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Va. Republicans pick two women to take on Luria, Spanberger in November

State Sen. Jen Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) talks to voters outside Virginia's Lynnhaven United Methodist Church on June 21. (Kristen Zeis for The Washington Post)
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Republican voters in Virginia opted Tuesday to send two women to take on Democratic Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger in the state’s most competitive districts in November, locking in the direction the GOP will take in the state as the party vies for control of Congress.

State Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (Virginia Beach) defeated three opponents to take on Luria, and Prince William County Board Supervisor Yesli Vega bested five to challenge Spanberger, according to projections from the Associated Press.

Voters’ decision to send Republican women to challenge formidable female incumbents mirrors trends that carried three Virginia Democratic women to victory in 2018 — the same wave that Kiggans said at the beginning of her congressional campaign inspired her to run for Senate in 2019. Conservative women, she said then, needed to be better represented.

Some voters at the polls on Tuesday agreed, saying a Republican woman would be likeliest to defeat Spanberger or Luria — a factor that particularly mattered in the six-way primary in Virginia’s 7th District, where many of the candidates had similar policy stances.

“Being a woman was a key issue for me,” Vega supporter Schelly Peverall, 60, said at a Woodbridge polling location, saying she believed Vega best represented her family’s conservative values. “I just think that will be a better opponent.”

Republicans are hoping to return those two districts to GOP hands amid a poor national environment for Democrats and poor approval rating for President Biden — ingredients that national Republicans hope could lead to a red wave in districts like the 2nd and 7th. They are both districts former president Donald Trump lost but that Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) won, fueling Republicans’ belief in momentum for Kiggans, 51, and Vega, 36.

Elsewhere, incumbent Reps. Don Beyer (D) and Ben Cline (R) easily survived their primary challenges in Virginia’s 8th and 6th districts, respectively, AP projected, and Terry Namkung bested Ted Engquist to take on Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) in the deep-blue 3rd District.

Turnout was relatively light across Virginia on Tuesday. Republican voters who showed up said they were driven to vote for candidates they thought spoke best to their concerns about the economy, including feeling squeezed by high gas and grocery prices — issues that have been at the heart of the Republican candidates’ messaging in the key 2nd and 7th districts.

A race between Navy vets

A mild-mannered former Navy helicopter pilot and geriatric nurse practitioner, Kiggans’s win sets up an alluring matchup between two Navy veterans in a military-heavy district full of swing voters.

The race in this Virginia Beach-anchored bellwether district will be among the most closely watched in the nation. And Luria, a former Navy commander, is more vulnerable this year after redistricting shifted the 2nd District a few points in Republicans’ favor.

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Like many GOP candidates in tight contests, Kiggans has zeroed in on inflation, blaming Democrats, and railed against Democratic spending and Biden’s agenda, while also leveraging her record in the state Senate, where she says she fought against “radical transgender policies” and critical race theory — some of the reddest meat for GOP voters over the past year.

But in Virginia’s 2nd, more than perhaps anywhere else in Virginia, Trump is expected to loom over the race. Luria is preparing for a major role in the closing arguments of the Jan. 6, 2021, hearings — a role she has centered in her reelection bid regardless of political consequence, tying it to the oath she took to defend the Constitution when she joined the Navy.

Kiggans, by contrast, has avoided discussing Trump or Jan. 6 but has sought to appease his base by supporting an audit of Virginia’s 2020 election results and prioritizing “election integrity” bills in the Senate, such as cleaning up the state’s voter rolls. She has avoided, however, some of the more explosive rhetoric like that of her Republican opponent Jarome Bell, who went beyond audits and repeating Trump’s false stolen-election claims to call for the execution of “all involved” in fraud.

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Voting was slow Tuesday morning at John B. Dey Elementary School in Virginia Beach, where Kiggans greeted voters.

“When we win today, the Democrats will realize they’ve lost a seat in November,” she said.

Suzy Rydzewski, 62, said the price of gasoline tops her list of issues. “Gas is going up to $6. That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to get a battery car,” she said, leaving the Bayside Recreation Center in Virginia Beach. “There’s no point to it. They have not figured out the infrastructure.”

John Morgan, 63, an auto-parts sales manager who voted for Kiggans at Bayside, said he had “a lot of concerns” — among them inflation, the border and supply chain issues. He said trying to get car parts has been impossible.

“I just don’t understand. We elect these people, and they’re not standing up for the American people,” he added. “There’s no excuse for gas to be what it is.”

About 16,500 voters had turned out by 5 p.m. Tuesday in Virginia Beach — about half of the 10 percent turnout officials had hoped for, city registrar Christine Lewis said. “There’s only one thing on the ballot,” she said. “This is the first week the kids are out. People plan vacations.”

In the 7th District, an elections official said only 4,979 people had cast ballots by 6:30 p.m. in Prince William County, a population center home to more than 200,000 voters. And an employee in the elections office in Spotsylvania County said that while the final figures weren’t in Tuesday evening, it had been a slow day there, too.

Vega got high-profile conservative backing

Throughout the campaign, Vega, a Prince William County auxiliary sheriff’s deputy, had positioned herself as a firebrand candidate backed by right-wing figures such as Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), Rep Bob Good (R-Va.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who campaigned with her on the eve of the election. As the former co-chair of Latinos for Youngkin, Vega touted her ability to attract Hispanic voters. As Republican elections analyst Joe Szymanski put it, Vega best represents the “future of the party” as a young Hispanic woman — the first Hispanic woman, in fact, to serve on Prince William County’s board of supervisors.

She defeated several other public officials, including state Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), and political newcomer Derrick Anderson, who came in second behind Vega by about five percentage points, according to unofficial returns.

“As the first conservative Hispanic to win in a Republican congressional primary in Virginia, this is a historic moment for Hispanics across Virginia and our nation,” she said in a statement. “We have accomplished our first milestone, now it is time to bring everyone, Republican and Democrat, together because inflation doesn’t discriminate.”

Vega’s victory means two candidates who don’t actually live in the district will go toe-to-toe in November — a criticism she fended off on the campaign trail by noting that congressional candidates are allowed to run in any district as long as they live in the state. She lives just outside the district in Prince William County, now the most-populous jurisdiction in the 7th District. Spanberger, who lives in Henrico, was drawn out of the district after redistricting shifted the 7th from the Richmond suburbs to the Fredericksburg area.

Spanberger has framed herself as a more moderate member working across the aisle on supply chain issues, police funding and the district’s agricultural needs as a member of the House Agriculture Committee. But she’s also aligned with her party on marquee pieces of legislation, such as on gun restrictions, climate change and social spending in Biden’s Build Back Better agenda — the types of votes Republicans intend to seize on in a midterm election expected to be a referendum on Biden and Democratic spending.

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Vega ran a campaign focused on supporting law enforcement, cracking down on illegal immigration at the southern border and lowering the cost of living for families caused by inflation. As a daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, she has rooted her launch into public service in her family’s story. Her brother was victimized by the MS-13 gang and his friend was killed, leading her to want to become a police officer — a story voters have said they found compelling.

A number of voters at the polls Tuesday said they found Vega’s background in law enforcement and her focus on immigration appealing.

Deb Eisenstadt, 66, a retired nurse administrator, said she was looking for someone who would “fight for the American Dream,” something she feels is threatened by high prices for food and gasoline, drug addiction and illegal immigration. She said she decided to cast her vote for Vega because she is a woman, former police officer and daughter of immigrants.

“She understands we have to get control of our immigration policy in America,” Eisenstadt said.