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At a town hall meeting in her district this week, Elaine Luria of Virginia heard loudly from both sides of the political spectrum. Many in the crowd of a few hundred applauded when the Democratic congresswoman defended her decision to support an impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump. But strong boos rose clearly over the cheers.
The issue of impeachment resonates in this competitive congressional district. In addition to a large military presence, it has the kind of suburban women voters who helped flip many Republican-held congressional seats Democratic in 2018.
And now, places like Virginia’s 2nd District will play an important role in what happens next – both in the 2020 election and perhaps even sooner if House members have to make a politically sensitive vote on impeachment.
“I know that this is an incendiary flashpoint, impeaching, because we’re so polarized,” says Denise Kline, a retired Navy veteran at the town hall, who has sometimes voted Republican. But she supports the Democrats’ investigation. “It doesn’t matter which party you are, because I believe it’s a dereliction of duty if we allow this behavior to continue.”
Denise Kline strolls up the driveway toward the glass doors of the New Hope Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, purse looped over her shoulder and notebook in hand. She’s here partly to show her support for Rep. Elaine Luria, who is hosting a town hall inside.
Mostly Ms. Kline is eager, if anxious, to hear what her fellow voters have to say to Ms. Luria about impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
“I know that this is an incendiary flashpoint, impeaching, because we’re so polarized,” Ms. Kline says. But ever since documents surfaced relating to Mr. Trump’s July 25 conversation with the president of Ukraine, she – like her congresswoman – says that an investigation is the only honorable path to take. “I feel as if the Democrats must do this. We all should do this, actually,” Ms. Kline says. “It doesn’t matter which party you are, because I believe it’s a dereliction of duty if we allow this behavior to continue.”
Ms. Kline, in many ways, sums up everything that led to this political moment. Like so many in Virginia Beach, she and her husband are retired military – she from the Navy, he from the Army. She is an old-school Democrat and has always considered Franklin D. Roosevelt a hero, though she’s voted for Republicans in the past.
Mr. Trump, however, drove her to make politics a personal priority. In 2018, she went canvassing for the first time in her life on behalf of Ms. Luria’s campaign, making her part of the surge of suburban women who turned out in the midterms to help Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Now it’s voters like Ms. Kline, in competitive districts like this one, who will likely influence what happens next – both in the 2020 election and perhaps even sooner if House members have to make a politically sensitive vote on impeachment.
“This is where everything is flowing together in terms of the trends of the last couple years,” says John McGlennon, who teaches government and public policy at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. “It’s definitely one of those districts that, by virtue of its suburban character and the increasing movement of suburban voters and women toward the Democrats, has become bluer. But it’s still within the range of competition.”
A high-turnover district
If Virginia’s 2nd District has a defining characteristic, it’s the outsize presence of the U.S. armed forces. The region is home to nine major military centers, including the world’s biggest naval base in Norfolk, and to one of the largest concentrations of combined retired and active military personnel in the country. It’s not unusual to hear aircraft zooming overhead, or come across veteran-owned businesses with names like The Landing Zone or Warriors Taphouse.
The district is also primarily suburban, with sprawling Virginia Beach, population about 460,000, at its core. One of the truisms of the Trump era is that turnout from suburban voters, especially women, drove the Democratic wave that followed Mr. Trump’s election in 2016. They were the force behind Democrats’ huge gains in the Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate in 2017. In 2018, they helped make Ms. Luria one of three Democratic women to flip GOP-held congressional seats in the state.
The combination makes for a swing district in the truest sense. The district’s congressional representation has been mostly Republican over the past two decades, but no member has held the seat longer than three terms in that period. Ms. Luria’s Republican predecessor, Scott Taylor, opposed the transgender ban in the military and co-sponsored both an anti-discrimination bill and a marijuana legalization law.
Scott Rigell, who held the seat before Mr. Taylor, ended up resigning from the Virginia Beach Republican Party over his strong opposition to Mr. Trump’s candidacy. The last Democrat to represent the district, Glenn Nye, was a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition.
Ms. Luria herself served in the Navy for 20 years, retiring as a commander in 2017. Though progressive on social issues, she’s cast herself as a pragmatist willing to work with Republicans on common sense legislation, particularly around defense and security.
That strategy was put to the test over the summer, after a city employee fatally shot 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building in May. As the state General Assembly hotly debated next steps, Ms. Luria urged the U.S. Senate to take up a pair of bipartisan background check bills passed by the House.
She also introduced, and helped pass, one bill that would ensure that donations to families of victims would be tax deductible, and another to rename a local post office after one of the victims, who died saving his co-workers from the shooter. During her listening tour earlier this week in York County – one of the redder areas of her district – Ms. Luria also met privately with about 70 members of the Lafayette Gun Club, one of the biggest such groups in the country, to discuss Second Amendment protections.
Chad Green, the Republican vice chairman of the York County Board of Supervisors who arranged the meeting, says he appreciated that she took time to sit down with constituents who support gun rights. “We had a very nice conversation,” he says in a phone interview.
“I have no reason to believe that Ms. Luria is anything but a very honorable and upstanding individual,” he adds, “even though my beliefs and hers might not be exactly the same.”
Town hall tension
At the town hall Thursday night, the split in opinion was on full display – especially over impeachment.
Though the crowd of a few hundred was largely supportive, applauding when Ms. Luria defended her decision to support House Democrats’ investigation of the president, loud boos rose clearly over the cheers. The Rev. Dr. James Allen, the moderator tasked with reading constituents’ questions from color-coded cards they’d filled in ahead of the event, warned hecklers that he had no qualms about kicking them out if they got too out of hand. One white-haired man left midway through, shaking his head.
A small group of anti-impeachment protesters, wearing red MAGA hats and holding a big “Trump 2020” sign, clustered outside.
“It’s a waste of time,” says Vincent Smith, a Republican and a city of Virginia Beach employee who wanted to hear Ms. Luria talk about her plans to ensure public safety. Mr. Smith says he came away from the meeting unimpressed – by the congresswoman’s response to his question, by what he viewed as the town hall’s overly controlled setup, and by the focus on impeachment.
“As soon as this topic goes away and is debunked ... they’re going to find another one” against Mr. Trump, he says.
Ms. Luria at first tried to defuse the tension. “I appreciate your enthusiasm,” she told supporters in the audience, “but I truly feel that this is a sad time.” The only reason she’s supporting an impeachment inquiry is that the president’s behavior convinced her she needed to act, she added, repeating an argument that she and six other freshmen with military and intelligence backgrounds laid out in an Op-Ed last month.
“I didn’t spend 20 years in uniform, defending our country, to watch something like this happen,” Ms. Luria said – to resounding applause.
By the end of the hour-and-a-half meeting, it was clear that the political crosswinds that had gusted last year are still blowing, with an influence that’s especially pivotal in districts like Ms. Luria’s. Political observers expect hints from the results of Virginia’s state and local elections this November, as Democrats try to wrest control of the House of Delegates and state Senate, both of which the GOP narrowly holds.
“For the Democrats, this’ll be an example of whether the post-Trump energy can still be revved up one more time,” says Bob Holsworth, a veteran political analyst in Richmond. “And for Republicans, have they found a way to win in Virginia in the Trump era?”
“It’s a very competitive district, and it would remain so,” he adds.
Ms. Kline, the Navy veteran, knows full well the scales could tip against Ms. Luria and the Democrats next year. She says she plans to stick with her newfound activism, maybe even bring in some friends. “Yeah, I’ll probably do it again,” Ms. Kline says. “I believe in her. I believe in the country.”