VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — In front of New Hope Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, supporters of President Donald Trump hollered for his reelection. Behind it, taped-up signs on the doors warned, “Firearms Not Allowed.” And inside, Rep. Elaine Luria personally delivered her call for Trump’s impeachment, drawing a standing ovation from more than half of the 200 or so people attending her town hall — and a few jeers, shut down quickly by church security officials.
“I got no problem throwing you out,” the Rev. James Allen, the moderator, told one heckler. “If you can’t sit here and be respectful, get out.”
The man, a Trump supporter, agreed to quiet down and stay. But the signs were there that Luria’s call last month for Trump’s impeachment sits uneasily among some of her constituents in one of the most deeply split congressional districts in the country. It’s not clear, though, that the calls for formal charges against Trump have generated a voter backlash, even in districts like Luria’s.
The majority voted for Trump in 2016, but Luria, a Democrat, won it two years later, helping hand her party control of the House. Here, national security is understood perhaps better than elsewhere: 1 in 5 people are active military personnel, veterans or their families. So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and national Democrats are closely watching districts like it for clues to whether their drive to impeach Trump supports or imperils the party’s congressional and presidential ambitions in 2020.
Win or lose next year, Luria and six other freshmen who flipped Republican districts will have played a critical role, with considerable risk. They resisted calls for the Republican president’s impeachment over Russia’s election interference. But details of Trump’s pressure on Ukraine’s president to investigate the Biden family was, Luria and the others wrote in The Washington Post, a clear abuse of power and an impeachable offense. Their column, in part, freed up Pelosi to launch formal impeachment proceedings, specifically under the terms Luria and other freshmen had requested: clearly articulated, focused on Ukraine and brought to a quick conclusion.
Luria and the other national security freshmen have quietly become a force within Democratic politics, at a time when the party is struggling to nominate a presidential candidate and project a unified message.
But there’s been nothing quiet about their first visits home this after their calls for impeachment. In Michigan, another frontline Democratic freshman and co-author of the op-ed, Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin, faced boos — and then applause — when she started explaining why she, too, had called for an impeachment investigation. In New York’s Staten Island, freshman Rep. Max Rose, like Luria, got a standing ovation from many in his audience when he announced he was supporting the impeachment inquiry, according to news reports.
Back in Virginia, walking around the block of her leafy Norfolk-area neighborhood, Luria acknowledged the impeachment decision may cost her.
“This is a situation where I have to do the right thing,” said Luria, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and black belt in taekwondo. Her home, a short walk from spectacular views of the Virginia Port Authority and not far from Norfolk Naval Station, is adorned with ceramics and other souvenirs that she and her husband, Robert Blondin, picked up on their global travels.
Luria says if she loses her seat over the impeachment call, “I will have been on the right side of history.”
It’s a sentiment Luria repeated that night at the town hall at the E. Ray Cox Sr. Convocation Center. Eight miles away, 12 people were killed during the May 31 mass shooting at Virginia Beach Municipal Center — including Ryan Keith Cox, the pastor’s son. Luria opened the event by noting that the last time she spoke there, it was for the younger Cox’s funeral. His coffin rested where she now stood to answer questions.
But the moment did little to ease the crackling political atmosphere in the room. A few hours earlier, Trump had exhorted China to help investigate the Bidens, defiant in the face of calls for impeachment over the same approach to Ukraine. At the town hall, Trump supporters who were coordinated for the event waved signs reading, “Impeach Elaine” and “Pelosi Puppet.”
Luria, like Pelosi and other Democrats, argued she’s doing her day job even amid the impeachment drive. Pelosi has referred to that technique as operating on two tracks — legislative and oversight — while Trump has insisted that when there’s investigation, there can be no legislation.
The retired naval nuclear engineer, 44, pointed out four people in the front row helped by her office on immigration, health care and veterans issues. And she mentioned work she’s doing leading House subcommittees on seapower and disability assistance as a member of both the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees. She also said she’s working on “commonsense universal background checks” for gun purchases.
Then Luria took questions, drawn from a plastic box and read by Allen. A bit more than half were supportive of her call for Trump’s impeachment.
“Bravo,” said one questioner, noting Luria’s “brave patriotic decision on the impeachment inquiry.”
Navy veteran Joe Deleon, 70, of Virginia Beach, shouted something, prompting the rebuke from Allen.
“I like her, she’s a good congressman,” Deleon, wearing a “Vietnam” Navy cap, said afterward. He said he sees nothing wrong with Trump’s pressure on Ukraine for election help against a political rival. But he sees trouble in Luria’s decision. “If she continues this farce, she is going to get voted out. This district voted for Trump, and they’re going to vote for him again.”
Luria won the race over Republican retired Navy SEAL Scott Taylor by a little over 2 percentage points, while Trump won the district by more than 3 percentage points. That makes the district, which straddles the place where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, a key bellwether in a state where people don’t register by party.
Both political camps are weighing into the 2020 race. The House Republicans’ super PAC and Luria’s 2018 opponent, Taylor, are trying to link Luria with liberals. The Congressional Leadership Fund on Sept. 30 launched a digital ad that featured a photo of Luria surrounded by photos of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, along with footage of Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s now famous vow to “impeach the mother––r.”
And the Democrats’ campaign arm has pledged to jump into races waged by front liners who have come out for impeachment, including Luria. They’re sharing internal polling and help with messaging, including on how to characterize the transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president.
“I think that district has a great test for whether Luria and Democrats can bring along kind of maybe disaffected Republicans and moderates to not only vote against the president but also to support an impeachment inquiry,” said Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “I don’t necessarily know if there’s majority support in that district for that ... it remains to be seen how persuadable a lot of those voters may be.”
At the town hall, a man who gave his name as Chris Columbus is exactly the type of constituent Luria hopes to influence. He said he’s an independent, troubled by the way the media reports on Trump and how public sentiment has shifted.
“I’m kind of on the fence about certain things, and one of them is directly related to the impeachment,” he said. “I think she jumped on the bandwagon too quick.”
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner and senior producer Tracy Brown contributed to this report.