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Representative Elaine Luria Shipyard

Rep. Elaine Luria, vice chair, House Armed Services Committee-Seapower subcommittee, center, during a tour of US Navy Aircraft Carrier Ford. Rep. Luria visited Ford to see firsthand the progress the ship is making during its post-shakedown availability and to speak directly to Ford leadership and Sailors. (U.S. Navy photo by Zachary Melvin/ Released)

Top US Shipbuilding Advocate Faces Difficult Election

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October 23, 2022

Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA), a veteran US Navy ship driver who is one of the nation’s strongest advocates for US shipbuilding, is facing stiff competition in the upcoming elections from a former naval aviator over the issue of abortion.

By Laura Litvan (Bloomberg) In any other election year, two Navy veterans vying to represent a Virginia district dominated by military interests would focus on their national security bonafides. 

Instead, the race between two women on opposite sides of the abortion debate has turned one of the nation’s closest House contests into a referendum on Roe v. Wade. 

The bellwether district, which includes Virginia Beach and its Oceana Naval Base, skewed more Republican after redistricting brought in more GOP-heavy areas, hurting incumbent Representative Elaine Luria’s prospects for a third term. 

Also Read: RIGHTSIZING THE FLEET, Why the US Navy’s new shipbuilding plan is not enough. By Representative Elaine Luria

But the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning a constitutional right to an abortion shook up the race and put GOP challenger Jen Kiggans, a self-described “champion for the unborn,” suddenly on the defensive after months of hammering Democrats on soaring inflation and the weakening economy. 

In good news for Kiggans, a state senator, nurse practitioner and former Navy pilot, and other Republicans who have centered their campaigns on President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy, inflation continues to dominate all other issues, with 82% of Americans saying rising costs are extremely or very important to them in a Sept. 21 to 25 Monmouth University poll of 806 adult Americans. Abortion ranked seventh of 12 issues in terms of importance, with 56% of those surveyed considering it extremely or very important. 

Yet that number changes significantly when broken down by party, and Democrats see a winning strategy in concentrating on abortion rights. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats — compared to 40% of Republicans — consider abortion extremely or very important. In Virginia, the abortion decision has sparked an 8% jump in the state’s female voter registration, according to Democratic data analytics firm TargetSmart. There was no such gender gap in 2020.

“Without that issue, the district would lean Republican rather than be a toss-up,” said J. Miles Coleman, the associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

Biden, seeking to rally his party’s voters, on Tuesday vowed to make legislation codifying abortion rights the first bill he’ll send to the new Congress next year if more Democrats are elected to Congress.

Interviews with dozens of voters in this coastal Virginia district confirmed Coleman’s take. Abortion rights is the premiere issue for Democrats and the Supreme Court decision has convinced some independents and Republicans to vote for Luria.

“I’m concerned about the Supreme Court and its politicization,” said Ken Chapman, 60, who owns Chapman’s Market at the Virginia Beach Farmers Market and says he was a lifelong Republican until 2020. “Republicans packed the court.”

Luria, a retired Navy commander, has pummeled Kiggans on abortion in a series of attack ads, saying Kiggans “applauded” and “celebrated” the Supreme Court decision. Luria, who favors codifying Roe v. Wade, painted Kiggans as an extremist who supports no exceptions for abortions.

Kiggans countered with an ad saying she’s been called lots of things, but “extremist? That’s a new one.” She then immediately pivoted back to inflation and the economy. 

Luria seized on abortion again during an Oct. 12 debate, before the moderator even asked. Kiggans argued that Luria misrepresented her position and that she wants exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake.

“I’ve never made it my goal to ban or make abortion illegal at the federal level,” she said at the debate. Kiggans did not answer more detailed questions on her position after the debate and declined an interview for this article. 

Long-Simmering Debate

Abortion politics were raging in Virginia well before the Supreme Court’s decision. Democrats won control of the state Legislature in 2019 for the first time in two decades and the next year passed legislation rolling back multiple abortion restrictions and codifying new protections. Kiggans opposed the legislation.

In 2021, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governorship and the GOP retook the House of Delegates. Youngkin has said he would move to ban most abortions after 15 weeks — a tough climb with Democrats still in control of the state Senate.

“Here in Virginia we don’t have any snap-back laws or any of those kinds of things going into effect immediately, but people understand the importance on the federal level of having people in office who are going to protect that right” Luria said in an interview in the district.

That includes Belinda Whittaker of Chesapeake, who persuaded her 21-year-old granddaughter, Aryn Lovell, to join her in early voting because “it’s about women getting the right kind of health care when they need it.”

Middle of the Road

The Luria-Kiggans race is playing out in a place that’s literally in the center of US politics. The district ranks 218 of 435 House districts in the range of pro-Biden and pro-Donald Trump districts in 2020, according to Coleman’s research. 

Luria, who in 2018 helped win Democrats their House majority, is one of almost 40 frontline Democrats whose races will determine whether Republicans take control of the House. 

What was once expected to be a conservative wave, thanks to economic woes and historical trends favoring the party out of power, has turned into a ripple. Political analysts haven’t counted Democrats out of keeping control of the 50-50 Senate and perhaps hanging onto the House, particularly if incumbents like Luria hold on. 

Yet in a district so evenly split, abortion isn’t always a winning issue for Luria. 

“I believe very much that life beings at conception, and these babies deserve protections in the law,” said Victoria Kieser, a 29-year-old independent voter and stay-at-home mom who is voting on abortion. She says she agrees with Luria on some issues, but can’t vote for her now.

Republicans, at the same time, are benefiting from stubborn inflation in the weeks before the election. 

Pausing during his lunch at Warriors Taphouse in Virginia Beach, Fred Wilson, a 54-year-old military training contractor, said his 401(k) “is dying,” his grocery and gas costs have risen dramatically, and he worries about the security of his grown childrens’ jobs. He’s voting for Kiggans.

And at the annual Suffolk Peanut Festival, Amanda Lakey said she’s a Republican and will stick with her party this year. She blames Biden for inflation and worries about paying her mortgage. 

“We didn’t know if we would have the money to pay for everything,” added Lakey, 41. “Everything keeps going up.”

Also Read: RIGHTSIZING THE FLEET, Why the US Navy’s new shipbuilding plan is not enough. By Representative Elaine Luria

By Laura Litvan With assistance from Gregory Korte. © 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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