Virginia congressional candidates in competitive districts face questions about Biden and Trump

Paid subscribers to the Virginia Political Newsletter received this story first on Tuesday.

by Brandon Jarvis

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are two of the most polarizing figures in American politics today. The baggage they bring to the November election makes it difficult to stay on message for candidates looking to win elections in narrow constituencies. This is no different than what happens in elections during presidential years historically. Still, the fact that one of the candidates is a recently convicted felon and the other’s viability as a candidate is being questioned at this point in the game are unique issues, to say the least.

Trump’s problems are well known, and the list is too long to even begin to delve into. Among the first are being convicted of felony attempts to influence an election and an attempted insurrection by his supporters. He also lost Virginia to Biden by 10 points in 2020, and his election in 2016 led to a statewide blue wave in the years that followed, ushering in big Democratic victories at the state level.

For Biden, it’s not about his character, but about his state of mind and whether he’s fit to serve another four years after a dismal performance in the first debate. The Democratic Party’s apprehension about his candidacy is also driven by fears that a weakened candidate will lose to Trump in November, rather than by a dislike of the candidate himself or his policies.

In close races like VA-02 and VA-07, candidates must walk a tightrope. Either way, the constant debate over Trump’s criminal activity and Biden’s viability as a candidate takes candidates off message and distracts them from local issues.

“This whole debate about whether I should stay or go is a debacle for Democrats,” said Richard Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph Macon College. “This makes it much harder for Virginia’s congressional candidates to make their case in what will surely be a nationalized election; this won’t be decided by local issues.”

But while Democrats grapple with talk of Biden’s viability, Republicans still have to deal with the many problems Trump brings with him.

“Still, the dynamics of Republicans are similar to those of Democrats: a deeply flawed top of the ticket makes it very difficult for them to make headway,” Meagher said. “So far, Kiggans has managed to split the difference in her party, appearing to be a ‘reasonable’ Republican without alienating her district’s Trumpist base. But as we get closer to the election and Trump’s crimes become more notorious, that will prove harder to achieve.”

In 2022, when Rep. Jen Kiggans was the Republican candidate trying to unseat Democratic incumbent Rep. Elaine Luria, she stayed out of conversations about Trump as much as she could while Democrats did everything they could to tie her to him. Failing to endear herself to the Trump-MAGA base, Kiggans convinced voters to elect her by a three-point margin, making her the only Virginia Republican to flip a Democratic-held seat in 2022. She also received some help from the redistricting process that made the VA-02 district more Republican-friendly than in previous elections.

However, he now appears to be warming to Trump and endorsed him earlier this year. He spoke at Trump’s rally in Chesapeake last month and mentioned Biden’s performance in the debate.

“What we saw last night was elder abuse,” Kiggans said.

Trump also gave the Kiggans his “full and total” backing last month.

Kiggans’ Democratic rival, Missy Cotter Smasal, has not publicly stated whether she thinks Biden should remain the Democratic nominee. So far, she has focused on abortion and access to health care, veterans’ rights and attacking Trump.

While he did not directly answer whether he thinks Biden should run in November, in a statement to Virginia Scope on Tuesday, Smasal said Biden is the candidate and compared him to Kiggans and Trump.

“Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee,” she said. “Coastal Virginia voters have a clear choice this November. Anti-abortion activist Jen Kiggans will work to advance the dangerous MAGA agenda that includes banning abortion and cutting benefits that veterans have earned. Kiggans enthusiastically supported convicted felon Donald Trump and has befriended people in Congress like Marjorie Taylor Greene, going so far as to call Greene her ‘teammate’ and that they ‘want the same things.’”

The Kiggans campaign says the race is over and that moving away from Biden will not help his Democratic opponent.

“Voters across the political spectrum recognize the phenomenal job Jen Kiggans has done during her first term in Congress and will re-elect her in November,” said Reilly Richardson, a spokesman for Kiggans. “This race was over before Missy announced her candidacy. I’m not sure why she thinks running away from Joe Biden and the Virginia Democrats will help her campaign, but either way, she’s dead.”

As for continuing to support Trump even as he faces many legal issues, the Kiggans campaign referred Virginia Scope to its previous comments.

“Our great nation simply cannot afford another four years of the disastrous Biden administration,” he said in March. “I stand with President Trump because now is the time to come together as a party, turn our attention to defeating Joe Biden and strengthening our majority in the House of Representatives.”

In VA-07, Republican Derrick Anderson and Democrat Eugene Vindman are running for a vacant seat after incumbent Rep. Abigail Spanberger decided to forgo her re-election bid to run for governor next year. Spanberger was elected in 2022 by a five-point margin.

Anderson and national Republicans have been attacking Vindman for his silence on whether he thinks Biden should remain the nominee.

“Mr. Vindman is failing the leadership test on the most important issue of 2024,” Anderson said in a statement to Virginia Scope. “He has refused to answer multiple questions about Biden’s suitability for office. That means he is playing politics to try to get elected rather than telling voters where he stands.”

Vindman is a national figure who has raised a lot of money thanks to his high profile. He was a key figure in Trump’s second impeachment trial.

While on the National Security Council (NSC), his twin brother, Alexander, also a member of the NSC, listened to Trump’s phone call with the President of Ukraine when he tried to extort him for information about Joe Biden. Alexander and Eugene reported on the call together, resulting in Trump’s second impeachment hearing.

After being acquitted, Trump fired the Vindmans.

Since launching his campaign, Vindman has raised large amounts of money from Democrats across the country.

Trump recently endorsed Anderson and criticized Vindman for her role in his impeachment trial.

“Derrick is America First through and through, and he’s up against a weak and pathetic Democrat named Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Vindman, who, along with Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff and others, lied to push the Ukraine impeachment hoax, a continuation of the largest and most dangerous political WITCH HUNT in the history of our Country,” Trump said.

When asked by Virginia Scope, Vindman’s campaign did not directly answer whether it believes Biden should remain the nominee.

“Eugene Vindman, who has raised a family and lived in VA-07 longer than his opponent, is running a campaign focused on protecting rights and liberties, including abortion rights, removing politics from classrooms, and moving VA-07 forward,” said Jeremy Levinson, spokesman for Vindman’s campaign. “Eugene will be the candidate to win this seat because of his record of dedicated service and positive vision for this district.”

Anderson says he still supports Trump as a candidate despite his ongoing troubles with the legal system.

“It’s sad to say, but Joe Biden clearly cannot do the job physically or mentally, and his policies have made life worse for my friends, family, and neighbors here in District 7,” Anderson said. “In contrast, Donald Trump’s policies gave us lower taxes, a stronger economy, a secure border, and real leadership on the world stage. We need to reverse the disasters of the current administration and Joe Biden’s weakness here at home and abroad, and that starts with a change in the White House in November and the election of Donald Trump.”

With interactions with Trump under his belt, nationalizing congressional races could benefit Vindman while hurting Smasal.

“Vindman has a ton of money and the advantage of national recognition in an open seat. Plus, his track record really matters here: Because of how he rose to prominence, he has the ability to keep Trump in people’s minds,” Meagher says. “Smasal has a much smaller reserve fund and is facing an incumbent, which is always a tall order. He can try to bolster the Democratic position on reproductive rights, but there is a constant danger that policy will be overshadowed by concerns about who is at the top of the ticket.”