“You have defamation with malicious intent,” Taylor said Tuesday after his first debate with Democratic challenger Elaine Luria. And the voters, he said, aren’t buying it.
“We’re not hearing it on the streets; our poll numbers are really good; the only time we ever see it is in the media,” he said. “We’re going to win. I know this district very well, man.”
In fact, a recent poll by Christopher Newport University found him leading Luria by seven points. A majority of voters told the pollsters that the fraud charges didn’t bother them. Another recent poll by the New York Times shows the race much closer, but the issue has clearly not crippled Taylor.
“I don’t think it’s tarnished him too much in the district,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political scientist who moderated Tuesday’s debate between Taylor and Luria.
It could be that voters are just numb to political shenanigans these days, said Bruce Thompson, a developer in Virginia Beach. “There’s so much of that kind of crap going on now as a result of what’s taking place with our president that I think people’s tolerance levels are a lot greater than what they were prior to the election of Donald Trump,” Thompson said.
The businessman doesn’t support Trump but does support Taylor, and he said he believes the congressman’s word that he knew nothing about the fake signatures his staffers turned in to help a third-party candidate get on the ballot.
Luria, a first-time candidate, has used the scandal to help distinguish herself from Taylor, a popular former Navy SEAL who represented the area in the Virginia House of Delegates before making the leap to Congress two years ago.
She, too, is a military veteran — a retired Navy commander and among the first generation of women to hold prominent roles in combat. That’s important in the most military-heavy district in the state.
The district leans Republican, but not by much, and national Democrats have targeted it as a potential pickup in their quest to retake the House of Representatives. While Trump carried the district by three points in 2016, Democrat Ralph Northam won by four points in last year’s gubernatorial election.
The name “Trump” never came up during Tuesday’s debate, sponsored by the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce at the Cavalier Virginia Beach hotel. At one point, Taylor defended “the president” for tackling trade issues with China, but neither candidate mentioned his name.
Taylor has taken pains to separate himself from Trump at times, bucking the president’s call to freeze government salaries, arguing for immigration reform alongside border security and advocating LGBT rights.
In Tuesday’s debate, Taylor jabbed at Luria for not being that different from him on some issues, emphasizing that she voted for him — twice — before running against him.
Luria countered by accusing Taylor of being a lackey for the Republican leadership in Congress, noting that he voted with his party 98 percent of the time. She slammed Republicans for increasing the deficit with their tax cuts and for making health insurance more expensive by repealing the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
Taylor conceded that Republicans haven’t yet come up with a good solution on health-care policy, saying that as the son of a single working mother, he is driven to look for something better.
Beyond party rhetoric, perhaps the most obvious difference between the two candidates is style — vividly demonstrated in the debate.
“It was a debate of confidence versus competence,” said Nneka Chiazor, an executive from Cox Communications who attended the event.
Taylor kept popping out from behind his lectern, gesturing and talking quickly, often cracking jokes. Talking about defense spending, he signaled to a retired Army officer in the audience. “The Army will tell you,” he began, then interrupted himself: “Army? Go Navy,” he said, drawing laughs from the tables of well-dressed business leaders.
Luria, by contrast, often consulted notes and tended to restate questions or topics before addressing them. But she attacked Taylor several times over his voting record, criticizing him over what she called “fearmongering” about immigration and — at the end of the debate — the campaign signature scandal.
Holsworth teed up the subject by asking both candidates if they were proud of the campaign they’ve run. Taylor responded first. Showing anger for the first time in the debate, Taylor slammed some of the ads aired by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as being “defamatory.”
Otherwise, he said, “I am happy with the campaign that we’ve run. I think it's been very positive.”
“Well, I would beg to differ,” Luria said. “If it takes forging signatures by his paid staff to place a third-party candidate on the ballot in order to make me lose, that is not a positive move.”
She accused him of being dishonest in saying that he would remove any staffers caught up in the scandal, noting that four of them were still on the payroll as of September, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Luria added that a Taylor TV ad depicting her as a puppet was not positive. “I am not anyone’s puppet. I served in the military for 20 years,” she said.
Taylor responded that the staffers in question are no longer on his staff and said the campaign finance reports reflected earlier activity.
“I didn’t know anything about any wrongdoing by anyone on my campaign until it came out,” he said. “I’m certainly not proud of that . . . And that will never, I promise you, happen again.”