VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — When it comes to the 2022 midterm elections, all eyes will be on Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, where Democrat Elaine Luria is seeking a third term in the House of Representatives.
Luria and her challenger, Republican State Sen. Jen Kiggans, both have a good chance of winning, according to rankings from political forecasters Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball at the UVA Center for Politics.
This will be the first election since the redistricting process made Virginia's 2nd District more favorable to Republicans. It's now comprised of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk and Franklin, along with Southampton, Isle of Wight, Northampton and Accomack Counties.
The stakes are high: While Republicans are slightly favored to win the House back this November, party control could boil down to the outcome in this particular election.
Luria has to beat headwinds stemming from President Joe Biden's low approval ratings, while Kiggans has to overcome Democratic momentum following the overturning of constitutional protections of abortion.
Both candidates are tasked with introducing themselves to voters that aren't as familiar with them. For Luria, it's because the district has new parts, and for Kiggans, it's because she's campaigning beyond the lines of her Virginia Senate district.
To determine who has the upper hand, there are several factors to consider, including past election results, demographics and how the candidates plan to reach new voters.
In recent elections, Virginia's 2nd District has swung back and forth
J. Miles Coleman, the associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, described Virginia's 2nd District as the median of all 435 House seats, the 218th in a spectrum of pro-Trump and pro-Biden districts in the 2020 elections.
"If it's [an election] year that's been good for one party or the other, this has been the type of seat that has been liable to change hands," Coleman explained.
You can get an idea of how Virginia's 2nd District votes by looking at some recent elections.
In the 2021 Virginia governor's election, Republican Glenn Youngkin won 55% in this district (if the redrawn lines existed then), while Democrat Terry McAuliffe won 44%, according to an estimate from the Virginia Public Access Project.
But three years earlier in the 2018 U.S. Senate election, Democrat Tim Kaine won 52% of the vote, compared to Republican Corey Stewart's 45%.
The year before that, in the 2017 Virginia governor's election, Democrat Ralph Northam won 50% of the vote, compared to Republican Ed Gillespie's 48%.
Coleman noted that Virginia Beach is a cornerstone of swing tendencies since it makes up a majority of the district's population.
"I always say that Virginia Beach is almost like the Florida of Virginia," Coleman said. "Politically, it is sort of a swingy constituency, but it often leans Republican. It was, in fact, a locality that went for Donald Trump in '16 and flipped over to Biden in 2020."
Another factor is that Virginia's 2nd District has a lower concentration of college-educated voters when compared to other Democrat-held congressional districts in the state. This is important because non-college-educated voters have trended toward Republicans during the Trump era.
"I think it's because there, as some of the candidates have mentioned in their ads, this is a very military-centric district," Coleman said. "The Navy is a big employer there. Well, guess what? You don't need a college degree to work for the Navy."
Despite the slight Republican edge, Democrats have things going for them as well.
Coleman explained that Luria has fundraised "circles around Kiggans" and the national House generic ballot, polling that asks people which party they'd support, is starting to even out or slightly favor Democrats, which could add up in a split district.
The Crystal Ball tracks national elections, including Senate and House races, giving them a ranking of "safe," "likely" or "leans" in either the Democratic or Republican direction. The "tossup" ranking means the election outcome could go either way.
Coleman said, after the June Republican primary in Virginia's 2nd District, the Crystal Ball debated moving the district from a "tossup" ranking to "leans Republican" but concluded that it may be too aggressive in favor of Kiggans.
What kind of voters do Luria, Kiggans need to turn out in November?
For Luria to win re-election, Coleman said she'll need to win Virginia Beach, since it's more Democratic than other parts of the district, and reach out to the Black community, which makes up a significant portion of the district.
He explained that Black voters will need to be more engaged than in the 2021 gubernatorial election, where former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe struggled with voter turnout.
When it comes to campaign messaging, Coleman said the abortion issue could work in Luria's favor. He compared Virginia's 2nd District to New York's 19th District, where Democrat Pat Ryan won in a special election recently.
"Just like Virginia's 2nd District, that was a district that Joe Biden only carried by two points," Coleman said. "Abortion seemed to be a winning message for Democrats."
Another thing working in Luria's favor, Coleman noted, is her House committee assignments, including the Committee on Veterans' Affairs and being the vice-chair of the Armed Services Committee.
"This is a district where they expect you to do your homework on issues like that and emphasizing that would be key," Coleman said.
For Kiggans to defeat Luria, overall high voter turnout could work in her favor, Coleman said, who cited Youngkin's victory in the 2021 Virginia governor's election.
"I think the 2021 election proved that high turnover isn't necessarily always a good thing for Democrats," Coleman said. "Because you had Youngkin win in this district with very high turnout, specifically among those more blue-collar voters. That something Kiggans would probably play in her favor as well."
He continued by saying the newer areas of the district, particularly Suffolk and Southampton and Isle of Wight Counties, would be good places for Kiggans to target.