The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s influence casts shadow in the Virginia 2nd District race

Virginia Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), left, talks with Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham). (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Immediately after Jarome Bell launched his campaign for Congress in the 2nd District of Virginia last year, alongside President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Bell said “the first step to taking back Virginia is to demand an audit of the Nov. 3, 2020, election.”

But so far the only candidate in the 2nd District to take action on that front is state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), Bell’s opponent in the Republican bid to take on Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.).

Without much fanfare last month, Kiggans was one of just four Republicans in the state Senate to vote to support a $70 million “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in Virginia, a vote that most starkly highlights the influence that Trump and his perpetual false claims of voter fraud have retained over Republican candidates even in competitive swing districts like the 2nd District where he lost.

Kiggans, the former Navy helicopter pilot and geriatric nurse practitioner, is widely seen as the easy favorite heading into the June 21 primary. She has backing from House Republican leadership through its super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, and leads the Republican field in fundraising.

Bell, meanwhile, is seeking to siphon away enough of the “Make America Great Again” vote to pose a threat to Kiggans, branding himself as the “America First” candidate and using divisive rhetoric that has alarmed some within his own local party. Despite fringe positions, he has raised more than $300,000 and picked up endorsements from some of the most far-right members of Congress, Reps. Bob Good (Va.) and Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.).

But whether Bell can realistically emerge as a threat to Kiggans is highly questionable in the purple district, which has not traditionally elected far-right figures to Congress. The two other candidates in the Republican primary, veterans Andy Baan and Tommy Altman, have not attracted the same level of funds or endorsements to be as competitive.

Still, the senator undoubtedly needs the Trump base in the primary before she can set her sights on challenging Luria and wooing swing voters who will be more essential in the general election, said David Ramadan, a former Republican delegate in the Virginia House who now teaches at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“Every Republican running in a primary needs the MAGA base to win that primary today, because that MAGA base has taken, if not a majority, close to a majority of the base of Republican voters within primaries,” Ramadan said. “It doesn’t excuse, it doesn’t forgive, but it explains a vote for a forensic audit a year and a half after the election when there was no fraud in Virginia that would have made any difference.”

The 2nd District is likely to be one of the most closely watched competitive races in the nation in a midterm election year when Republicans are angling to oust vulnerable Democrats and take control of Congress in an election expected to be a referendum on Democratic power.

Although Trump has not inserted himself into the 2nd District race, his impact is still more palpable here than in other Virginia districts, in part because Luria sits on the House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6.

Underscoring its importance to her and her campaign, Luria decided to announce her bid for reelection on the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol, vowing to “defend our democracy against forces that seek its destruction.” And she probably wouldn’t hesitate to go after the Republican nominee for backing 2020 election audits.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been lining up repeated attacks over it, saying in an email blast Tuesday that Kiggans “plants her flag further to the extreme right as she and Jarome Bell scramble to win over the same primary voters,” citing her vote on the audit.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Kiggans said she took the Feb. 24 vote for the $70 million audit “in support of election integrity” and to be a voice for constituents who distrusted the 2020 election results and had lost faith in the electoral process.

The bill was brought in the form of a budget amendment by Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who has parroted Trump’s false claims of voter fraud and called on Trump to impose martial law after the 2020 election. Democrats forced a recorded vote on the measure, and while many Republicans walked out of the chamber and did not vote, Kiggans was among just three to join Chase in supporting it. Another was Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), who is running in the 7th District. Two other Republicans later said they intended to support it.

Voting for the audit was “a policy statement for me,” Kiggans said. “I believe in election integrity. I think we need to do a lot of work to restore that confidence for voters, so that is why I voted for that bill.”

Kiggans has acknowledged Biden was legitimately elected, but when questioned she would not say whether she herself believed there was fraud in the 2020 election in Virginia necessitating an audit. She reiterated that she intended to be a voice for people who elected her and who did believe that. There is no evidence of significant fraud affecting the outcome of the 2020 election in Virginia or elsewhere, and the state performed its own audit last year affirming the results.

