Fresh off having brought down the Speaker of the House, Rep. Matt Gaetz will spend a weekend touring Virginia’s 5th Congressional District with his fellow Republican rebel, Rep. Bob Good.
Maybe I’m reading more into the itinerary than I should, but I can’t help but be curious about the three places they went: Mineral (in Louisa County), Rice (in Prince Edward County) and Lynchburg.
The Lynchburg gig doesn’t surprise me — that’s the biggest city in the 5th District and part of Good’s base. The other two are more interesting to me, because they’re both in the same state Senate district that John McGuire is running unopposed for this fall. I’ve pointed out before that McGuire has shown an interest in running for Congress before, and that Good seems wary of him. Were those stops intended to try to ward off a potential McGuire primary challenge? Or is this just coincidence?
Good faced a nomination challenge in 2022 and easily dispatched him in a convention. A new state law effectively bans conventions starting in 2024, so if there’s a nomination challenge next year, it would presumably be through a primary. How would Good fare there? Given the political lay of the land in the 5th District, Good is likely safe against any Democratic challenger. His only political vulnerability would be within his own party. All but eight Republicans in the House wanted to keep Kevin McCarthy as speaker. How do 5th District Republicans — the casual ones who might turn out in a party primary, not the hardcore activists who show up at party meetings — feel about their representative being one of the members who brought McCarthy down?
That’s not the election question I’ll deal with today, though. Instead, I’ll look farther east, to another district where Good — and his fellow Republican rebels who brought down the speaker — might also complicate politics next year: the 2nd Congressional District, now represented by Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.
Kiggans and Good have a history. The Washington Examiner — a conservative paper, if you care about such things — reported last month that the two had an “animated debate” over the Freedom Caucus, of which Good is a member, holding up a vote on a defense appropriations bill. “Former Navy pilot clashes with Virginia Republican over stalled defense bill” is how the Examiner headlined the story.
Their “animated debate” was a private one on the House floor, so there’s no public record of who said what, and accounts differ. Kiggans told the Examiner that she “expressed her frustration to Good about him and other hard-line conservative members blocking the rule on the Department of Defense appropriations bill and how they are preventing the military from being funded.”
In a scrum with reporters, Kiggans expressed her frustration more openly: “How dare you hold that up? Those are my kids, right? My son is in flight school. I think of my son. I think of my other children, the so many people in my district, so it’s so frustrating for me that I have people in my own party that are not funding the Department of Defense.”
The Examiner went on to report:
She said she told Good to “be mindful of the message this is sending when the world is watching.”
Good then told her that he agreed that Congress should fund the Department of Defense, which frustrated her as well.
“Then don’t hold it up,” Kiggans said. “Don’t do what you’re doing.”
A spokesman for Good disputed that account: “The article does not reflect how Congressman Good recalls the tenor or content of the conversation, but he doesn’t make it a practice of throwing his Virginia delegation colleagues under the bus based on the contents of a private conversation.”
More recently, Kiggans fretted that the ouster of McCarthy — and the resulting delay in finding a replacement who would win a majority vote — might endanger her reelection bid next year. That’s part of a broader concern from some Republicans that the turmoil among House Republicans may scare away voters that the party needs in 2024.
Whether that’s true or not is a matter of some dispute.
In 2013, the government shut down while Republicans held the House. The next year was followed by a Republican wave.
In 2018 the government again shut down while Republicans held the House. That November, 21 Republican incumbents lost their seats.
“There’s scant evidence, though, that voters punished these members solely for their role in the government shutdown,” NBC News reports. “It was a wave election year for Democrats and widely seen as a referendum on the first two years of the Trump administration.”
Both of those were also midterms where Congress was the top thing on the ballot. Next year will be a presidential election year and voters will likely be more focused on how they feel about the candidates for president. The present congressional turmoil may pale to whatever is going on then.
Still, Kiggans is right to worry about her seat. Kiggans is one of just 18 Republican House members who represent districts that Joe Biden carried in 2020. Of those 18, six are in New York and five are in California. Arizona has two more. The remaining five are in Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania — and Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, which runs from Southampton County to the Eastern Shore, although most of the population (57%) is in Virginia Beach.
Furthermore, the 2nd District is the most politically volatile one in the state.
Since 2000, the district has had eight different representatives, more than any other in the state. By contrast, four districts (the 6th, the 8th, the 9th and the 11th) have had just two representatives and one (the 3rd) has had just one.
