VIRGINIA BEACH — Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.) sat in the backroom of his campaign office in a strip mall. Mini-blinds closed, a modest “Scott Taylor U.S. Congress” sign taped to the door was all that identified his reelection headquarters. Inside, a couple of workers sat at desks amid stacks of yard signs, but the congressman declined to come out when a reporter showed up.
Taylor is hunkered down in the midst of a strange campaign scandal involving forged signatures on petitions to get a competing candidate into the race. Taylor has been subpoenaed to a court hearing Wednesday in Richmond to determine his role and whether that third candidate is improperly on the ballot, while a special prosecutor separately investigates possible campaign law violations.
The controversy has boosted his Democratic opponent, Elaine Luria, in a race with national implications. The 2nd District — which is largely Virginia Beach but also touches on Norfolk, parts of Hampton and Williamsburg and the entire Eastern Shore of Virginia — went for Trump in 2016 but backed Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam last year. It’s a race targeted by Democrats as a possible flip in their quest to regain control of the House of Representatives.
Taylor has been popular in an area with a heavy concentration of active-duty and retired military. A former Navy SEAL with “Top Gun” looks and form-fitting suits, he has raised twice as much money as Luria, a first-time candidate who has been learning on the trail.
But now Taylor’s reelection faces hurdles of his own campaign’s creation.
As the deadline for qualifying for the ballot approached in June, Taylor’s campaign took the unusual step of gathering signatures for an independent competitor. Shaun Brown had been his Democratic opponent in 2016 — and he beat her by 22 points — but she was now under the cloud of a federal fraud investigation and had no party support to run again. So Taylor’s staffers mounted a last-minute push and turned in nearly 600 signatures for Brown, giving her more than the 1,000 needed to qualify.
Taylor’s help came to light in a local television report a month ago. Since then, questions have emerged about dozens of the signatures turned in by Taylor’s staff. Some belonged to dead people, many signed in similar handwriting. Even the name of local Republican Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. was apparently forged, and his name misspelled.
As new twists have emerged in local media every few days, Taylor has become less visible. He posted only two events on social media over the Labor Day weekend — a fitness run with a small group of high school JROTC students and an appearance at a Filipino Masonic organization dinner.
Luria, meanwhile, barnstormed the district, appearing at events with other high-profile Democrats such as Sen. Tim Kaine and U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, speaking at a church, rallying vote canvassers and being interviewed on ABC News’s “This Week.”
Taylor’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. At his campaign office on Friday, a worker went to the backroom to get Taylor for a visiting reporter. But spokesman Scott Weldon emerged instead.
“We can’t comment on anything right now,” Weldon said, “because of the pending investigation.”
Virginia Beach is a Scott Taylor town, a place where people simply talk louder over the frequent roar of fighter jets, where that jacked guy in a giant truck may be an actual Navy SEAL, where anybody without a sunburn seems out of place.
Taylor, 39, had a fast rise in local politics. He served a single term in the House of Delegates starting in 2014, then leaped to Congress in 2016. He has campaign signs all over town, especially in the oceanfront areas of recreational boatyards, diving shops and raw bar restaurants.
In June, as the primary neared, the congressman and his staff were keeping close tabs on possible opponents.
Luria, 43, was the Democratic front-runner with a formidable résumé. She, too, is a Navy veteran, one of the first generation of women to enter combat. Luria commanded an assault craft unit before retiring and starting a small business with her husband, also a retired Navy officer.
But according to several people familiar with the campaign, Taylor was particularly interested in Brown. The Democratic nominee from 2016, Brown is facing federal charges that she cheated the government through a nonprofit she formed to serve meals to children. An earlier trial ended in a hung jury, and she is being retried.
The Democratic Party had little interest in Brown carrying the banner again. In a crowded primary field, Luria quickly drew the most support from national Democrats, so Brown dropped out and announced plans to run as an independent.
In a potentially close race where Democrats needed an extraordinary showing to win, Brown could siphon off precious votes.