Kiggans stressed another election-integrity bill she introduced to improve maintenance of voter registration rolls by checking more frequently for deceased voters. It passed with broad bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who had made election integrity an early backbone of his campaign.

The senator has otherwise assiduously avoided discussing Trump, or the 2020 election, or Jan. 6. She has tapped into some of Youngkin’s energy surrounding “parental rights” in education, leading to a bill to ban “inherently divisive concepts” in schools, which did not advance.

And like Luria, she has capitalized on her credentials as a Navy veteran to focus on foreign policy issues of particular interest in a district full of veterans and active-duty military, lambasting the Afghanistan withdrawal and calling on the administration to administer tougher sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Bell, a former Navy chief petty officer, has attacked Kiggans for merely expressing support for Ukraine like the vast majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle, but Kiggans hasn’t acknowledged him or his attacks, saying she is already focused on November. “That is my focus, that is all I am concerned about, is beating Elaine Luria in 2022,” Kiggans said.

Bell stands in stark contrast to Kiggans, often participating in the type of scorched-earth Trumpian rhetoric of all-caps insults and divisive language, as well as giving Russia the benefit of the doubt. He has garnered support within a circuit of “stolen-election” types who have traveled the country profiting from or raising money by peddling the false claims, including Flynn, whom Trump pardoned after the former national security adviser was convicted of lying to the FBI, and Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers.

In an interview with The Post, Bell defended a controversial tweet he sent last year calling for audits in all 50 states and to “arrest all involved. Try all involved. Convict all involved. Execute all involved.” He said he meant people convicted of treason. “If there was voter fraud that took down the duly elected president of the United States, that’s treason. That’s a coup. That is within the code of jurisdiction of, let’s say, death, by treason,” he said.

He said rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 “basically went on a guided tour of the Capitol.” He called Ukraine the aggressor in the war with Russia, which invaded the country and is killing Ukrainian civilians, and compared what he called Ukrainian corruption to “Hillary’s deep state and Biden’s regime that stole the election in 2020.”

His comparisons of vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany and the experiences of Holocaust victims led Virginia Beach Republican Party Chairman Bill Curtis to condemn his rhetoric in two weekly newsletters over the past month, saying it “inflicted tremendous harm on the Jewish community” and that Bell was “guilty of insensitivity” and a “lack of concern” about how his comments can affect people. Curtis did not name Bell but confirmed in an email he was referring to Bell, who stood by the comparisons.

“I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding about the Republican Party of Virginia Beach’s position regarding acceptance of all members of our society,” Curtis said.

John Fredericks, a Trump-allied conservative radio show host who has had both Bell and Kiggans on his show multiple times, said that realistically Bell doesn’t stand a chance against Kiggans. “The problem is not that he’s pro-Trump. It’s the district. He doesn’t fit the district,” Fredericks said.

“It’s a center-right district. And the other thing is, Jen Kiggans hasn’t raised the money, but as a campaigner she’s fierce. She’s a Navy pilot. Fighter pilot. Nurse. She fits the district, and she’s going to be very tough to beat,” Fredericks added. Kiggans has raised more than $660,000, though it still pales in comparison with Luria’s $2.8 million, with updated figures due in the coming weeks.

Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan elections rater Inside Elections, said that if Democrats try to make Jan. 6 and the 2020 election a bigger issue in the 2nd District, that could throw a wrench in the race for either party. “Independent voters are not anxious to relitigate the 2020 election,” he said.

Inside Elections rated the 2nd District a “toss-up” in 2022. It swung several points in favor of Republicans after redistricting, and while Joe Biden would have barely won it in 2020, Youngkin would have won it in 2021. The district, which is still anchored in Virginia Beach and includes the Eastern Shore, runs down to the North Carolina border and now extends west to Suffolk and Franklin, Va., but excludes Norfolk.

“If Republicans aren’t winning Virginia’s 2nd District in the fall, they’re probably not having as great a night as they would have hoped,” Gonzales said.