before her colleagues Thursday, state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) presented them with optimism.

“The intent behind the bill is to unify,” Kiggans said of her bill that would ban the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” in school, which the administration of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) asked her to lead.

“It’s not intended to cause harm,” she said of her other bill that would prohibit transgender girls from playing girls’ sports, which she described as a pro-women bill.

With less than an hour of debate, after critics derided the legislation as discriminatory or problematic, the Senate Subcommittee on Public Education recommended on a 2-1 party line vote that the full committee reject the bills. But for Kiggans, a candidate for Congress in Virginia’s highly competitive 2nd district, the debate is hardly over.

Regardless of the bills’ fates, Kiggans’s decision to carry the mantle on these two GOP priorities will probably lay the foundation for the record she’ll run on as she seeks the Republican nomination to challenge Rep. Elaine Luria (D) in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the nation.

Kiggans, a geriatric nurse practitioner and former Navy helicopter pilot who has often worked across the aisle with Democrats, is largely seen as the front-runner. She leads the Republican field in fundraising and has establishment backing from the Congressional Leadership Fund, House Republicans’ super PAC. But first Kiggans has to withstand a challenge hard to her right from Jarome Bell, who has built his platform around extreme rhetoric. He has decried “vaccine apartheid” and “anti-white racism in our classrooms,” and frequently spreads the falsehood that “massive fraud” cost former president Donald Trump his reelection. He has advocated for executing people convicted of voter fraud.

In fundraising emails, Bell has sought to paint Kiggans as a “fake RINO,” or “Republican In Name Only,” because Kiggans joined Democrats in 2020 in voting for the Virginia Values Act, which created nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Bell has raised more than $216,000 to Kiggans’s $409,000 and has blown through the vast majority of it, with updated figures expected by Monday. Kiggans also faces Tommy Altman, an Air Force veteran and tattoo shop owner, and Andy Baan, a Navy veteran and former prosecutor.

Quentin Kidd, academic director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said Kiggans’s leadership role on these bills — each GOP culture-war flash points — will allow her to “blunt any challenge on the right.” Plus, after Youngkin rode to victory on promises to “ban critical race theory” — an academic concept on systemic racism not taught in K-12 schools — Kidd said it makes sense that Kiggans would pull from the same playbook in her own campaign.

“She’s the only one in the Republican primary who has a record,” Kidd said. “If she’s going to be defending her position, it makes sense to be defending a position the base likes.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Kiggans said the resonance and success of Youngkin’s focus on “parental rights” in education during his campaign is largely what motivated her to agree to carry the “divisive concepts” bill, which seeks to codify Youngkin’s day-one executive order.

And it would certainly continue to be a focus in her congressional campaign as well, she said.

“I’m a parent to four children who have been through school, and I think we really saw the outcome of the election where parents wanted that voice — parents matter. That was a huge theme of the election, and we won,” she said.

Youngkin takes office with immediate focus on education, thrilling some and terrifying others

But like Youngkin’s executive order, far from being unifying, the bill faced sharp opposition Thursday, and so did Kiggans’s transgender athletes bill.

Breanna Diaz of the ACLU of Virginia charged that the bill targeting transgender athletes “strips trans athletes of their identity and dignity,” and warned that the “vague and overbroad” language in Kiggans’s “divisive concepts” bill would restrict teachers’ ability to teach about slavery, racism and LGBTQ issues if those topics were to be interpreted as “divisive.”

Pressed for a clear explanation of what would be banned, Kiggans said that she believed all history, the good and the bad, should be taught, but that curriculums should not include “anything that’s dividing, that’s making one group think they’re superior to the other.” She offered one example, an exercise of “privilege Bingo” played by a class in Fairfax County, in which military kids were considered privileged.

Democratic lawmakers were unsatisfied, charging that Kiggans’s bill appeared intended to chill the teaching of virtually anything that could make a person feel uncomfortable, something Sen. Ghazala F. Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) — Kiggans’s longtime friend — said should be part of education.

“There’s a lot about this that just rubs me the wrong way. I mean it just does,” said Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), who is Black. “Primarily because, all of a sudden, we have a problem with instruction in our schools, when all throughout my high school career I was taught I was inherently inferior. And now all of the sudden we have a problem with divisive concepts.”

Conservative allies such as the Family Foundation came out to support both bills, and one superintendent supporting a ban on “divisive concepts” cheered Kiggans for seeking to deliver on Youngkin’s campaign and day-one promises through legislation. Republicans in the House of Delegates are likely to continue pushing the issue.

Kristin Davison, a Republican campaign strategist who worked for Youngkin, said that candidates in competitive congressional districts like Virginia’s 2nd would do well to replicate Youngkin’s focus on parents and education. And she disputed that education issues such as banning critical race theory or divisive concepts are culture wars. “It’s not a monolith issue,” she said, noting that some voters are energized by opposing critical race theory, others by opposing mask mandates.

“Everything the senator is going to do on the state level is going to help her election in the fall, because she’s acting on a mandate that was given to her and to the governor by the people of Virginia,” Davison said. “They’re going to see that as she is going to deliver on the promises that they made running this past year, and she will win the election because of it.”

With her divisive-concepts bill and transgender-athletes bill in doubt, Kiggans said she would be focusing next on legislation requiring more maintenance of voter-registration lists and tax breaks for veterans.

Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District is about as purple as they come. The newly redrawn district remains anchored in Virginia Beach, but swung several points in Republicans’ favor. President Biden would have won the new 2nd district by under 2 points in 2020, but Trump would have won it by 5 percentage points in 2016 — indicating it’s just about anybody’s game.

The district — full of independents and centrist voters, including many veterans — has long been home to lawmakers who at times haven’t flinched to break with their party. Luria, a retired Navy commander, is a defense hawk who has joined Republicans on backing certain military policies and funding, while backing her party’s marquee legislation, such as the Build Back Better Act and voting rights legislation.

Her predecessor, Scott Taylor — who defeated Bell in a Republican primary in 2020 but lost to Luria in the general — supported Trump’s policies but considered himself socially liberal on other issues. Like Kiggans, while in the General Assembly he backed legislation banning housing discrimination against LGBTQ people and was one of few Republicans in the U.S. House to back the Equality Act. But also like Kiggans, Taylor has also opposed allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sports.

Kidd, the political science professor, said it may still be difficult for a candidate to run to the extreme right in the swing district — but that since it got redder, he didn’t expect Kiggans to be “too middle” either.

“If I were a moderate Republican or a moderate Democrat and thinking, where do I want to lean?, I would lean more right than I would more moderate,” Kidd said, “because the larger national environment is probably going to be more favorable to Republican challengers this year than Democratic incumbents.”

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.