In early August, local public television station WHRO aired a report that Taylor’s campaign had helped Brown get on the ballot.
Lindsey Terry, who has done tech work for the local Democratic committee, looked at the petition documents posted by WHRO and noticed something strange: One petition showed that her neighbor had signed, but the neighbor moved away several years ago.
When Terry posted on social media that she had found a forged signature, she said she got a phone call from Taylor.
“He seemed frantic,” Terry said. “He definitely was trying to intimidate me to take it down.” She said that while Taylor took the tone of a “good guy” just trying to help, he told her she could be sued and said someone had driven by her house to confirm her address.
In an exchange with Terry on Twitter, Taylor acknowledged speaking with her.
Terry and other local party activists identified more forged signatures. The Virginian-Pilot newspaper identified 59 fraudulent signatures, including those of four dead people, all on petitions gathered by Taylor staffers.
The Democratic Party of Virginia filed suit to get Brown’s name off the ballot, alleging both that too many of the signatures are fraudulent and also that Brown failed to provide her correct home address on the petitions as required by law. Taylor and his staffers have been subpoenaed to appear at a hearing on the case Wednesday in Richmond Circuit Court.
The effort to support Brown was widely known in Virginia Beach Republican circles. Petitions for Brown circulated at a monthly Republican breakfast meeting the Saturday before the ballot deadline.
State Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) encouraged others to sign at the breakfast. “I sign them for everybody, even people who run against me,” DeSteph said in an interview.
Some of the Brown petitions circulated in the Virginia Beach sheriff’s department. Sheriff Ken Stolle is a former Republican state senator and part of a powerful local family. Local GOP chairman Tina Mapes is a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office, and brought petitions in to work.
Mapes declined to comment for this story, but Stolle — who signed a petition for Brown — said he commonly allows petitions for candidates of all stripes to circulate among deputies or the jail.
“I’m of the belief that anybody who wants to run should be able to run,” Stolle said. He added that having multiple candidates on the ballot often helps the incumbent but said he doubted that Taylor was behind his campaign’s effort to help Brown.
“Scott would not have made the decision to do that,” Stolle said. He said he had asked Taylor about it and that he blamed overzealous campaign aides. “He said he didn’t know anything about it, and he was in D.C. when this took place.”
Forgery cannot be tolerated, Stolle said. “It’s a crime, and I think it ought to be investigated and they ought to pursue charges,” he said.
Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle — the sheriff’s brother — requested a special prosecutor for the case. A judge appointed Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell.
Taylor’s role remains the central mystery.
In an interview last week with conservative radio host John Fredericks, Taylor repeated the assertion that he was “in D.C. when this stuff happened.”
The progressive PAC American Bridge 21st Century, which does opposition research on Republican candidates, said it analyzed social media posts and found that Taylor must have been in his congressional district for two of the four days — June 7-10 — that his staff was collecting signatures for Brown.
Taylor tweeted from Chesapeake and Virginia Beach on June 9, and he posted a photo of himself at an event in Virginia Beach on June 10.
Shortly after the petition effort became public in early August, Taylor posted a video on his Facebook page that defended the tactic of helping a competitor.
“So here’s the deal: There were people who volunteered to get Shaun Brown on the ballot,” he said in the video, in which he slams “Washington Dems” for interfering in the local process of selecting his opponent.
“You have my word, that if anyone in my campaign did anything that was wrong that was illegal or inappropriate or something like that, I would fire them in a second,” he said. Soon after, Taylor fired his campaign manager and a campaign consultant. The video has been taken down.
Taylor might have to describe his actions again in the courtroom Wednesday morning. Until then, the normally gregarious congressman is lying low as his reelection bid gets more complicated by the day.
“It’s all going to come out over the next couple of months,” Weldon, his campaign spokesman, said at the headquarters office on Friday. “I would love to be able to tell you more, but obviously with everything happening with the legal situation — I wish I could.”