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Republican Scott Taylor, a former congressman, to challenge Sen. Mark Warner

Former congressman Scott Taylor.
Former congressman Scott Taylor. (Steve Helber/AP)

Republican Scott Taylor, a former congressman, said Monday he will try to break Democrats’ monopoly on statewide offices in Virginia in 2020 by challenging two-term senator Mark R. Warner.

An ex-Navy SEAL who last year lost his Virginia Beach district to a Democrat, Taylor called himself an underdog in the race and acknowledged he cannot match the fundraising muscle of Warner.

But experts say the bigger challenge will be overcoming the drag of President Trump in a presidential election year in the only Southern state to have voted for Hillary Clinton. Democrats have noted that Taylor voted with Trump’s agenda most of the time.

Warner is seeking a third term on the strength of his reputation as a bipartisan centrist and popular former Virginia governor who has investigated Russian interference in U.S. elections as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Taylor will try to make the case that Warner has moved to the left since leaving the governor’s mansion in 2006, a strategy that helped Ed Gillespie come close to unseating Warner in the 2014 Senate race.

The performance set up Gillespie to run for governor in 2017, a race the Republican lost by nine points to Democrat Ralph Northam, who benefited from the backlash to Trump winning the White House the year before.

“Every cycle, we’re finding out, no pun intended, does Trump trump everything?” said Tucker Martin, a former longtime GOP strategist and adviser to both of Gillespie’s races.

Taylor called himself an underdog in the Senate race and referred to taxes and regulation, immigration policy and abortion in a statement.

“Mark R. Warner’s actual votes have been bad for our businesses, our borders and our babies’ lives,” Taylor said. “Lastly, Mark R. Warner’s betrayal of trust to Virginians and Americans, lying to us about collusion, while doing nothing to secure our elections for the future, is disqualifying.”

Warner’s campaign touted his fundraising numbers. He amassed $1.8 million in the latest quarter and has $5.4 million in cash on hand.

“Scott Taylor is an experienced campaigner, having run or explored running for five different offices in the past decade. We welcome Scott Taylor to the race and wish him the best of luck in the Republican primary,” Warner campaign manager Bruce Sinclair said.

Taylor kicked off his campaign Monday morning with an appearance on “Fox & Friends” and an un­or­tho­dox video that mixed his personal story with home video footage and a movie clip of fictional boxer Rocky Balboa.

Raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland by a single mother, Taylor was deployed to Iraq as a Navy SEAL and served as a state delegate before winning a seat representing Virginia Beach in Congress in 2016.

He lost to Democrat Elaine Luria two years later amid a scandal over signatures his campaign collected to help a potential spoiler candidate get on the ballot. In May, a special prosecutor filed two charges of election fraud against a Taylor staffer but did not say whether the congressman broke any laws.

In an interview, Taylor said he decided to run for Senate rather than seek a rematch with Luria in hopes of breaking the state Democratic Party’s lock on all five statewide offices.

Having run eight contested primary and general elections in about 10 years, Taylor said a six-year Senate cycle made sense.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee tied Warner to Northam’s blackface scandal and allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D). Warner called for Northam to resign, unequivocally, but said Fairfax should resign only if the allegations against him are true. Republicans have blamed Democrats for backing off their resignation calls because Northam and Fairfax remain in office.

“Warner’s own behavior suggests he’s incredibly weak after barely eking out a win in 2014,” NRSC spokesman Nathan Brand said. “Now he’s tied to the most scandal-ridden Virginia Democratic Party in history as the highest statewide elected officials of his own party refuse to resign.”

But Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said it would take a unique set of circumstances for the NRSC to devote significant resources to the race.

“Given Warner’s close call in 2014, there are a lot of Republicans who believe that Warner is vulnerable. I don’t think that the Senate Republican leadership is among them,” she said in a statement. “I am not really sure what Taylor’s motives are unless he is teeing up a 2021 bid for statewide office.” (Taylor denied he was interested in running for governor.)

The Democratic Party of Virginia and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pointed to Taylor’s record of voting with Trump, the petitions scandal and his connection to indicted congressman Duncan D. Hunter.

In 2018, Hunter was accused of using campaign funds to pay for travel, dinner and drinks with women with whom he had extramarital affairs. Shortly after that, the state party noted, Taylor’s political action committee donated to Hunter’s reelection and accepted a donation from Hunter’s political action committee.

“It will be brought up constantly throughout the race,” state party spokesman Jake Rubenstein said of the petitions. “Running for office is not going to create distance from what he took part in. This will not be a rehabilitation tour. That is not going to happen.”

Taylor said Virginians are uninterested in Democrats’ criticism of his support from Hunter.

So far, Taylor is the only Republican to announce plans to seek the party’s nomination to challenge Warner, but more could jump in.

“Scott Taylor, or whoever the nominee is, certainly has a great chance at ousting our do-nothing Senator next November,” state GOP spokesman John March said in a statement.

Taylor raised about $4 million in his 2018 congressional race and is expected to file his first Senate campaign finance report in mid-October.

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