Virginia’s Luria, Kiggans clash in 2nd District debate

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democratic U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria and her GOP challenger, Jen Kiggans, tangled over federal spending, the economy and abortion restrictions during a combative debate Wednesday, as the two Navy veterans sought to present themselves as the best equipped to represent Virginia’s military-heavy 2nd Congressional District.

Kiggans, a state senator, nurse practitioner and former Navy helicopter pilot, is trying to block Luria, a retired naval commander, from a third term representing the highly competitive district that could help determine party control of the U.S. House in next month’s midterm elections.

In sometimes-fiery exchanges, the candidates offered vastly different perspectives on the state of America’s economy and the other’s record during the approximately hour-and-a-half debate hosted by the Hampton Roads Chamber at an oceanfront hotel.

Luria called Kiggans “an election denier” who is “not fit to serve” because she has repeatedly refused to say plainly that President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. Kiggans has answered questions on the topic — including during an interview with The Associated Press — by simply acknowledging Biden resides in the White House; she declined to answer questions about the 2020 election in a brief exchange with reporters after the debate.

Kiggans said Luria campaigns as a moderate but is actually unwilling to buck Biden or congressional leadership. She said “danger and insanity” in the halls of the Democrat-controlled Congress and what she cast as out-of-control spending have led to an economy “in shambles” and contributed to painfully high inflation.

“This November will be a referendum on what I consider to be failed economic policies from the Joe Biden administration,” she said.

When asked how they would rate the health of the U.S. economy on a scale of one to 10, Kiggans responded with a rating of one or “maybe a half.” Luria offered ”about a six.”

Luria, who referred to her opponent throughout the debate as “Mrs. Kiggans” rather than by her elected title, said Biden administration policies like its version of the Paycheck Protection Program and the American Rescue Plan helped the economy, and especially small businesses, stay afloat and recover from the pandemic.

The candidates were also asked about abortion policy in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, stripping away constitutional protections for abortion.

Luria said she wants to codify Roe’s protections at the federal level and generally supports Virginia law, which allows the procedure during the first and second trimesters and has limits during the third trimester. She argued that limiting abortion would have negative economic impacts by turning away businesses that support abortion rights.

Kiggans called herself a “pro-life” candidate who supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. She said the issue should be left to the states to settle, a position Luria called unreasonable given that legislation has been proposed at the federal level.

The debate ended with a question about America’s divided political climate and what the candidates would do to address it.

Kiggans criticized a September primetime address by Biden, in which the president warned that the “extreme ideology” of former President Donald Trump and his adherents “threatens the very foundation of our republic.” In her answer, Kiggans called the Jan. 6 insurrection a “dark day” but did not mention Trump or his falsehoods about widespread fraud in the election.

Luria, a member of the Jan. 6 committee investigating the 2021 attack on the Capitol, said with her voice rising that Trump’s rhetoric had led to a “clear and present danger in this country.”

“I am not your candidate if you think the election was stolen,” she said, calling Kiggans an “election denier.”

The candidates found a handful of points of agreement, including on encouraging vaccinations against COVID-19, boosting defense spending and working to improve care for veterans’ mental health.

The 2nd district covers much of Virginia’s coast, including the Eastern Shore and the state’s most populous city — Virginia Beach. Although it no longer includes Norfolk, home to the world’s largest naval station, many veterans reside in the district. Luria flipped the district blue under its previous lines; under its new boundaries, GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin would have won it by more than 11 points last year, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers the race a toss-up.

Millions of dollars have been raised and spent already on the race, including over $11.6 million on political ads, according to disclosures compiled by Kantar Media and published by VPAP.

Luria, who served as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer, has cultivated a congressional identity as a centrist since flipping the district blue under its previous lines in 2018. She serves as vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Kiggans, who has represented parts of Virginia Beach and Norfolk in the state Senate since 2020, handily defeated three opponents in the June primary. Kiggans has struggled to overcome Luria’s sizeable fundraising lead. Luria did not face a primary challenger.

The two candidates have agreed also to a candidate forum Oct. 17 in Smithfield and a televised debate Oct. 25, according to Luria’s communications director, Jayce Genco.

All of Virginia’s 11 U.S. House seats, which were redrawn last year during the once-a-decade redistricting process, are being contested in November. Along with the 2nd District, the 7th and 10th Districts in northern Virginia are considered the most competitive.

Early voting began in late September and runs through Nov. 5. Election Day is Nov. 8.

____

This story has been updated to correct the wording of one Luria quote.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.