From left: U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, a Virginia Beach Republican, and Democratic candidate Elaine Luria are vying for the 2nd District House of Representatives seat. (Images from U.S. House of Representatives and Luria's campaign)

Editor’s note: Whether Democrats can retake the House of Representatives is the big storyline of this fall’s midterm election cycle. Four competitive Virginia House races for seats currently held by Republicans, profiled this week in a series in the Mercury, could play a key role come Election Day. 

As a small business owner in Norfolk, retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Elaine Luria twice voted for fellow veteran, U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, a former SEAL.

Over time though, she became less impressed with the Republican congressman’s votes on issues like health care and started going to local Democratic Party meetings. She was eventually picked by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as a promising candidate to flip the Republican district.

“The general feeling is people don’t have a sense they have a representative who’s looking out for them,” Luria said.

Taylor’s campaign declined multiple requests for an interview for this story.

The 2nd District includes parts of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Hampton and all of the Eastern Shore and leans ever-so-slightly Republican. In the 2017 elections, 51 percent of the district’s voters picked Democrat Ralph Northam for governor. Down the ballot though, voters were split in half for attorney general and 51 percent picked Republican Jill Vogel for lieutenant governor.

In 2016, President Donald Trump took the district with 48 percent of the vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 45 percent. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics rates the district a “toss-up.”

And as a forgery scandal unfolds, including allegations that Taylor’s staff faked signatures on nominating petitions to get an independent candidate on the ballot to draw votes from Luria, the competition has only intensified.

However, the controversy doesn’t guarantee a win for Luria, said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District stretches from the Eastern Shore into Hampton Roads.

Several Democrats with a military background have run for the seat previously without success.

“She’s running the kind of campaign that says, ‘Hey, I have military experience, I’ve spent my career in high-pressure situations,’” he said. “If it works this time it’s because the blue wave is big enough to carry her across the finish line.”

Taylor is a former Navy SEAL who served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2014-2016. He left when he won a seat in Congress.

“In many ways, Scott Taylor represents the core political vein of the 2nd District pretty well,” Kidd said.

He’s pro-military, Kidd said, similar to a Libertarian when it comes to social issues and “hawkish” on defense. His success — fraud allegations aside — will hinge on how far to the left the district’s demographics have shifted.

When he went to Congress, he was appointed to the House Appropriations Committee — a rarity for freshman representatives.

He uses Twitter to tout the the benefits of tax reform and military-related legislation he created or supported — like a bill to allow veterans access to GI Bill benefits for up to 15 years after retirement. Taylor also focuses on hyper-local issues in his district: He questioned the United States Department of Agriculture when a Virginia Beach neighborhood called in the federal government to euthanize 100 geese and regularly posts local missing-persons reports to his social media accounts. He has said he wants to make a federal version of Virginia’s Ashanti Bill for missing and endangered adults.

Luria said tax reform isn’t the great deal her opponent describes. 

It added to the national debt, she said, which will require borrowing from entitlement programs like Social Security. Plus, not everyone’s feeling the permanent effects, she said — wages haven’t changed and for most people, they’re only taking home a few hundred more dollars a year.

“I don’t think anyone’s really tricked by this tax bill being a good deal,” she said. “It’s working for some people, but for most people, $688 a year isn’t a game-changer.”

Luria, who retired from the Navy in 2017 and runs The Mermaid Factory, which makes souvenir mermaids and dolphins, with her husband, said protecting the military’s heavy presence in the 2nd District and providing for the veterans who live there is a priority.

The district includes Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach and borders Naval Station Norfolk, the largest Naval base in the world.

Protecting those installations from sea-level rise and recurrent flooding is key, Luria said, and it would also benefit active and retired military by protecting their homes from environmental threats.

Aside from that, she’d like to make the U.S. Veterans Affairs health care system better.

Luria’s husband, who is also retired from the Navy, once waited 11 months to see a doctor, she said, and she’s heard from Veterans Affairs employees about facility issues that need to be fixed. She doesn’t support privatizing the VA, an issue that isn’t being seriously discussed but often reappears as rumor in the military community.

There is an ongoing criminal investigation into Taylor and his staff’s alleged forgery. It’s not clear if it will be wrapped up before Election Day, but it could change the way voters see Taylor either way, said Geoff Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“It has become the story that will not go away for Taylor,” Skelley said. “It takes the shine off his reputation.”