KEY POINT: "In Donald Trump's case, the independent counsel is trying to determine whether his campaign did anything wrong.
In Scott Taylor's case, a state judge already has."
By Jeff Schapiro, Richmond Times-Dispatch
President Donald Trump isn’t the only Republican politician fending off claims of collusion.
There’s Scott Taylor.
He is a heretofore little-known ex-Navy SEAL-turned-congressman from Virginia Beach, distinguished as well by what The Washington Post describes as “Top-Gun looks.”
Taylor might achieve another distinction: defeating himself.
In Virginia’s Republican-leaning 2nd District, spanning from Williamsburg to the Atlantic Coast and across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore, Taylor has, over the past month, made himself the issue by conceding his staff helped put a spoiler candidate on the ballot to improve his chances of defeating Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander who could become the first Annapolis alumna in Congress.
That independent candidate’s name was ordered removed from the ballot on Sept. 5 by a Richmond circuit judge. Ruling in a lawsuit brought by Democrats, Judge Gregory Rupe said ballot-access petitions submitted by Taylor’s employees included forgeries, names of the dead and fake addresses, representing “out-and-out fraud.”
That would be quite the kicker in an attack ad tailored — pun unintended — to enrage rather than inform. Can’t you hear those words menacingly declaimed by an anonymous, bass-voiced announcer?
They do flash in the opening seconds of a 30-second commercial backed with six figures Tuesday by the Democrat-aligned House Majority PAC.
It follows an ad buy by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that zeroed in on the ballot scandal, which persuaded Taylor to fire a top operative and is now the focus of an investigation by a special prosecutor brought in from Roanoke, on the other side of the state.
Taylor had enough trouble before this.
He had to answer for Trump but without irritating voters who barely delivered the 2nd District for the president. And Taylor had to distance himself from Corey Stewart, the Trump sound-alike nominated by the GOP for the U.S. Senate and a presumed drag on down-ticket candidates.
Taylor has broken with Trump on opening Atlantic waters to oil and gas exploration — an idea that voters right, left and center oppose as a threat to the district’s resort economy. Taylor, in contrast with Stewart, has spoken in favor of LGBTQ rights.
These supposed positives are overshadowed by the absolute negatives of the ballot flap.
What Taylor’s campaign did was not an attempt at electoral manipulation on a macro level, plotted at a sit-down at Trump Tower with Hillary Clinton-hating Russians with access to filched political data and stolen Democratic emails.
What Taylor’s campaign did was a scheme, micro in focus, in which a potential majority of the 2nd District electorate would be denied its choice by offering another to targeted voters who are essential to Luria’s chances.
The Trump and Taylor imbroglios are alike in that both require connivance. That’s endemic to politics.
Both plots demand opacity. This is a feature of contemporary campaigns.
And they entail a mastery of election laws that are a mystery to many. What better way to ensure the maximum leverage of political professionals over a process ordinary people view as a sacred system for fixing democracy’s problems?
In Trump’s case, the independent counsel is trying to determine whether his campaign did anything wrong.
In Taylor’s case, a state judge already has.
And Luria’s organization wants you to believe this is taking a fatal toll on Taylor’s candidacy.
According to The Hill, an online national political news service, Luria’s polling shows her pulling ahead, having trailed Taylor in a June internal survey.
There is no reason to get into numeric details of the Luria poll because they are potentially suspect, prepared by operatives who prefer to share good news with their candidates.
The findings may be intriguing, however, to members of the Washington donor class. That presumably is Luria’s target audience: trade associations, pressure groups and deep-pocketed individuals.
It is a crowd that wants to know its money is well-spent; that, at a minimum, it guarantees access to Luria should she win. It is a bunch, too, attuned to the nuts and bolts — and nuances — of an election.
That includes Taylor’s attempt at divide-and-conquer, a tried and true campaign tactic.
In this instance, Taylor gambled that an African-American independent, Shaun Brown, who had sought the Democratic nomination and whom Taylor easily defeated in 2016, could bleed black support from Luria.
Minority votes are essential for Democrats, helping tip the 2nd District to their nominee for governor in 2017, Ralph Northam.
But in the higher-turnout presidential election in 2016, Trump carried the district, albeit with a plurality of 48 percent. Trump lost Virginia, the only Southern state he did not carry.
The anchor of the district is Taylor’s hometown, Virginia Beach, where two in three 2nd District residents live. Trump won Virginia Beach, the state’s biggest city, in 2016. Northam took it the following year.
Virginia Beach is nearly 70 percent white, with about 30 percent of its residents minorities, primarily African-American and Asian.
Next door, in Norfolk, where Luria lives, minorities are the majority. Forty-two percent are African-American; 7 percent, Hispanic and 3 percent, Asian. This strengthens the city’s Democratic impulse.
Luria must be competitive with white voters on both sides of Hampton Roads, while piling up minority votes.
The presence of a third candidate — an African-American running as an independent — could have diminished Luria’s performance, especially with black voters.
At least, that was the Taylor campaign’s cynical calculation.
But Brown, of majority-black Hampton, had issues long before the ballot controversy exploded — issues that would have fully diminished her candidacy.
She was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2017 for allegedly defrauding a U.S. Department of Agriculture meals program. Brown’s trial ended in a mistrial in early August because the jury was deadlocked. She is expected to stand trial again.
Her legal problems notwithstanding, Brown pressed to solve her political problems, even attempting to ask the Virginia Supreme Court to restore her name to the 2nd District ballot. Rupe, however, refused on Monday to authorize her appeal.
Making it harder still for Taylor to change the subject of the campaign — from himself.