With Trump on sidelines, Virginia GOP set to pick midterm nominees in swing districts

By: - June 20, 2022 12:05 am

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Virginia voters will select GOP candidates Tuesday to run against incumbent Democrats as Republicans try to recapture seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source New Mexico)

Virginia electing a Republican governor in 2021 for the first time in more than a decade was one of the first major signs of how bad the political vibes were getting for Democrats. 

This year, the Virginia GOP is trying to build on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory by flipping a handful of Democratic-controlled congressional districts that could be some of the most hotly contested in the country.

On Tuesday, Republican primary voters will pick their nominees in the two districts expected to be the most competitive in November: the Virginia Beach-anchored, military-heavy 2nd District and the new-look 7th District, which shifted north from the Richmond suburbs and is now based mostly in Prince William, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties.

With inflation high and President Joe Biden’s approval numbers low, Republicans see a chance to win back some or all of the three congressional seats they lost in the anti-Trump wave of 2018.

“All the polling I have seen says that this is an unprecedented high-water mark for Republican opportunities,” said House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, whose caucus narrowly retook majority control last year. “I hate the cost at which that comes, because it is borne of a real dissatisfaction with our national leadership and the pain people are feeling all around in their personal budgets. That is clearly having an impact on the national mood.”

Many Republican primaries in other states have been interpreted as a test of former President Donald Trump’s power over the party, but Trump has made no formal endorsements in Virginia’s contests. Youngkin, who tried to keep Trump at arm’s length last year without alienating the pro-Trump base, has also stayed out of the primaries.

Without a major Trump angle, Tuesday’s results will mostly be a test of whether Republican voters agree with GOP leaders and pundits about who’s most electable in November or deliver a surprise by picking a lesser-known figure.

The Republican primary in Hampton Roads, where the GOP hopes to oust Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in a swing district made redder via redistricting, is seen largely as a contest between more mainstream Republican state Sen. Jen Kiggans and far-right candidate Jarome Bell, who has said election fraud should be punishable by execution. Tommy Altman, a military veteran and minister who owns a tattoo shop, is also seeking the nomination, as is Andy Baan, a retired Navy captain.

Kiggans, a nurse practitioner and former Navy helicopter pilot who has served in the state Senate since 2020 is considered the favorite and the clear preference of Republican leaders hoping to line up the most electable candidate in a key district.

Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said the Kiggans vs. Bell dynamic best illustrates the two types of Republicans he sees on primary ballots.

“A Trump kind of Kool-Aid drinker candidate. And then the candidate who is going to run as conservatively and Trump-like as possible without ever mentioning Trump,” Kidd said. By running the latter sort of campaign, Kidd said, Kiggans “is essentially running the Youngkin playbook with her own sort of flavor and style put on it.”

The Democratic Party of Virginia has tried to subtly boost Bell in the contest, sending a mailer into the district that suggests a Bell would be “a copy of Trump in Congress” and a win for the MAGA movement. The mailer is similar to Democratic-aligned efforts in other races to boost extreme right-wing candidates in primaries, based on the belief they’d be easier to beat in November.

“Democrats are spreading lies and meddling in our Republican primary because they are scared of me,” Kiggans said in a social media post earlier this month. “They know that when I win on June 21, Elaine Luria loses in November!”

The six-person GOP primary in the 7th District, where the winner will take on Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, is more unsettled.

The district was redrawn in a way that seemed to make Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, the presumptive frontrunner, tilting more toward the northern central Virginia area he’s represented in the General Assembly for a decade and causing several GOP hopefuls from greater Richmond to drop out. Reeves, who narrowly lost the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in 2017, raised the most money of any candidate, has a substantial track record in elected office and has a long list of endorsements from local sheriffs and state lawmakers, as well as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and former Gov. George Allen.

But Yesli Vega, a former police officer and the first Latina to serve on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, is coming on strong, creating what some see as an opportunity to elect a fresher face with a compelling backstory. Born in Texas to Salvadoran war refugees, Vega recently published an ad saying she was inspired to join law enforcement after her brother was shot by MS-13 gang members. The ad went on to accuse “Joe Biden and radical Democrats” of allowing unchecked illegal immigration. Vega has endorsements from the union for border patrol agents, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., Rep. Bob Good, former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former congressman Dave Brat, who lost the 7th District seat to Spanberger in 2018.

Vega, who chaired Youngkin’s Latino outreach efforts last year, has also hired consultants with Axiom Strategies and the Poolhouse Advertising Agency, both of which worked on Youngkin’s winning campaign last year. 

Derrick Anderson, a former Army Green Beret and Georgetown Law graduate, is also believed to be in the mix with Reeves and Vega, thanks to surprisingly strong fundraising.

The three other candidates in the 7th District primary are Crystal Vanuch, who chairs the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, Dave Ross, a member of the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors, and Gina Ciarcia, a self-described Marine wife and educator.

Democrats have pointed out that both Reeves and Kiggans voted for a longshot General Assembly measure to budget $70 million for an audit of the 2020 presidential election. That failed measure was sponsored by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who was censured by the Senate last year for spreading baseless election fraud claims and speaking in support of the pro-Trump mob that that attacked the Capitol.

“Across Virginia, Republicans are nominating far-right insurrectionist sympathizers, who have done nothing to keep costs down for those who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Gianni Snidle, adding the party is “fired up” to return Democrats to Congress in November.

In Northern Virginia’s 10th District, the third seat the GOP lost in 2018, Republicans have already nominated Hung Cao, a Vietnamese refugee and retired Navy captain, to take on Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton. The district had been safely blue but could potentially become competitive in a big Republican year.

Trump-aligned Virginia radio host John Fredericks predicted GOP wins in all three of the most-watched races, saying Democrats “really don’t even get” how bad the environment is for their party.  

“There is a red wave coming that is going to blow them away… People are not dumb,” Fredericks said. “These guys are in big trouble. And there’s no way out.”

Fredericks said a win for Vega could arguably be considered a MAGA victory since he himself has endorsed her. But he also predicted an “overwhelming” win for Kiggans, despite Bell positioning himself as the Trumpier candidate in that contest.

“You can’t read a lot into it,” Fredericks said.

Kidd, the political analyst from CNU, said it would be a mistake for Virginia Republicans to think they’ve got midterm wins locked in already due to the national mood. The time between June and November, he said, “is a lifetime or three in politics.”

“This time last year the McAuliffe campaign and Democrats were basically saying we’ve got this in the bag, nobody knows who Youngkin is, Democrats have been blowing past Republicans in Virginia now for a decade,” Kidd said. “And look what happened.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.