RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia voters picked a state senator and a law enforcement official Tuesday as the Republican nominees for what could be two of the country’s most competitive U.S. House races.
Jen Kiggans defeated three challengers to win the nomination in Virginia’s coastal 2nd District and will take on U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria. And Yesli Vega, an auxiliary deputy and county-level elected official, prevailed in a crowded field in the central Virginia 7th District. Vega will face Rep. Abigail Spanberger in the general election, where Republicans are bullish about their chances of flipping the seats currently held by the two centrist Democrats.
“Joe Biden’s disastrous policies are on the ballot this November, and in the 2nd District, these policies go by the name of Elaine Luria,” Kiggans told an energetic crowd of supporters who gathered at a tavern in Virginia Beach.
Kiggans, who had been seen as the frontrunner leading into Tuesday, handily defeated three opponents, including far-right Jarome Bell, who called himself the “MAGA candidate” and had called for executing anyone involved in what he claimed was widespread voter fraud.
A former Navy helicopter pilot and a geriatric nurse practitioner, Kiggans has represented parts of Virginia Beach and Norfolk in the state Senate since 2020.
Several voters who spoke with The Associated Press said they were backing her because they thought she was the best positioned to flip the district in November.
Marianne Winn, 83, said Kiggans came to her home while campaigning and showed concern for senior citizens as well as nursing homes. Winn said she’s also particularly concerned about what she called President Joe Biden’s failure to deal with rising inflation, particularly food prices.
“I buy chocolate morsels to make chocolate chip cookies,” said Winn, who retired from working in an elementary school cafeteria. “They were $2.25 and now they’re $3.58 …. Everything has gone up.”
Like Kiggans, Luria is also a Navy veteran. She’s currently on the Jan. 6 committee investigating the 2021 attack on the Capitol and has cultivated a congressional identity as a centrist since flipping the district blue under its previous lines in 2018. She’s expected to face a tough challenge under the new lines.
The 2nd District covers much of Virginia’s coast, including Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore.
Luria’s campaign manager, Kate Fegley, said in a statement that Kiggans was a “political opportunist” and “election denier.” In recent interviews, Kiggans has declined to say whether Biden was legitimately elected.
“The people of Virginia’s Second Congressional District trust Elaine Luria and know that she will continue to deliver and do what’s right regardless of the political implications,” Fegley said in a statement.
Former President Donald Trump didn’t endorse in the 2nd District or in the 7th, which was entirely reshaped thanks to redistricting, which shifted it away from the Richmond suburbs. It now covers a stretch of cities and counties between Charlottesville and the Washington suburbs. The GOP nomination fight was seen as more unsettled ahead of Tuesday’s vote, with several contenders including Vega claiming momentum.
Vega, who currently serves on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, defeated five other candidates, including a long-serving state senator, to secure the nomination.
Born in Texas to immigrant parents from El Salvador, Vega helped run Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Latino voter coalition during his campaign last year. She’s worked as a police officer and sheriff’s deputy and currently serves as an auxiliary deputy in the Prince William County Sheriff’s Office.
She locked up endorsements from an array of right-wing officials, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — who joined her for campaign events Monday — former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, U.S. Rep. Bob Good, and Ginni Thomas, the conservative activist and wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
The Democratic Party of Virginia has previously criticized Vega for her characterization of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. During a candidate forum, Vega described the violence at the Capitol as “a group of Americans exercising their 1st amendment rights.”
“The difference in this election could not be more clear,” Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker said in a statement. “Republicans in VA-02 and VA-07 nominated far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who have no place in Congress.”
Associated Press reporter Ben Finley and photographer Steve Helber contributed to this report.
Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press