VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Things became spirited as the candidates vying for the House seat in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District debated for the first time this election season.
Rep. Elaine Luria, the two-term Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger State Sen. Jen Kiggans sought to weave their campaign issues into the different topics that came up in the Virginia Beach debate.
For Kiggans, it was inflation and Joe Biden. For Luria, it was abortion.
The debate, moderated by former Virginia Del. Chris Saxman, focused on issues of importance to the business community, including the economy, military spending, the COVID-19 pandemic, foreign policy, and immigration.
Both candidates challenged the other on their positions, and at times, painted their opponent as extreme. Here's a look at five takeaways from the debate:
Kiggans made it a referendum on Biden, Pelosi
"I see a country that has become weaker under the policies of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Elaine Luria, who votes with their failed policies 99% of the time."
"This November will be a referendum on what I consider to be failed economic policies from the Joe Biden administration. In the 2nd District, those policies go by the name of Elaine Luria, who votes for them 99% of the time."
"My opponent has supported these things 99% of the time with [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi."
This is what Kiggans said just in her first three responses to questions. And this talking point came up a lot during the debate.
During the campaign so far, Kiggans has tried to tie Luria to President Joe Biden, who is facing lower approval ratings amid high inflation and elevated gas prices. And she definitely got her point across.
"If you look at the perspectives from the two candidates, you can see that the goal of the Kiggans' campaign was to turn this, basically, into a referendum," explained J. Miles Coleman with UVA Center for Politics.
He summed up her overarching message as "If you don't like Joe Biden and Elaine Luria, vote them out, vote me in."
When it comes to Luria's perspective, Coleman said she wanted to make the race a choice -- instead of a referendum -- between a do-er and a complainer, which leads us to the next takeaway.
Luria touted legislation, Kiggans was light on solutions
During the debate, Luria highlighted different legislation she has supported, ranging from the Inflation Reduction Act to the CHIPS and Science Act, which was aimed at boosting the domestic production of semiconductors.
For example, Luria defended her vote for the Inflation Reduction Act as "the largest investment in an 'all-of-the-above' energy plan and in the environment that our country has ever seen."
Coleman said Luria had to strike a balance between keeping some distance from Biden while highlighting a "laundry list" of legislation that she voted for and Biden signed into law.
Kiggans, on the other hand, shied away from specific policy proposals to address the problems she brought up in the debate. The excerpt below was part of her response to a question about public policies she'd support to help the economy:
"Republicans have a commitment to America that we're going to do things to reduce our gas prices, things like finding domestic energy sources, being domestic energy producers again," Kiggans said. "We've got to find ways to lower the inflation rate."
The lack of specifics is something that Luria pointed out as well.
"From what I can see, my opponent is actually not providing any solutions for these things she's complaining about," Luria said.
Luria brought energy, risky remarks. Kiggans stuck to talking points.
The two candidates brought distinct styles to the debate stage, with Luria's being energetic and Kiggans' being focused on her campaign themes.
Coleman said Luria did a good job of striking a balance on the Democrats' agenda and speaking to her audience, while Kiggans did a good job of bringing in the frustration many people feel about the economy.
For weaknesses, he said Luria came off annoyed at times, while Kiggans came off scripted and safe.
"In my perception, Luria just had more fire in the belly," Coleman said. "She seemed that she wanted it more. Kiggans seemed to be playing it more safe. I didn't sense as much passion from her [and] she was mostly sticking to her talking points. That's not necessarily a bad thing but just a difference in style."
Coleman also noted the two candidates talked about the issues in human terms.
For example, Kiggans talked about her biography a lot. Another example is when Luria, talking about the Inflation Reduction Act, said the law would help Medicare recipients in the district more easily afford drugs.
Coleman also described Luria's closing statement, where she described the type of candidate she isn't, as "bold" for running in Virginia's 2nd District.
"What I thought [Luria] worked in there well is something to the effect of 'Well, if you support Trump, don't vote for me.' Okay, well, this is a district that Trump carried in 2016 and that he only barely lost in 2020," Coleman said.
He added: "I would have to be very confident in myself if I wanted to write off almost half of this district."
Comparing closing statements, Kiggans, once again, tied Luria to Pelosi.
"Each election year, my opponent campaigns as a moderate, but in between elections, she doesn't vote like a moderate," Kiggans said. "She votes like Nancy Pelosi."
Coleman described that type of line as "cookie-cutter," one that any Republican can use against any Democrat across the country.
Abortion issue got feisty
While Kiggans tried to weave Biden and Pelosi into the debate, Luria forcefully injected the abortion issue, particularly during a section on energy policy.
After Kiggans attacked Luria for supporting "energy mandates," Luria used the opportunity to make a point about abortion restrictions.
"If you don't want Virginia to become like California for clean energy, you certainly want Virginia to become like Texas for lack of access to reproductive health care," Luria said.
Kiggans gave a rebuttal but didn't mention the line of attack regarding abortion.
Saxman moved on to a question about policies they would support to combat current flooding, a major issue that affects the Hampton Roads region, where Kiggans again criticized government mandates.
"...[Kiggans] clearly wants to tell you how to live your life, if you're a woman who's dying because of a complicated pregnancy," Luria said. "She certainly wants to tell you that, if you're a 10-year-old who's a rape or incest victim and can't get an abortion here in Virginia."
Kiggans pushed back, saying she supports exceptions for rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother and accusing Luria of lying about her position on abortion.
Luria accused Kiggans of not being honest about her position, claiming she had to get Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares to talk on her behalf, referring to a recent CNN article (In that story, Miyares said Kiggans indicated she would support a 15-week abortion ban).
Lots of name-dropping, for good or bad
- President Joe Biden
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
- Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin
- U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio
- U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski
These are just some of the names that came up between the two candidates, some to make themselves look better and others as a line of attack.
Coleman said because the candidates aren't firebrands, they have to find ways to paint each other as extreme.
For Kiggans, it was connecting Luria to Biden and Pelosi, and for Luria, it was connecting Kiggans to Republican leaders sympathetic to former President Donald Trump and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Coleman summed up Luria's approach as "If you put Kiggans in charge, these are the types of people she will put in power, that she's going to vote with."
The name-dropping also had a positive purpose. For example, Kiggans mentioned Youngkin, who carried Virginia's 2nd District in the 2021 gubernatorial election. For Luria, she mentioned that she's collaborating with Rubio, a conservative Republican, on legislation.
Missed the debate? You can watch the full video below: