IN A congressional district in the south-eastern corner of Virginia, hard by the Atlantic Ocean, there are usually three issues: the military, the harbour and tourism—all drivers of the region’s economy. Now the second district’s Republican representative, Scott Taylor, has created a fourth issue: himself.
Mr Taylor, a former Navy SEAL gently chided by the Washington Post for his movie-star looks, appeared to be heading for an easy re-election until he hit a snag last month. He had successfully distanced himself from President Donald Trump, whose unpopularity in Virginia, carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, could prove lethal for other Republican congressional incumbents. But then it was revealed that Mr Taylor’s campaign, apparently fearing that Elaine Luria, a retired Navy missile officer, could beat him, helped get an independent candidate, Shaun Brown, onto the ballot. Because Ms Brown is black and has a Democratic pedigree, she threatened to bleed votes from Ms Luria in November.
At one point the Taylor campaign claimed its motives were altruistic; it was only assisting a candidate who allegedly had been badly treated by Democrats, it said. The difficulties faced by Ms Brown, defeated by Mr Taylor two years ago, are rather different. Ms Brown has been accused of defrauding a federal government food programme and is expected to soon stand trial for a second time after her first ended in mistrial. In September, after evidence emerged that candidate petitions circulated by Mr Taylor’s aides included forged signatures and the names of dead people, a state judge removed Ms Brown’s name from the ballot, saying that the push to include it with those of Mr Taylor and Ms Luria represented “out and out fraud.” A special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the scheme, keeping it alive as an issue for the duration of the campaign.
In a swing district—Virginia’s second tipped to Mr Trump in 2016 but backed Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor, in 2017—the scandal could have been politically fatal for Mr Taylor. It provided welcome ammunition for the Democrats. National organisations steering cash and services to Ms Luria, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, ran television commercials that focused on the ballot controversy.
But in the final run-up to the election on November 6th, polls show Mr Taylor with a narrow lead. In a survey by the Wason Centre for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, a shipbuilding centre adjacent to the district, Mr Taylor was up seven percentage points over Ms Luria, 50% to 43%. Nearly three in four voters were aware of the ballot fuss. A majority said it would not affect their choice.
Mr Trump seems to be marginally more popular in the second district than he is in other parts of the state. Voters were narrowly divided on Mr Trump’s performance—51% disapproving; 46% approving. That close split means that Ms Luria is getting little, if any, lift from voter distaste for the president in the only Southern state that he lost to Mrs Clinton. In Virginia generally, Mr Trump’s approval rating tends to be below 40%.
Ms Luria is among several female candidates recruited by Democrats largely because of their national security credentials. If she won, she would become the first female graduate of the US Naval Academy elected to Congress. Her biography plays well in a defence-rich region where many military people stick around after completing their tours. Nearly 20% of the region’s residents are veterans, providing defence contractors with a ready source of staff and the political parties with activists and candidates, like Ms Luria.
But Ms Luria’s career is only carrying her so far. She has a low-key campaigning style and seems to be focusing on few issues—beyond the ballot imbroglio—with which to achieve traction against Mr Taylor. He, meanwhile, has found at least two themes with which to appeal to election-deciding moderate independents.
Breaking with Mr Trump, Mr Taylor supports keeping the armed services open to LGBTQ personnel and opposes the administration’s decision to allow oil and gas exploration in nearly all coastal waters. Drilling is considered a threat to the region’s tourism economy, possibly spoiling its surf and beaches. These issues seem to be more interesting to voters than political scandal.