That’s more change in just over two decades than the district has seen in the previous five decades combined — through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s the 2nd District had just three different representatives. The turnover from Porter Hardy to William Whitehurst to Owen Pickett all came about due to retirements. By contrast, four of the eight representatives since 2000 have lost reelection. Before that, you have to go back to 1928 to find a congressional defeat in this district — when Republican Menaclus “Mack” Lankford defeated Democrat Joseph Deal on the coattails of Herbert Hoover in his landslide presidential election over Al Smith.
The 1940s were a turbulent time in the 2nd, with multiple changes, but none of those were due to defeats. Then after Hardy’s election in 1946 came a long period of continuity. Hardy served 22 years, Whitehurst 18 years, Pickett 14 years. Since Pickett retired after the 2000 election, no 2nd District representative has served more than three terms — six years. That was Republican Scott Rigell. Two representatives — Democrat Glenn Nye and Republican Scott Taylor — managed to last just a single term. Now Kiggans worries she’ll become the third. We used to call the 9th District in Southwest Virginia “The Fighting Ninth.” Perhaps now we ought to transfer that adjective to the 2nd District.
Why has the 2nd District been so fickle? The answer lies in a combination of realignment and redistricting.
While the shape of the district has changed over the years, the core has always been Virginia Beach. In what now constitute ancient times by the standards of Virginia politics, Virginia Beach was a Democratic locality. Of course, that was also when much of Virginia Beach was still Princess Anne County. In the 1960 presidential race, Republican Richard Nixon carried the state but Democrat John Kennedy took 56.1% in Virginia Beach and 54.9% in Princess Anne County, which later was merged out of existence.
In more recent times, Virginia Beach has been one of the state’s classic swing communities, with a slight Republican tilt.
In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain carried “the beach” with 49.8% of the vote to Barack Obama’s 49.1%, even as Obama carried the state overall. Likewise, Mitt Romney took 50.4% in Virginia Beach in 2012. Donald Trump carried the city in 2016, but with just 48.3% of the vote. In 2020, Virginia Beach went to Biden with 51.6% of the vote, which probably speaks more to how Trump lost support among suburban voters than it did voters being enamored of Biden.
Generally speaking, Democrats can win statewide as long as they stay close in Virginia Beach — if they win there, that’s a sign they’re definitely winning overall. Republicans, by contrast, need a bigger win at the beach to win statewide. That’s what Youngkin did in the 2021 governor’s race, when he took 53.6% of the vote in Virginia Beach, a few points higher than his statewide tally of 50.6%.
In the more narrow confines of a congressional race, Virginia Beach’s unpredictability makes the 2nd an unpredictable district. Factor in national mood swings as well, plus other localities in the district. Democrat Glenn Nye defeated Republican incumbent Thelma Drake in 2008 — he ran ahead of Obama’s margin in Virginia Beach. Midterms often cut against the president’s party and that was the case in 2010, when Republican Scott Rigel ousted Nye as part of a Republican trend nationwide. Likewise in 2018, Democrat Elaine Luria benefitted from the unfavorable reaction to Trump, allowing her to defeat Scott Taylor.
In 2022, Kiggans had two things going for her when she challenged Luria: the opportunity to run in a midterm year when Republicans nationally benefitted from unhappiness with Biden, plus a redistricting that had made the district more favorable to Republicans.
I wrote about those changes in a previous column. If voters hadn’t approved a constitutional amendment taking the power of redistricting from the General Assembly, a Democratic-controlled state legislature in 2021 would have made sure they drew a district to protect Luria. Instead, that power wound up in the hands of two special masters appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court. one a Democrat, one a Republican. They drew lines without regard to where incumbents lived. The result: They took out Democratic-voting localities (Norfolk on the south side of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, the Peninsula localities on the north side) and added in Republican-voting ones in Chesapeake and the eastern part of Southside. As a fan of geographically coherent districts, this one seems more logical to me, but it undeniably hurt Luria and helped Kiggans. Luria can rightly say she didn’t lose to Kiggans so much as she lost to redistricting.
Nonetheless, this district remains very “swingy” and the higher turnout of a presidential year — particularly one where Trump might again be the nominee — makes holding the 2nd District a challenge for Republicans. If Republicans, thanks to the McCarthy ouster, get a reputation as a bunch of crazies who can’t govern themselves, much less the country, that’s not helpful to Kiggans. Put another way: What’s good for Good might be bad for a fellow Republican in his own state. The irony, of course, is that a Republican majority depends more on holding Kiggans’ mercurial district, not on holding Good’s bright red one.