Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) is wagering that her marquee role on the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol gives her reelection campaign a lift in a challenging, redrawn district. She is the only Democrat on the committee who is running in a competitive campaign. The outcome of her race may stand as the best evidence of the political impact of the congressional hearings.
Luria, from Virginia’s Tidewater 2nd District, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), questioned two Trump White House insiders, deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews, and introduced recorded exhibits in the July 21 hearing.
Luria was calm and methodical, acquitting herself well before nearly 18 million Americans who viewed the panel’s second prime-time hearing. What she presented was memorable and chilling.
A headline from the night was how close rioters who invaded the Capitol intent on hanging then-Vice President Mike Pence got to him. Then-President Donald Trump had incited the legions of loyalists he had beckoned to Washington that day, telling them Pence had betrayed him in rejecting a scheme to derail a joint session of Congress convened to confirm the electoral college vote count. Pence, who presided over the session as the Constitution directs, came within feet of the vengeful mob as he was evacuated from the Capitol.
Luria introduced a recorded interview with a White House security official whose name was withheld and his voice modified to conceal his identity. He emotionally described radio traffic among members of Pence’s Secret Service detail fearing for their lives and asking colleagues to relay their last goodbyes to their families.
It was powerful TV, but its benefits for Luria have their limits.
A Navy veteran and centrist Democrat, Luria came to Congress after narrowly defeating Republican incumbent Scott Taylor during the anti-Trump 2018 “Blue Wave” midterm election. She was reelected, again over Taylor, in the high-turnout 2020 election in which Virginia resoundingly rejected Trump.
In both of those elections, she ran in a toss-up Hampton Roads district that took in Democratic-leaning precincts on the Peninsula and in Norfolk. She has lost those friendly precincts in redistricting.
Luria’s new 2nd District is a J-shaped, Republican-leaning creation that includes the Eastern Shore, goes south through Virginia Beach to the North Carolina line, then curls westward, taking in the cities of Chesapeake, Suffolk and Franklin as well as Isle of Wight County and a strip of eastern Southampton County. That configuration gave Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) 55 percent of its vote last fall.
In a district closely tied to Norfolk’s massive U.S. Navy base, Luria faces state Sen. Jen Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), a fellow Navy veteran. It’s a priority race for both parties, meaning unprecedented levels of campaign spending will be pumped into the district from Democratic and GOP national campaign committees as well as special interest groups and stealthy, dark-money campaign organizations.
Midterm elections are always fraught for the party in power. But this year, Democrats are also beset by the worst inflation since the early 1980s, fears of a recession and critically low job-approval ratings for President Biden. Current predictions are for the GOP to take House and perhaps Senate majorities.
Though the economy is the most potent driver of elections, Democrats have earned some significant wins. Senate Democrats resolved intramural divisions and cut a deal with Republicans on a modest package of gun-safety measures, and Biden signed into law a fast-tracking growth of the domestic computer chip manufacturing and development industry.
Republicans have made some damaging unforced errors. They vainly tried to tank a long-sought bill to address climate change and rein in prescription drug costs for seniors, forcing a round-the-clock Senate floor session to pass it. They inexplicably obstructed passage of a law expanding health-care benefits for about 3.5 million military veterans battling life-threatening ailments from exposure to toxic burn pits during their service, relenting only in the face of public outrage.
Luria hopes her work in examining the former president’s role in the Capitol siege fits with those political building blocks. It has the potential to help her among moderate, independent suburban voters who are plentiful in her district.
Yet, the 2nd District race begins with much of the vote baked in. No volume of evidence will convince Trump followers of his guilt. Voters who detest Trump see the revelations only as further validation of what they had known all along and will oppose those who share his party label.
Unknown is how much revelations already made about Trump and those still to come will influence undecided voters. Much of that depends on how Luria’s opponent balances keeping Trump voters while making appeals to swing voters. Although Kiggans downplayed ties to Trump in her state Senate run in 2019, the same year the progressive group American Bridge published audio of her saying, “I’m a big supporter of President Trump, I think he’s a genius.” Kiggans also voted for a $70 million “forensic audit” of Virginia’s 2020 presidential results, a nod to Trump’s false claim that massive fraud deprived him of reelection.
If there’s a cautionary tale for Luria though, it is the failed Democratic strategy last year to portray Youngkin as a Trump stand-in. Luria may benefit from her prime-time spotlight, but making this election about the former president’s misdeeds is a mere part of what she needs to do to keep her seat.