Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria and Republican state Sen. Jen Kiggans, who are competing for the 2nd Congressional District seat, at a debate in Virginia Beach Oct. 12, 2022. (Screenshot)
VIRGINIA BEACH — The first debate in one of Virginia’s most closely watched congressional contests took a heated turn Wednesday when Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria and Republican state Sen. Jen Kiggans were asked about the country’s toxic political climate and distrust of elections by both parties.
Near the end of an hour-and-a-half faceoff in the ballroom of an oceanfront hotel in Virginia Beach, Luria sharply rejected what she called a “both-sidesism” question and called Kiggans unfit for office for refusing to stand up to conspiracy theorists in the GOP.
Serving on the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Luria said, is probably the “the most important thing that I have done or that I ever will do professionally.”
“It’s about laying things out and making sure something like Jan. 6 doesn’t happen again,” Luria said. “Yet Mrs. Kiggans will just go to Congress and vote for the people in leadership in her party who want to just ignore this and act like it didn’t happen and go kiss Donald Trump’s ring again. … She does everything she does for political expediency. … She’s not fit to serve in the United States Congress.”
“Shame on you for attacking my character as a fellow female naval officer,” Kiggans replied, going on to call Jan. 6 “a dark day” and insisting “election integrity” and restoring trust in democracy are valid issues to prioritize after Democrats significantly loosened Virginia’s voting laws.
In her initial response to the question about the state of American politics, Kiggans said she’s worked to forge friendships across the aisle while serving in the Virginia General Assembly and faulted President Joe Biden for his recent speech “calling half of the country a threat to democracy.”
“That’s not the right way to proceed,” Kiggans said. “We’re not enemies.”
Luria pointed specifically to a vote Kiggans took in this year’s legislative session on an unsuccessful bill to budget $70 million for an audit of the 2020 election in Virginia.
“I’m not your candidate if you stand with insurrectionists,” Luria said in her closing statement.
After the exchange on elections, debate moderator Chris Saxman, a former Republican delegate who now runs the pro-business nonprofit Virginia FREE, clarified that his question did not equate Democratic rhetoric casting doubt on elections, such as claims Al Gore was the rightful winner in 2000 or Russian hackers swayed the 2016 election to Trump, with the events of Jan. 6. Saxman didn’t cite those specific Democratic claims, but suggested both parties are “to blame” for “deep and destructive divisions that permeate our politics.”
The Hampton Roads-area contest between Luria, a former Navy commander who’s served in Congress since 2019 and Kiggans, a nurse practitioner and former Navy helicopter pilot who joined the state Senate in 2020, is seen as the best opportunity for Republicans to flip a Virginia congressional seat as they look to retake control of the U.S. House. Millions of dollars are flowing into the campaigns in the military-heavy 2nd District, which became more Republican through the recent redistricting process after Luria narrowly flipped it from GOP control in 2018.
Wednesday’s debate, hosted by the Hampton Roads Chamber, showed Luria’s willingness to take the fight to her opponent, even as Kiggans occasionally forced the incumbent to distance herself from Biden administration policies dealing with border security and student loan forgiveness. Because of the business focus, much of the debate centered on military spending and the Hampton Roads economy, with Kiggans repeatedly saying she’d work to “restore strength” to institutions weakened under Democratic rule and Luria arguing that federal legislation coming out of a Democratic Congress is delivering results for the region.
But the back-and-forth over election rhetoric seemed to cause the biggest stir, and both candidates were asked about it as they spoke with reporters afterward.
Kiggans did not answer shouted questions from reporters about whether she feels Biden won the election, but she again characterized Luria’s comment as a low point in the debate.
“We have to have some respect. And I feel like that’s really lacking,” Kiggans said. “It’s been lacking in a lot of parts of this campaign.”
Luria said she wasn’t surprised Kiggans didn’t weigh in on Biden’s victory, and called the senator’s vote for a 2020 election audit a “not very subtle wink and nod” to conspiracy theorists.
“Her only way to get through a Republican primary was to sacrifice her values and say things that she probably doesn’t really believe,” Luria said. “But she won’t tell you that.”
On the debate stage, Luria raised the issue of abortion before the moderator did, saying Kiggans’ assertions about being against government mandates don’t seem to apply “if you’re a woman who’s dying because of a complicated pregnancy.”
Kiggans accused Luria of distorting her position on abortion as a “distraction,” saying she’s pro-life but supports exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake.
“My opponent continues to lie about my stance on abortion,” Kiggans said. “You can see these words coming from my mouth today. It’s been our caucus stance up in Richmond as well. It’s never been a push from me to ban or make abortion illegal.”
Kiggans also said the media isn’t sufficiently pressing Democrats to explain whether they favor any restrictions on abortion at all.
Luria, who argued draconian abortion laws would cause businesses to avoid Virginia, said she supports codifying the now-overturned Roe v. Wade decision. She added that Virginia’s current abortion laws, which gradually add more restrictions in later stages of pregnancy and only allow third-trimester abortions in rare cases, strike the right balance.
Kiggans’ insistence that abortion is now a state issue, Luria said, is inadequate after Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a federal bill to ban most abortions after 15 weeks.
“I just don’t understand why you can’t give an answer,” Luria said. “You’re saying it’s the state level now because you want to go to the federal level.”
Kiggans repeatedly tried to tie Luria to high inflation and elevated gas prices, framing the election as a referendum on economic trends under the Biden administration’s watch.
“Hard-working Americans are hurting from Joe Biden’s disastrous, failed economic policies,” Kiggans said. “And in the 2nd Congressional District, these policies go by the name of Elaine Luria.”
Luria acknowledged “things have gotten more expensive” but disagreed with Kiggans’ diagnosis of the cause, particularly on gas prices.
“Gas prices are high because Vladimir Putin made them high,” Luria said, an apparent reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Asked to rate the current state of the economy on a scale of one to 10, Kiggans gave it a one “or maybe a half.” Luria said she would give it “a more realistic” six.
Kiggans said “wasteful spending” from Washington is fueling inflation.
“That means stop voting for the wasteful spending,” Kiggans said.
Luria said inflation is being caused by “a variety of factors” and accused Kiggans of complaining without recommending any solutions.
Student loan forgiveness
Luria broke with the Biden White House most directly over the administration’s disputed plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for millions of borrowers, an initiative estimated to cost $400 billion.
“I would not have gone about this the way that the president did,” Luria said, adding she favored a more comprehensive approach to the problem of student loan debt.
Kiggans called the proposal, which is being targeted by several legal challenges from conservatives, “offensive” to people who couldn’t afford college or those who had to find other ways to pay for it.
“It’s a slap in the face for our other veterans who might have joined the military for that education benefit,” Kiggans said. “Why should they be forced right now to pay for other people’s college loan forgiveness?”
In response to an open-ended question about America’s southern border, Luria said she didn’t support the Biden administration’s effort to lift Title 42, the Trump-era policy that allowed asylum seekers to be quickly expelled from the country to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Luria said she supports keeping that policy in place until the government can devote more resources to handling the flow of people at the border and address the “significant challenge” of immigration reform.
“We know from every business across this area that people are struggling to find workers,” Luria said. “And comprehensive immigration reform is one of those things that can guarantee that more workers can come to the United States and work legally.”
Kiggans said she and other Republican women recently took a tour of the “wide-open” southern border and concluded “the cartels are running the show down there.”
“It is literally a humanitarian crisis at this moment,” Kiggans said. “One which I do not hear a single Democrat criticizing.”
Luria and Kiggans agreed to two more debates later this month. Election Day is Nov. 8.
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