VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Political battle lines are forming in Virginia where a woman who once led a combat-ready unit of 400 sailors wants to capture a Republican congressional seat held by a former Navy SEAL.
National Democrats are backing former Navy commander Elaine Luria in her quest to claim the 2nd District on Virginia's coast — home to the world's largest Navy base. Should she win the June primary, Luria's biggest foe is expected to be 38-year-old incumbent Scott Taylor in November.
The congressman, a former sniper in Iraq, won his first term by nearly 23 percentage points in 2016. Taylor said he's skeptical that anyone who "regurgitates Washington Democrat talking points" can win his district.
But Luria, 42, vows to give voice to voters demanding change in Washington and help calm the "chaos."
The district runs from Virginia's rural Eastern Shore to Virginia Beach, the state's largest city with about 450,000 people. It's home to government contractors and military installations, including the massive Naval Station Norfolk. More than 16 percent of the area's adults — about 87,000 people — are veterans, 2016 Census data indicate.
The race tests a national Democratic strategy of recruiting veterans eager to take back the House in one of the nation's most veteran-heavy regions. It also will gauge the strength of any blue wave against President Donald Trump, who carried the traditionally Republican district two years ago.
Local voters are acutely sensitive to some of Trump's positions, including his calls for increased military spending and for opening the Atlantic seaboard to oil and natural gas drilling. They are also weary of frequent Washington gridlock and government shutdowns.
A U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Luria spent 20 years on active duty. Her various roles included operating nuclear reactors on an aircraft carrier and serving as second in command of a guided missile cruiser.
She and her Navy veteran husband now own a small business tied to the region's tourism industry: the Mermaid Factory, where customers drink wine and paint plaster casts of mermaids, a regional icon.
Luria has sounded universal Democratic themes, blasting Taylor for opposing universal background checks for gun purchases and for supporting the Republican-backed tax bill, which Democrats claim is skewed toward the rich. Another target: Taylor's support of a failed bid by Republicans to partially repeal the Affordable Care Act.
"People are just concerned about what's going on in Washington, and they're upset," Luria said in an interview. "If you look at the district, there are a lot of independents here."
Luria and Taylor each have substantial fundraising leads against their respective primary opponents, whom they'll face June 12.
Luria's Democratic opponent is teacher Karen Mallard, a supporter of universal health care and a critic of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Mallard says voters are upset that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee backed Luria this early.
For his part, Taylor said, national Democrats may support Luria but lack any real grasp of the region. He said the district's voters have little appetite for such Democratic policies as more gun legislation.
"Maybe that works well in another district where there aren't many veterans," Taylor said of national Democratic support for Luria. "But here, everybody sees through it."
Taylor's primary opponent is Mary Jones, a former chair of the James City County Board of Supervisors, who chides him for not supporting Trump more. Jones wrote in an email that Taylor has "abandoned Republican principles." She says some of her biggest issues include securing U.S. borders and cutting spending.
Taylor, in fact, has set himself apart from Trump somewhat.
A member of the House Appropriations Committee, Taylor pushed to restore Chesapeake Bay cleanup funding, which Trump proposed cutting. Taylor also opposes Trump's push to allow drilling off Virginia's coast.
When Trump was elected in 2016, he won the 2nd District by more than 3 percentage points. But signs of a potential blue wave include a victory by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam last November.
The Cook Political Report, an independent elections analyst, rates Virginia's 2nd District as "lean Republican," signifying a competitive race where Republicans have an advantage.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said Taylor's politics are a good representation of the libertarian-leaning district. But he cautions that may not be enough for the incumbent.
"This may be the year where Republicans can put up gold-plated conservatives, and they can still be in trouble," Kidd said. "The blue wave may not be three or four feet high but 15 or 20 feet high."
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