Legal Drama Endangers a GOP Seat in Coastal Virginia

Democrats hope a criminal probe surrounding Scott Taylor’s campaign helps a top recruit flip his district.

Rep. Scott Taylor during an interview in his campaign office in Virginia Beach, Va. on Oct. 7, 2016
AP Photo/Steve Helber
Sept. 6, 2018, 8 p.m.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.—A Tidewater congressional seat suddenly appears more at risk of getting caught in the surf of a blue wave.

Democrats intent on winning a Virginia Beach-based battleground have zeroed in on Republican Rep. Scott Taylor as he’s become embroiled in an ominous legal scandal involving campaign aides accused of submitting forged signatures to secure a ballot spot for a third-party candidate capable of siphoning Democratic votes.

The drama fits neatly into an existing Democratic narrative that the GOP's House majority is caught in a culture of corruption.

“I didn’t tell anybody to do anything illegal,” Taylor said in an interview Wednesday just outside the Capitol. “I would never do that. So I don’t care what they say.”

Citing “out-and-out fraud,” a judge booted independent Shaun Brown off the ballot during a hearing Wednesday for a civil suit brought by the state Democratic Party. A separate criminal investigation is still underway into the collection of signatures for the petitions, which contained names of the deceased and those who had moved out-of-state. A local woman whose name appeared on it is suing one of Taylor’s staffers for $2.4 million.

But the congressman, a former Navy SEAL with a confident personality, is projecting little concern about the prospect of an extended probe in the final stretch of the campaign. He deemed the lawsuit "clearly political and quite frankly an abuse of the court system" and said Democrats were "making a mountain out of a molehill.”

In court, several of Taylor’s current and former campaign staffers declined to answer questions on whether the congressman directed their efforts, invoking their right against self-incrimination. Elaine Luria, the Democratic nominee, and the state party suggested Wednesday that the move raised serious questions about Taylor’s involvement.

Asked if he was concerned about his staffers’ use of the 5th Amendment, Taylor was unperturbed: “No, why would it be a problem?”

Still, Democrats are emboldened about their prospects in the district, which narrowly backed President Trump and Mitt Romney, but swung for Democrat Ralph Northam in the 2017 governor race. Parts of Norfolk and the Eastern Shore fall within its boundaries, and it includes the kinds of affluent suburbs where the president has struggled to gain popularity. Trump’s job approval in the 2nd has been underwater by double digits for nearly a year, including in recent polling, according to a national Democratic source familiar with internal surveys.

National and local Democrats are intensely persecuting Taylor over the legal saga and say it has left him increasingly vulnerable. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is airing a TV ad backed by a six-figure buy that highlights a slew of unflattering local headlines about Taylor.

The state party subpoenaed him to appear at Wednesday’s hearing, though a judge quashed the request.

“It’s serious,” Sen. Tim Kaine said last weekend while campaigning with Luria at a Democratic breakfast in Virginia Beach. “It’s one thing to try to help somebody who might hurt your opponent. But if there were forged signatures or other fraudulent activity, that’s very different than just politics as usual.”

In a 20-minute interview Tuesday evening as the House returned from August recess, Taylor acknowledged that he knew his staffers were collecting petitions for Brown but vehemently denied any wrongdoing. He declined to answer specifics about the case during the investigation, but insisted that he would not be implicated: "Let it come out. Let people be held accountable if they did something wrong. Cool. I’m fine with that."

Taylor said he felt confident in his reelection and that his polling shows him in a strong position, with his name identification at almost 90 percent.

In 2016, he easily carried Virginia Beach, which encompasses 60 percent of the district’s population, but his Democratic opponent last cycle—the same woman whom the judge ordered removed from the ballot—raised little money and spent just $34,000. She was also indicted last year on felony fraud charges.

This time, Democrats landed an impressive recruit in Luria, who spent two decades in the Navy, rising to the rank of commander, and later founded the Mermaid Factory, a studio where visitors can paint plaster mermaids and dolphins.

On the trail, Luria is focusing on Taylor's voting record. At a meet-and-greet last week in Alanton, an upscale neighborhood in northern Virginia Beach, she criticized the congressman for failing to protect health care, reject corporate donations, and limit offshore drilling. She didn't mention the pending lawsuit or criminal investigation in a 15-minute speech.

She uses her ties to some of the area’s biggest revenue drivers—the military and tourism—to appeal to voters. Luria discussed her time commanding a combat unit in Virginia Beach and said she hoped to create an environment where small businesses like hers could continue to flourish.

“Who knew there was so much demand for mermaids,” she said to laughter. “I like to tell people you can’t go wrong with 17 colors of glitter and free wine.”

As an audience of about 40 munched on donkey-shaped cookies, Luria swiftly ran through the intricacies of public options that could expand health care coverage and how a rollback of Obama-era environmental standards affects aquifers in the rural parts of the Eastern Shore.

“She’s probably the strongest candidate Democrats could select for this area,” said Bruce Meyer, a former 2nd District GOP chairman and a Taylor ally. He conceded “the petition scandal could cost him 1 or 2 points” but said Democrats’ successful attempt to oust Shaun Brown could alienate her base and hurt Luria by a similar margin.

Taylor’s Republican supporters said they felt voters would separate the congressman from the mistakes made by those on his staff. Taylor dispatched with his campaign consultant after he learned of the forgery, but it's not clear if the lower-level staffers who submitted the petitions still work for him.

Democrats subpoenaed those aides and claimed Taylor didn’t fire everyone involved in filing the petitions.

"I’m in charge of my ship, and there are junior sailors who may not know better," Taylor said. He again declined to go into specifics because of the pending investigation but said he had fired higher-ranking employees. The "commanding officer" is the one he said he holds accountable for making "sure that those junior sailors don’t screw up."

Yet, all the emphasis on linking Taylor to the fraudulent petitions has some notable Democrats wary that it will distract from important economic issues that move swing voters.

“I don’t think much focus ought to be on that. Our focus ought to be on health care. It’s hard to get a message across,” said Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, who represents a neighboring district. “You have a special prosecutor who is looking into the criminal activity of the campaign. Let the special prosecutor do their job."

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