RICHMOND — Virginia’s own Eric Cantor is Speaker of the House. Two Virginia congressmen sit on the appropriations committee. Another heads Armed Services. The commonwealth overflows with defense spending and military assets.
This was the future that many political observers envisioned for Virginia two years ago.
Instead, voters ousted Cantor, foretelling a wave of retirements that left the delegation flush with backbenchers but no seasoned leaders.
And U.S. Rep J. Randy Forbes’s double-digit defeat Tuesday at the hands of Del. Scott W. Taylor (Virginia Beach) in the state’s Republican primary intensifies Virginia’s declining cachet in Washington. A 15-year incumbent and subcommittee chairman, Forbes had the seniority to bring home funding and projects that a freshman lacks.
The 11-member House delegation, which includes three Democrats, could find itself further adrift with Rep. Rob Wittman (R) planning to run for governor next year and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) facing a competitive reelection fight.
“If some of these things had not happened, think about where we’d be,” said Bill Bolling, a Republican and former lieutenant governor. “The inescapable truth is that because of the defeat of people like Forbes and Cantor . . . Virginia’s influence in the House of Representatives is tremendously diminished.”
Cantor was ousted two years ago this month after voters complained he was unresponsive to his suburban Richmond constituents and preoccupied with his national responsibilities as majority leader.
Forbes lost for a different set of reasons. Voters in the Virginia Beach district didn’t buy Forbes’s argument that his expertise and seniority were crucial to the regional economy, observers said.
The experience that helped Forbes clinch reelection year after year in Virginia became a liability at a time when presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders have amplified voter frustration with the status quo and political insiders.
Taylor, a former Navy SEAL and Iraq War veteran, embraced that message in the military-heavy district, even adopting a Trump-like slogan in radio ads: “Let’s all make American great again.”
In the March 1 presidential primary, the celebrity billionaire made a strong showing in the coastal district, which is home to the largest naval base in the world, and surrogates say Hampton Roads will be key to his general election campaign in the swing state.
“There is in the 2nd District a sense of anxiety and apprehension about the direction of the country, and Scott’s message captured that emotion, and our opponent never acknowledged it at all,” said Rob Catron, Taylor’s general consultant.
Taylor also painted Forbes as a carpetbagger — a label that resonated in Virginia Beach, where homegrown credibility is important. The endorsement of the powerful Stolle family also helped Taylor there.
In contrast, Forbes opted to run in the 2nd instead of the district he has represented for eight terms, the 4th, after a court-imposed elections map made the district much more favorable to a Democrat.
At the same time, Forbes was one of the congressmen who tried to challenge the map in Supreme Court, getting no sympathy from the justices.
“Given this letter, we do not see how any injury that Forbes might have suffered is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the court in dismissing the appeal.
Again the move was fodder for Taylor: “Coward. Deserter. Quitter. These are the words people use to describe Randy Forbes abandoning his own people to save himself. He doesn’t live in our district, and he can’t even vote for himself,” he said in a radio ad.
Forbes fought back with negative ads that highlighted his judgment but attacked Taylor’s history of traffic citations, albeit earning a “half-true” from PolitiFact in the process.
“Scott Taylor, he has judgments, too, the kind of judgments you get in court,” intoned a TV ad. In the end Forbes outraised Taylor 10 to 1 but still lost by 12 points.
For the delegation, the loss is compounded by a string of recent retirements starting with Democrat James P. Moran and Republican Frank R. Wolf. Reps. Scott Rigell and Robert Hurt followed suit, opting to leave public office rather than seek reelection this year.
Taylor may be appointed to armed services, but he won’t chair the committee’s panel on seapower and protection forces, as Forbes did, supporters noted.
“With all due respect, when you lose people like Eric Cantor and Randy Forbes, you replace them with people who will be backbenchers for a long time,” Bolling said.
Virginia also faces competition for military assets from Florida, Texas, California and North Carolina — all states with bigger delegations than Virginia.
“I don’t think people understand what Washington means, especially for Virginia,” said Dan Scandling, who was chief of staff to Wolf while the congressman sat on the appropriations committee. “The amount of federal dollars spent in Virginia is enormous, from building ships to federal contractors to the federal workforce to the ancillary businesses that support all that.”
But Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) noted that Republican losses don’t necessarily hurt Democratic causes, from the Chesapeake Bay to transportation infrastructure and research and development investment.
“It depends on how that seniority is used and where,” he said. “When we lost Eric Cantor, I don’t know that that was a loss in Northern Virginia.”
On Tuesday, Democrats made gains toward turning Forbes’s old district blue when state Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) won his primary.
And Taylor’s win over Forbes could put the 2nd District within reach for Democrats for the first time since 2008.
“In this political cycle, a lot may be possible that otherwise wouldn’t be,” Connolly said. “The dynamic is very much in turmoil.”