In the first major federal elections after the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the concerted effort by Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 election seems to be having little impact on voters. Instead, they find a sagging economy and rising crime to be far more relevant than more abstract concerns about democracy, and appear likely to hand Republicans control of the House of Representatives.
That’s even the case here in Virginia’s heavily military Second Congressional District, where one might think voters would feel even more protective about democracy than those in other parts of the country, and where the economy is relatively insulated from some of the pain of inflation and a potential recession. Defense spending remains constant regardless of the price of gas or the stock market, and the fact that many voters can buy through the federal commissary system means that rising prices take less of a bite out of pocketbooks than they do elsewhere.
That insulation isn’t protecting the district’s two-term incumbent, Democrat Elaine Luria, from an uphill reelection fight. Luria is on the January 6 committee and has played a visible role in the nationally televised hearings about the attack on the Capitol.
In many ways, the race is playing out like most other competitive races this cycle. Luria has run ads touting her accomplishments in Congress and emphasizing abortion in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision while her opponent, state Sen. Jen Kiggans, focuses on the economic struggles and ties Luria to Nancy Pelosi as a party-line Democrat. However, the attack on the Capitol plays more of a role in this race than it does in others because of a combination of Luria’s service on the committee and the hope that the issue might resonate more with voters with ties to the military.
It isn’t resonating enough to overcome all the factors cutting against Luria, including the electorate’s displeasure with Democrats’ control of government and a district that was redrawn to lean more Republican. A recent poll in the district had Luria tied 45-45 with Kiggans, not an ideal place for an incumbent only weeks before Election Day.
Luria’s priorities are running up against voters’
Luria, who spent 20 years serving in the Navy, retiring as a commander, gives off the precise air of the nuclear engineer she is, and no one would ever mistake her for a backslapping politician. Luria is a diligent and methodical speaker in public, talking about the military in acronyms in debates and rhapsodizing about her enjoyment of the “technical aspect” of learning languages in response to a question at a local meeting of the Junior League.
“How do you decline a noun? How do you conjugate a verb? How does it all fit together? What order do they go in a sentence? So I think it was probably sort of like part of my very methodical thought process,” she told a crowd of about 30 in Virginia Beach, over plates of chicken and glasses of white wine.
The challenges facing American democracy were not as easily soluble in her view. Speaking to Vox after the dinner, Luria said two things kept her up at night: the threats posed to the United States from within and without. “If we can’t preserve our democracy, and we can’t stand up to China, nothing else matters,” she said. The threat from China, though, was not an issue in the race; the threat to American democracy was.
Speaking to Vox, Luria expressed her disappointment that Republicans were not dealing with the gravity of the attack on the Capitol and directed her ire specifically at her opponent, state Sen. Kiggans. “She won’t say Biden was legitimately elected president, even though she’ll dance around it. ‘He really lives in the White House. I wish he didn’t. He is the president. He’s ruining the economy,’ and all these petty and flippant remarks that don’t have the seriousness or gravity of someone who is trying to take that responsibility of writing and upholding the laws of the country. There is a spectrum, some folks are a lot more vocally spewing conspiracy theories and other things, but she certainly in my mind has refused to acknowledge the facts.”
When asked if she thinks Kiggans knows what she is saying is wrong, Luria responded, “That’s the part that bothers me about it the most. I absolutely think that she doesn’t believe what she said, as a person. She doesn’t believe that but she feels she has to say it.”
Kiggans is no Marjorie Taylor Greene. First elected in 2019, she is a mother of four with a gold-plated political resume. After serving 10 years as a Navy helicopter pilot, she became a geriatric nurse. While she isn’t a bomb thrower, the Republican hopeful is also not a polished communicator and has been particularly press-shy during her congressional campaign. Her campaign did not respond to repeated phone calls, text messages, and voicemails.
At a public appearance with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, she took two quick questions from a national television reporter before running off. When asked about January 6, Kiggans said, “Of all the doors we’ve knocked, we never hear any complaints about January 6. Economy, economy, economy.” In response to a follow-up, the Republican candidate responded, “Joe Biden’s the president. He’s destroying the country. We say it every time. Said it just a couple days ago in the debate.” Her responses were indeed almost identical to what she had said in a debate earlier that week.
In conversations with voters at an early-voting location in Virginia Beach, the economy weighed far more heavily than the attack on the Capitol. While jets from a nearby Naval Air Station roared overhead, those coming and going from casting their ballots didn’t view January 6 as a factor. Mike Malbon told Vox that he had voted for Kiggans. Although he had never voted for Luria, he described himself as a swing voter who had voted for Trump, Obama, and George W. Bush. Malbon said his vote was based on the fact that he was “just not really happy with what the Democrats were doing.” When asked if he’d thought about January 6 while voting, Malbon said, “I’ve thought about it for sure. I probably would never vote for Trump again, I would have otherwise.”
Melinda Salmons, who said she was voting for Kiggans because she thought Luria was in Nancy Pelosi’s pocket, echoed this. When asked about Trump, she told Vox, “Donald Trump doesn’t affect me one way or another. The man is not running. I’m like a lot of people, I like what my pocketbook says. I do not like what he says.”
One person at the polling place freely brought up past election issues. Pilar Eteke, who said she was an observer for the Republican Party, told Vox about how “globalists” have been “rigging elections for at least 20 years on behalf of both parties.” It was her first election cycle working as a poll observer, and Eteke, who raved about an Ohio-based QAnon influencer, expressed broad concerns about how poll workers at the early-voting site were doing their jobs.
“See how you feel when we’ve lost our democracy”
Luria acknowledged that voters were struggling with high inflation. “I’m very sensitive to the fact that it is a difficult time economically for people right now, gas prices, consumer prices, you know, paying more than you’re accustomed to at the grocery store.”
The poll that had Luria tied with Kiggans also showed that 39 percent of voters in the southeast Virginia congressional district had the economy as their top issue. Only 14 percent ranked threats to democracy as their top issue, which lagged behind abortion as well as the economy. This was reflected nationally: In a recent national poll conducted by the New York Times and Siena College, only 8 percent of voters thought “the state of democracy” was the most important issue facing the country, lagging far behind the 44 percent who picked either the economy or inflation. Further, a Republican operative familiar with the race noted to Vox that January 6 just wasn’t an issue that seemed to be moving voters at all in polling.
But Luria pushed back pointedly when asked about the fact that voters were not terribly concerned about the state of American democracy. “I’m just tired of answering this question,” she said. “It should be front of mind for everyone. Just wake up on January 20, 2025, and see how you feel when we’ve lost our democracy.”
And she wasn’t shying away from the topic on paid media; she made it the focus of her closing television ad.
After redistricting made the district less friendly to her and national trends looked ugly, Luria was confident in the decisions she made. “If it’s not popular with voters and I don’t win reelection, I’ll be able to sleep at night because I know I did the right thing ... in the long run, I think I’m on the right side of it, and the economy will recover. Democracy may not.”