By Dana Bash and Abbie Sharpe, CNN
Helen Anoia puts gas in her truck but does not fill up the tank.
“I’m only going to get a few cents right now,” she said, explaining that she has a dollar-off coupon that she’s waiting to use.
“I’ll be able to have a little bit more savings by the end of the month,” she said. “The prices are outrageous.”
Anoia is one of many voters here in Virginia Beach who are feeling financially squeezed by inflation and the higher gas costs. She’s undecided about how she will vote in this critical midterm election but says that she’s exhausted by life’s challenges right now.
“I just want to be able to feel like I don’t have to think about every little detail,” she said as she monitored the numbers rapidly flipping upward on the gas pump beside her.
It is this kind of discontent that Republicans are banking on to help them flip the House in November, and Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District is one of their biggest targets.
Incumbent Democrat Elaine Luria was a so-called majority maker in 2018. She turned what was a red district blue, giving Democrats control of the House. Now, the two-term Democrat is trying to hold on to her seat, not just for her own viability but for that of her party and its agenda in Washington.
“If you look across the spectrum of the country, this is number 218, statistically,” Luria told CNN, meaning that she sees her seat as the one likely to decide which party has 218 votes — the minimum number needed for majority control of the 435-member House of Representatives.
During an interview at her campaign office in Suffolk, Luria brushed off the pressure that comes with being a candidate in such a key House race.
“I spent 20 years in the Navy,” she quipped. “I’m used to the pressure.”
Luria is a retired naval commander who served on six warships as a nuclear trained surface warfare officer. This year, her Republican challenger, state Sen. Jen Kiggans, is also a Navy veteran. Kiggans was a helicopter pilot in the Navy and is now a nurse.
The two women are competing for a seat in the commonwealth’s Tidewater area that has swung between parties four times since 2000 — a rare remaining political battleground in a largely gerrymandered House where most district lines are drawn to protect seats of both parties.
In Kiggans’ paid ads, her main focus is economic issues, showing herself putting groceries in her car and lamenting the high cost of food.
Those concerns were echoed by Virginia Beach voter Jason Feteke outside a grocery store as he recently pushed a cart full of food for his family.
“This was $127. A year and a half ago, it would’ve been $75, $80,” he said, gesturing to his cart. “The price of groceries, the price of gas, the price of everything that’s going up.”
Feteke said he is fiercely independent politically. He has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, but this November he intends to support the GOP.
“I’m going to vote for Kiggans. She’s the most likely to make changes. Right now, Elaine Luria is just voting with everybody else for the Inflation Reduction Act, which doesn’t reduce inflation. Since she’s not really concerned about my family and what we’re trying to do, it’s a no brainer, it’s not even close right now,” Feteke said.
But not all voters in this battleground district blame Democrats for high prices. Across the parking lot, Ryan Farmer was quietly cursing the cost of the gas he was putting in his car but said he will still vote for Luria.
“I don’t care who’s president. Gas prices are going to be expensive. It is what it is right now,” he told CNN. “I don’t think that anyone who goes out and says, ‘Oh, this is because of whoever’s in charge,’ I don’t think that’s just true.”
Early voting is underway
On the first day of early voting in Virginia, Luria campaigned in a conservative area in Suffolk. Supporters were waiting outside the polling place to meet the congresswoman.
“I’m going to put this sign in my yard,” one voter told her. “First time I’ve put a sign out.”
The Kiggans campaign declined to share information with CNN about any events with voters. She’s been communicating with voters via paid advertisements and videos on social media. Her campaign declined a request for an interview with the candidate but did suggest a surrogate — Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares — who blamed Democrats’ policies in Washington for Virginians’ economic woes.
“She’s voted with (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi over 98% of the time, and so much of this is being driven by the spending in Washington,” Miyares, a Republican, said about Luria. “We know Washington has a spending problem. They’re spending too much money. They flooded too much money into our economy, and now everything is costing more.”
Luria said in an interview that she understands that “this is very difficult for people.”
