RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A GOP sweep of Virginia’s 2021 statewide elections — and particularly Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s win — appears to have energized the Republican field in two of the country’s most competitive U.S. House races.
Tuesday’s crowded Republican congressional primaries in Virginia’s 2nd and 7th districts will settle who takes on centrist Democrats Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger in November’s general elections, which in turn could help determine which party controls the U.S. House.
Virginia Republicans like their chances. Along with the party's resurgence last fall, a redistricting process that refashioned Virginia’s congressional maps and a national political environment viewed as highly unfavorable to the party in power are also seen as factors that have led to vigorous GOP competition for the seats.
“The climate is so god-awful for Democrats. I mean, it’s the worst maybe since 2010, maybe even worse. Republicans feel very emboldened,” said John Whitbeck, a former Republican Party of Virginia chairman.
Virginia’s unusual off-year 2021 statewide elections were closely watched as an early indication of what this year’s midterms could portend. Along with flipping all three statewide offices, Republicans also took control of the state House, animating the state’s Republicans after a nearly decadelong stretch of stinging losses.
For comparison's sake, in 2018 when Whitbeck stepped down from his role, Republicans had 14 candidates competing in four nomination contests. This year, the party had 37 candidates competing in eight districts.
Republicans opted to settle several other nomination contests — including an 11-way fight to run for a Democratic-leaning northern Virginia district — in party-run processes in May.
The 2nd and 7th districts will be closely watched, with general elections in both considered a tossup by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
In the coastal 2nd District, which includes the state's most populous city, Virginia Beach, four candidates are seeking the GOP nomination to take on Luria.
A retired Navy commander who's cultivated a congressional identity as a centrist, Luria is serving on the Jan. 6 committee investigating the 2021 attack on the Capitol. Luria flipped the district under its previous competitive boundaries in 2018. Under its new boundaries, Youngkin won it by more than 11 points, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
Her four potential opponents are all veterans as well. They include Tommy Altman, a Virginia Beach tattoo shop owner; Andy Baan, a former prosecutor who retired as a captain from the Navy; and Jarome Bell, a retired Navy chief petty officer who calls himself the “MAGA candidate." The three men appear to face an uphill climb against state Sen. Jen Kiggans, a nurse practitioner and Navy veteran who has served in the state legislature since 2020 and has a hefty fundraising lead, plus the backing of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC dedicated to electing House Republicans.
In an entirely rebooted 7th Congressional District, which shifted away from the Richmond suburbs and now covers a stretch between Charlottesville and the Washington suburbs, the GOP nomination fight to compete against Spanberger appears more wide open. A former CIA officer, Spanberger also flipped a competitive GOP-held seat in 2018 and is now competing under lines that Youngkin would have won, according to Virginia Public Access Project's analysis.
Bryce Reeves, who has served in the state legislature since 2012 and previously ran for statewide office, got into the race with plenty of name recognition. He's facing a challenge from Derrick Anderson, a former Green Beret who has nearly kept pace in fundraising, and Yesli Vega, a local elected official with law enforcement experience who's picked up high-profile endorsements. Also in the race are Crystal Vanuch and David Ross, who serve on local boards of supervisors, and Gina Ciarcia, an educator who has trailed the pack in fundraising.
Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Republican candidates had spent months running to the right.
“The only thing these candidates have shown is that they are too extreme to survive a general election against two of the strongest women in congress,” she said.
Jimmy Frost, 57, a Lowe's salesman who's active in Virginia Beach Republican politics, said he thinks the nation's problems — which he blames on Democrats — helped feed the long list of Republican candidates.
Frost, who said he's backing Bell because he thinks he will tell constituents the “unvarnished truth,” said Luria should be ready to face voters who are angry.
“Their kids can’t find (baby) formula for their grandkids. They can’t afford gasoline to get their kids where they need to go. They don’t know how much it’s going to cost to go to the grocery store — today or next week. They don’t know what interest rates are going to do. There’s a lot of people who are walking around going, ‘Oh my God, what’s next?’” he said.
Without a primary challenge of their own, Spanberger and Luria will almost certainly start the general election season with enormous fundraising leads. Luria reported nearly $3.4 million cash on hand June 1; Spanberger reported $4.3 million.
Youngkin hasn't endorsed in either race, nor has Trump, whose false claims of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election have continued to percolate through both primaries.
Bell has called for executing anyone involved in what he claims is widespread fraud. Kiggans recently declined to say in a New York Times interview whether she believed President Joe Biden had won. And no candidate but Bell responded to Virginia Public Media queries about whether they would have voted to certify the 2020 results (he said he would not).
In May, the Democratic Party of Virginia released a video highlighting every 7th District candidate but Vanuch being asked about the violent Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol — each declined to call it an insurrection.
Tom Davis, a former U.S. congressman from northern Virginia who has endorsed Vega, said he doubted whether Jan. 6-focused messaging would resonate in the general election at a time when voters are facing historic inflation and a tanking stock market.
“I’m not saying it’s unimportant. I’m just saying voters don’t seem to be that interested in it," he said.
Associated Press writer Ben Finley contributed to this report from Norfolk.
Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press