Although the 2022 campaign is just getting started, political observers say it’s an early sign that Republicans seeking to challenge Luria may have a hard time distinguishing themselves from her when it comes to national security, particularly in a district where that is a closely watched issue.
Four days after Luria warned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed of China’s “extensive ground-based conventional missile force,” a Kiggans fundraising email warned in an almost identical line that “they [China] have built extensive ground-based conventional missile forces.”
As Kiggans’s campaign spokesman, Bryan Piligra, told the Daily Beast and reiterated to The Washington Post, Kiggans “didn’t start taking China seriously because Elaine Luria suddenly decided to pen an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.”
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, called Luria a “military affairs-oriented Democrat,” sticking with the party line on most issues — but a defense hawk when it comes to preserving the strength of the military.
In some cases, like with her calls to increase military spending, that’s left her alone among House Democrats. In June, for example, she was the only Democrat to vote against the repeal of the 2002 Iraq War authorization, saying in an interview that she was concerned there was no replacement even as the armed forces still face strikes in the region.
In May, she resisted the shift in tone from some in her party seeking to acknowledge the plight of Palestinians and take a tougher stance on Israel, standing firm in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself during the recent deadly conflict.
“I think it does make it harder for the Republicans to essentially define wedge issues around military and foreign policy against Luria, because she’s just not given them much space,” Kidd said.
Luria served 20 years in the Navy as a nuclear engineer on deployed ships before winning a seat in Congress in 2018, becoming one of several Democratic women with national security backgrounds to flip red seats blue and help take the House.
Since then, she’s carved out a niche in Congress, putting her Navy background to use and prioritizing legislation to remove barriers to health care for military families or service members exposed to toxic chemicals. It makes sense: Home to the largest naval base in the country — Naval Station Norfolk — the 2nd Congressional District also has among the largest populations of veterans and active-duty military.
During recent hearings, Luria has ripped President Biden’s proposed $753 billion defense budget while urging top Pentagon brass to, in as many words, put their money where their mouth is on China. In her Wall Street Journal op-ed, she called it the Pentagon’s “say-do gap.” Biden’s proposed defense budget represents a less than 2 percent increase in defense spending since last year.
Luria joined Republicans in calling for a 3 percent to 5 percent increase in top-line defense spending, while liberals in her party earlier called for cuts of up to 10 percent. In a letter to Biden, 50 House Democrats asked him to “rebuke the values of the Trump administration” and reevaluate spending priorities.
Luria called their position “completely misinformed.”
“What I’m trying to communicate is we need to take this seriously today,” Luria said. “We need to take more action, and when we get a budget that recommends decommissioning more ships than we’re building, it’s obviously going in the wrong direction.”
Though largely alone in the House, Luria may be more likely to find Democratic allies in the Senate in calls to boost defense spending. On Thursday, Democrats including Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) joined Republicans in voting in a committee meeting to add $25 billion to Pentagon funds in the related National Defense Authorization Act. That may throw a wrench in defense budget negotiations given the split among Democrats.
Still, former 2nd District Republican congressman Scott Rigell noted — apologizing for the cliche — that it’s “no profile in courage” to buck your party on military affairs as a representative of this district.
Supporting the fullest possible funding of the Navy and military writ large is like the minimum requirement for the job, he argued.
“I think what you’ll see is Luria’s support for high defense spending. She’ll run that in her ad — but that’s one of those things that’s expected in this district,” said Rigell, who stopped identifying as a Republican after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “There’s no unique attribute there.”
Rigell said he wouldn’t be surprised if the 2nd District candidates’ positions on national defense from both parties seemed almost indistinguishable, a situation where “you just saw it on a piece of paper and didn’t know who wrote it.”
The difficulty that can create is apparent in some of the gymnastics the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has had to do to attack Luria’s position on the defense budget. It has frequently pointed to Luria’s separate praise for Biden’s inclusion of funds for Chesapeake Bay restoration and the Norfolk Harbor widening project as a way to suggest Luria supports Biden’s entire budget, including the defense budget.
“If Elaine Luria really cared about the threat of China she would speak out against Biden’s budget, which multiple outlets have reported would hurt the Navy’s ability to combat China, instead of praising it,” NRCC spokeswoman Camille Gallo said in a statement to The Post.
Kiggans, who raised $286,000 in the last quarter, leads the Republican field in fundraising in the bid to challenge Luria in 2022; Luria raised roughly $685,000 with $1.17 million on hand. The other Republican candidates include Jarome Bell, who has raised a total of roughly $100,000, with $30,000 on hand; Larry Thomas Altman III, Andy Baan and Theodore Enquist, all of whom have raised under $50,000 in the last quarter.
Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter and geriatric nurse practitioner, declined an interview for this article. Piligra, a campaign spokesman for Kiggans, said she would also “be demanding a significant increase to our defense budget.”
But he still criticized Luria.
Citing the Biden administration’s much larger proposed increases in spending to the Department of Education and Environmental Protection Agency budgets, Piligra said “this signals to China, Iran, and other adversaries that Joe Biden and Elaine Luria are more interested in spending billions of dollars on woke curriculums in our kids’ schools and the job-killing Green New Deal than they are with strengthening our military and keeping the American people secure.”
Rigell said that in his own experience campaigning in the 2nd District, it made more sense to drive wedges on the culture-war issues — like those Piligra alluded to — than quibble with his Democratic opponent’s record on military affairs.
“I really didn’t run against Glenn Nye. I ran against Nancy Pelosi,” Rigell said, referring to the liberal House Speaker who is deeply unpopular with conservatives. He said Luria’s Republican challenger — whoever that will be — would be wise to do the same, and at this stage, it’s already apparent that will probably be the case.
Kiggans, for example, already has a nickname for Luria — “Lockstep Luria,” for what she argues is Luria’s overwhelming alignment with Pelosi.