“Prices have gone up. Gas prices were very high, and they’re coming down rapidly now, so I understand that’s been a big strain on people in the community. And the policies we voted on are things that are meant to help people, such as cutting prescription drug costs,” she said.
“When I first ran, that was one of the things that I was talking about. It was important to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug costs, to cap the price of drugs for seniors, to cap the price of insulin, and we passed legislation like that. It’s been signed into law by the President.”
But she also walks the finest of lines when asked about President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings have gone up in recent weeks but are still relatively low.
“As far as the President’s agenda, I don’t support everything. I honestly think that he’s not doing enough for defense. That’s the reason that I basically criticized the budget that was going to shrink the size of the Navy,” Luria said.
January 6th Committee
Luria is one of nine members of the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. She admits that when she was first appointed, she worried it could hurt her at home politically. But, she said, it turns out that when people come up to talk to her in her district, “90%” of the time it is to thank her for her work on the January 6 insurrection probe.
“People really do understand what a threat this is to our democracy. … My opponent is somebody who won’t say Joe Biden won the election — she’s like, ‘Well, he lives in the White House, but I wish he didn’t,'” Luria said.
Luria also points out that in the state Senate, Kiggans was one of four Republicans who voted to approve $70 million to audit the 2020 election in Virginia.
“Joe Biden won the election,” said Miyares, the Virginia attorney general and Kiggans campaign surrogate. “I knew a lot of voters personally that voted Republicans for Congress and other offices, but voted for a change in the White House.”
When asked about Kiggans’ position, Miyares said: “Every time I’ve ever talked to Jen, she thinks Joe Biden won the election as President.” But the 2020 election is over, and voters are now focusing on “spending in Washington and the fact there’s no check and balance,” he added.
To be sure, it’s not as if “election integrity” as a political issue has gone away among Virginia Republicans. In fact, Miyares recently announced an Election Integrity Unit in the commonwealth that opponents have criticized as unnecessary and a drain on resources from other state agencies.
“One of our roles is we both advise state agencies, including the Department of Elections. The other, we have original jurisdiction on enforcing violations of election law. I wanted everybody to be on the same sheet of music, and I think it’s an important role,” Miyares said. “It’s one role of many that we carry in our office, but we already have existing election laws, so no new lawyers. It’s people already in our office all being basically in the same division.”
Like other Democrats in tough races across the country, Luria is hoping that outrage over the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade will help drive her voters to the polls.
Much of her well-funded campaign has been focused on paid advertisements that point out that Kiggans applauded Roe’s reversal and argue that Kiggans’ anti-abortion views would put women’s health in danger.
That prompted Kiggans to release a carefully scripted video through social media insisting that she does support abortion in the cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk.
Luria said flatly that Kiggins “couldn’t tell you what the hell she believes.”
“I mean, she goes back and forth. She’s unapologetically pro-life. She’ll say, ‘life begins at conception,'” Luria said. “You know, I don’t believe anything this woman says. She, in my mind, has no spine. She really just says whatever she thinks she needs to say to get elected, and that changes every other week.”
Miyares said Kiggans has indicated she would support a 15-week ban.
“Most of Europe has some levels of abortion limits after 12 weeks,” he said. “That’s very different than her opponent’s position, which is abortion anytime, anywhere, for any reason up until the moment of birth, paid for by taxpayers.”
When asked if she supports any restrictions on abortion, Luria said she supports the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established a federal constitutional right to abortion before fetal viability. Luria voted twice in the House to codify the Roe decision into law.
Whether it is abortion rights or the 2020 election, Luria’s main argument against her GOP opponent has been that Kiggans is an extremist whose policy positions are not representative of a swing district.
That prompted Kiggans to release an ad pushing back, announcing straight to camera that she’s been called a lot of things, but “extremist? That’s a new one.”
Kiggans is leaning hard into the fact that she is a geriatric nurse and mom — relatable parts of her resume.
Whether Kiggans can pull that off, and whether she can ride the anti-Washington sentiment that is traditionally a factor in a president’s first midterm election, will help determine which party controls Congress next year.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Suffolk, Virginia, is a city.
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