VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — With daylight waning, Scott Taylor pulled his hulking black pickup into a Wawa gas station to trade his suit for a pair of jeans and a sweater. It was door-knocking time.

“There’s nothing more important than this right here,” said the former Republican congressman and state delegate, who had spent the afternoon discussing the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic at businesses in his old district.

The working-class Virginia Beach neighborhood he chose to canvass leaned neither hard to the right nor hard to the left, full of the independent voters Taylor needs in his race against first-term Rep. Elaine Luria (D).

She booted him from office in 2018, flipping the red 2nd District while helping to forge a Democratic majority in the House — and now Taylor was vying to claw the seat back from her.

Undecideds answered door after door. “Perhaps — we’ll see,” one unenthusiastic young guy said when Taylor asked whether he could count on his support. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do right now, Scott,” said an older woman, delighting Taylor, who handed all the shoulder-shruggers campaign fliers featuring a picture of him as a Navy SEAL.

“This is exactly who we want to talk to,” he said as he left one doorstep. “The folks who are on the fence.”

In the military-heavy district, the Taylor-Luria rematch is shaping up to be a bitter, smear-laden and highly competitive contest between the two Navy veterans. At times it feels like deja vu: The same 2018 fraud scandal is still hovering over Taylor, whose former campaign staffers were charged with forging signatures on a petition to try to get a third-party spoiler candidate on the ballot in 2018. Luria is still attacking Taylor over it, though he has not been accused of wrongdoing.

The most striking difference in the rematch is having President Trump on the ballot — a change for which the effect is not entirely clear, political observers say.

The 2nd District, which includes the Eastern Shore and Naval Station Norfolk, voted for Trump by 3 percentage points in 2016. But voters here have favored Democrats since then, going for Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in 2017 and flipping a few state legislative seats, not to mention Luria’s. A recent poll by Virginia Commonwealth University shows Democratic nominee Joe Biden ahead of Trump by 14 points in Virginia and 23 points in the Tidewater region. Another, by Christopher Newport University, shows Biden with only a slight five-point lead over Trump among likely Virginia voters.

A second term for Luria would prove the district has shifted ideologically, said David Ramadan, a former Republican state delegate who now lectures at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

The question for Taylor, Ramadan said, is whether he can walk a fine line between supporting Trump’s agenda while still appealing to the centrists he will need to win — the ones on whose doorsteps he stood on Sept. 21.

“Trump’s numbers are not good in Virginia,” Ramadan said. “Just being the Trump-endorsed Republican is not going to be enough.”

'A microcosm for the country'

The diversity of the district was evident as Luria drove to the Eastern Shore from her home in Norfolk one recent morning. Suburban shopping centers and enormous Navy ships prefaced the 17-mile bridge-tunnel leading onto the peninsula, where rolling farmland, one-stop shops and one-stoplight towns dominate the landscape.

“I’ve always thought of the district as a microcosm for the country,” Luria said, contrasting the rural, working-class Eastern Shore, where Taylor grew up, and the military- and tourism-dependent areas of Virginia Beach and Norfolk.

Arriving at Lipman Family Farms in Painter, Va., Luria’s dexterity in catering to constituents in both areas was on display. When Jaime Weisinger, director of Lipman Produce, asked the congresswoman to tell him about herself, she discussed her Navy background and her work trying to guarantee access to medical benefits for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals, such as Agent Orange in Vietnam or burn pits in Iraq.

“But enough about me,” Luria said, transitioning to Weisinger’s needs in agriculture during the pandemic. “Were there any changes in how you do business through the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement?”

Luria said she has tried to be a strong advocate for agritourism and aquaculture, two bedrocks of the Eastern Shore economy. She is expected to earn the coveted endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as the Hill revealed in a leaked memo in September. Quentin Kidd, director of CNU’s Wason Center for Public Policy, said it’s an asset that will work in Luria’s favor with right-of-center, business-minded voters. (Taylor called the endorsement a “participation trophy” and said the Chamber must have “graded Democrats on a curve.”)

But Luria, a former Navy commander and nuclear engineer, also dedicated much of her first term to veterans’ and military issues, grilling top Navy brass on the military readiness of aircraft carriers during testy Armed Services Committee hearings.

