Scandal Shakes a Virginia House Republican, Adding to Electoral Tremors

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Representative Scott Taylor’s campaign is facing accusations that it was part of an improper effort to help an independent candidate get on the ballot, hurting his Democratic opponent.CreditCreditParker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times
Sept. 23, 2018

VIRGINIA BEACH — Representative Scott Taylor, Republican of Virginia, has enjoyed a rapid political rise anchored in his valorous background as a member of the Navy SEALs, a credential with great resonance in a district that includes the world’s largest naval station and one of the highest concentrations of voters connected to the military. Fit, square-jawed and telegenic, he was expected to have a relatively easy time winning re-election in November.

But now he is threatened with a sudden fall: His campaign is facing accusations that it was part of an improper effort to help an independent candidate get on the ballot and siphon voters from his Democratic challenger. The allegations, which included using the names of dead people or voters who did not live in the district on signature petitions, were serious enough to warrant the appointment of a special prosecutor, and the independent candidate, Shaun Brown, was stricken from the ballot by the Virginia Supreme Court.

Mr. Taylor’s race is emblematic of an emerging problem for Republicans as they seek to maintain an increasingly tenuous grip on the House: A seat once considered relatively safe is now imperiled because of scandal, expanding an already broad field of Democratic opportunity.

Democrats, facing comparatively few legal problems and seeking to portray a “culture of corruption” under Republican leadership, have tried to lump Mr. Taylor in with about a half-dozen other Republican candidates whose campaigns have veered off course over accusations of misconduct. They represent a small fraction of the 23 House seats that Democrats need to reclaim control, but in a year when Democrats were already expected to make gains, their fates could prove crucial.

Representative Chris Collins of New York was indicted on charges of insider trading last month. Last week he abruptly reversed a decision to step down and said he would seek another term, giving Democrats hope they could not have easily envisioned in a deeply conservative area. Representative Duncan Hunter of California was indicted last month on federal charges that he used campaign funds for vacations and personal perks.

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The Navy SEAL Monument along the oceanfront boardwalk in Virginia Beach. The congressional district has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of voters connected to the military.CreditParker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times

Now Mr. Taylor’s reputation has taken a hit, pulling a congressman who won election by 23 percentage points two years ago into a race now considered a tossup by independent analysts. The petition controversy has received extensive coverage in Virginia’s Second Congressional District — which includes the state’s largest city, Virginia Beach — and his challenger, Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander and graduate of the United States Naval Academy, has made a surprisingly strong run.

Mr. Taylor, 39 and in his first term, conceded that he was “aware of the effort to get signatures,” but added in an interview, “What I was not aware of at all was any wrongdoing by anybody at the time.” When he did learn of wrongdoing, he said, he took “swift action and fired senior staff.” He added that he had received assurances he is not personally under investigation.

“If people did something wrong, they should be held accountable for it,” he said. “Anyone, to the very top.” Democrats, he said, have overreached, and their attacks are serving to energize his electoral base.

Ms. Luria, 43, said she found Mr. Taylor’s explanation wanting. “I think it’s obvious that people call into question his integrity, his ability to lead and to stand up for what’s right,” she said. “When you are in the Navy and in command, you can delegate authority, but you can never delegate responsibility.”

Donald Caldwell, the special prosecutor in the case, declined to comment about the investigation and whether it would conclude before the election. “The State Police are conducting the investigation and that’s all I can say,” Mr. Caldwell said.

In this congressional district, signs of a military presence are never far away. Along this city’s boardwalk, numerous statues serve as tributes, including the Navy SEAL Monument, where a warrior in a swimsuit is bracketed by the words “Honor” and “Valor” in gold.

Mr. Taylor’s challenger, Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander and graduate of the United States Naval Academy, has made a surprisingly strong run.CreditJulia Rendleman for The New York Times

At any moment, a fighter jet might be streaking through the sky, and ships can be seen up and down the coast most days.

Mr. Taylor and Ms. Luria have both leaned hard on their military résumés, though they are of strikingly different temperament. Mr. Taylor has a swaggering manner, while Ms. Luria is more reserved and cerebral.

“Taylor has always been known as a really hard charger,” said Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University in nearby Newport News who also conducts polling in Virginia. “He plays hard. Electoral politics is a combat sport, and for him is not a light contact sport. It’s like rugby. In some ways his supporters have liked that.

“His ethics and moral standing is unquestioned until they think it is questionable. And that’s what’s bothering people. It’s one thing to play hard. It’s another to cross a line.”

While both sides have spent heavily on advertising, the coverage of the petition controversy seems to have more clearly broken through.

“This being a military town, this is where honor, civility and integrity are among the biggest things,” said Valerie Jones, a senior producer for a public television station. In her neighborhood, she said, the scandal is “not playing well. Not at all.”

“This being a military town, this is where honor, civility and integrity are among the biggest things,” said Valerie Jones, a senior producer for a public television station.CreditParker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times

Jeremy Waters, a retired Marine who lost a Republican primary to Mr. Taylor in a race for the Virginia legislature several years ago, doubted that Mr. Taylor would lose much support among military families. “I think where you are going to see it resonate is with independent voters,” he said. “I’ve spoken to several people in the last couple of weeks who were Taylor supporters who said, ‘I really want to find out what is going on here.’”

Mr. Waters counted himself among them. “I voted for Taylor last time, but right now I am kind of up in the air,” he said.

Another veteran, and a Naval Academy graduate, Matt Maxwell, said he was leaning toward Mr. Taylor because he found Ms. Luria too liberal. Asked about the petition scandal, Mr. Maxwell said he did not “moralize politics.”

“I just look at the issues and see what’s best,” he said.

Mr. Taylor initially referred to the revelations about the improper petitions as a “nothingburger,” an assessment he has since revised. “The thing that got me, and bugged some people, was the fact that he was so blasé about it,” said Chris Bonney, a market researcher who supports Ms. Luria.

“She’s sharp as a tack, a methodical thinker and can be a very good representative and play well with others,” Mr. Bonney said of Ms. Luria. Mr. Taylor comes “from sort of the bad-boy part of defense. SEAL team guys, and there are lots of them around here, sort of play by their own rules because they are trained to do things that don’t fit in normal channels.”

While Mr. Taylor conceded that the petition scandal and Democratic attacks have caused at least temporary damage, he remained confident he would win. He said he was well known, and well liked in the area. At a Starbucks, he was quick to greet patrons, including several who told him he had their votes.

Ashley Betz was one of them. After making small talk with the congressman, she asked him to pose with her for a selfie. He quickly replied with a practiced smile. “He’s so well known,” Ms. Betz said. “Everybody respects him. He has our total support.”

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