The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elaine Luria put democracy over politics. Will voters reward her?

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), center, in D.C. on July 21. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It’s easy to get cynical late in an election campaign as both sides talk of competing “messages” and “narratives,” spin polling numbers into fine yarns of inevitable triumph, and race to find the killer closing ad.

So I confess that I journeyed to the southern coastal reaches of Virginia partly just to talk to a member of Congress who chose to take on a mission likely to do her little good in a reelection campaign made all the tougher by a radical redrawing of her district.

Rep. Elaine Luria talks about taking her first oath to defend the Constitution when she was 17 and starting out at the U.S. Naval Academy. It’s now 30 years later, and the Democrat in her second term says she felt that call again when she joined the committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

“Somebody did come up to me and say, well, you know, do you realize you’re the only Democrat on this committee in a Republican district — which then got worse after redistricting?” she said in an interview at her campaign office here. “You could go home and this might not be popular with people. And I said, ‘You know, really, I don’t care. You know, this is more important than Elaine Luria, than my getting reelected’.”

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One person who agrees that Luria might have made a politically inconvenient choice is her Republican opponent, State Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (Virginia Beach), who ducks the issue of whether 2020’s election was legitimate.

Asked about Luria’s service on the committee during their debate on Tuesday, Kiggans was unequivocal: “The people that I’m talking to at different civic leagues and carpool lines … they’re complaining to me not about January 6. … I ask, I say, ‘You know, what’s driving you out to vote this year? What issue do you really care about that’s going to make you use your voice?’ And they tell me the economy, I would say nine out of ten times.”

Kiggans, a relentlessly on-message candidate, was signaling that she cares about what voters care about. But her observation was as compelling a tribute to Luria’s sense of duty as anything the incumbent’s supporters might say.

By all measures, the Luria-Kiggans race is a dead heat. Luria’s pollster Fred Yang notes the redrawn district is now more Republican and more than one-third new. The outcome will help determine whether Republicans retake the House and serve as an indicator of how well middle-of-the-road Democrats insulated themselves against GOP efforts to paint them, falsely, as extreme liberals.

There is also this: Luria, a 20-year Navy veteran, is part of the Class of 2018, an intake of Democrats elected in national revolt against Donald Trump that included a large number of women with national security backgrounds.

They include Luria’s fellow Annapolis grad Rep. Mikie Sherrill (N.J.); Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (Pa.), an Air Force veteran; Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), who served in the CIA; and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), who worked as a CIA analyst and in the Defense Department.

If Luria makes it through this year, her attentiveness in this Navy-heavy district to military questions — affecting on-duty personnel, veterans and defense contractors — will have been key to her victory.

The morning before Tuesday’s debate, she paid a visit to Dante Valve, a Norfolk company whose business is almost entirely with the Navy. Lisa Dante Papini, the president of the company, took Luria on a tour during which the congresswoman reveled in an escape into the genius of engineering as employees explained how high-tech machinery created and tested pressure-relief devices.

“The Navy couldn’t do what they do without what you do,” Luria said in thanking the workers before she left. As an advocate of higher Navy budgets, she hopes they also notice what she does — sometimes against the wishes of Democratic colleagues who, she said in the interview, don’t always appreciate the importance of defense companies in “the industrial capability of our country.”

Luria is doing all she can to localize the contest. Like many Democrats around the country, she translates the legislation she voted for into a long list of community and infrastructure projects in her district. She also contrasts her firm support for Roe v. Wade with Kiggans’s evasion — she did so again in Tuesday’s debate — of whether she would vote for a national abortion ban.

But by devoting herself to unearthing the truth behind the insurrection, Luria has made her race about something larger than her differences with Kiggans. She has put the threat to democracy squarely on the ballot.

Firm and soft-spoken at the same time, she was unequivocal during the debate: “I feel like my work on that committee is on the right side of history.” She has earned the right to say that.