In an interview, she touted legislation she wrote repealing a tax hike on Gold Star families’ survivor benefits. The tax hike was an unintended consequence of the 2017 Republican tax reform bill, a problem Luria said she learned about during a visit with constituents.

“It’s a scenario from beginning to end of how this is supposed to work,” Luria said, sipping a beer on the patio of the Eastern Shore’s Cape Charles Brewing.

Taylor, in turn, cites the passage of his 2018 bill that placed more responsibility on the shoulders of the VA secretary for problems at VA hospitals. He says his seat on the House Appropriations Committee made him more effective at influencing funding for veterans allocations than Luria, who serves on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

And he has repeatedly argued that Luria has “the worst constituent services in Virginia,” as he put it during a recent meeting with a government contractor.

Some constituents disagree. A group of women enjoying a glass of wine on the patio of Chatham Vineyards during Luria’s visit said they have felt more heard since she ousted Taylor.

“She seems very involved in the rural area — and I love a woman that drives a boat,” Debbie Bridges said.

Attack ads mount

Kidd said he’s seen worse, but this race is getting ugly.

Luria’s campaign has cashed in on the election fraud scandal that helped tank Taylor’s 2018 campaign, running numerous ads suggesting Taylor was in on the scheme. Two campaign staffers have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor election fraud charges, while a third was indicted in September. Although the investigation is ongoing, Taylor and his attorney say he is not the target and there is “zero direct evidence” implicating him.

Kidd said the scandal “may not be the animating issue” riling up voters this time — but it’s certainly not helping. Ramadan, on the other hand, believes Luria’s attacks are a stale tactic.

“That dog’s not going to hunt anymore,” Ramadan said. “It’s been two years. He has not been charged. If there was something there, we would have known by now.”

The Congressional Leadership Fund — the super PAC devoted to electing Republicans to the House — has spent $2.2 million on ads to help Taylor, more three times as much as Taylor’s campaign has spent, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The ads likened Luria to a Hollywood actress and called her a “phony” — part of a Republican strategy to convince centrist voters that vulnerable Democrats in red districts are merely pretending to be moderates.

Kidd said Republicans successfully used the same “not moderate enough” playbook to knock first-term Democrat Glenn Nye out of the 2nd District seat back in 2010, while also bashing him for his vote for the Affordable Care Act.

“I’m not convinced that playbook will work this time,” Kidd said, because unlike with Nye, “there is not one overriding, highly controversial vote that Luria has cast that becomes the gravitating force around which that message is drilled into voters.”

That doesn’t mean Taylor isn’t trying to find one. He says Luria supports defunding the police because she voted for the Justice in Policing Act — which conditions, but does not decrease, federal grant funding to departments based on whether they make certain changes, while enhancing funding for civil rights investigations.

Taylor also accused Luria of supporting the Green New Deal, noting that she called the environmental legislation “aspirational.” But Luria used that language last year to describe why she does not support the legislation.

Luria brushed off Taylor’s attacks, pointing to a GovTrack analysis that ranks all 435 representatives, plus some nonvoting delegates, from most conservative to most liberal. Luria clocked in at No. 217.

“I couldn’t be more in the middle if I had actually tried deliberately,” she said. “There’s plenty of things where I have directly pushed back on leadership.”

She cited the time she broke with her party to vote for emergency aid to migrant children at the border, which Democratic leadership opposed because it did not do enough to curb Trump’s immigration policies.

What remains to be seen is how Luria’s vote to impeach Trump may affect her. She acknowledged earlier this year that the vote could cost her the seat but said she believed it was the right thing to do.

Taylor said it’s what motivated him to run against Luria again. He has pledged strong support for the president’s agenda, including to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to protect gun rights.

“This district voted for the president, and that’s one of the reasons this impeachment vote is a big deal,” Taylor said. “Elaine Luria is out of sync with this district on too many issues.”

At least on one block and on one doorstep the evening of Sept. 21, Taylor’s theory played out the way he wanted.

“Make sure you back Trump, man. I’m telling you,” one woman told Taylor. She said her whole church was praying for him.

“Well, how can I lose then?” Taylor said.