VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Joe Deleon voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016 and Elaine Luria for Congress in 2018. But now that Luria is backing an impeachment inquiry, he’s not sure he can support her again next year.
“If she continues this farce, she’s going to get voted out,” said Deleon, like Luria a U.S. Navy veteran. “And I like her. She’s a good congresswoman.”
Deleon made his comments last Thursday following a town hall in a church in this resort town. At times contentious, the event signaled the potential cost for Luria and other Democrats supporting an impeachment inquiry.
Luria had initially opposed the inquiry. But she and another seven Democrats with national security backgrounds have changed their minds. Three are Jewish: Luria, a former Navy commander; Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a former CIA agent; and Max Rose of New York, an Army veteran.
In 2018, Luria ran a campaign in which she studiously avoided mention of Trump, who had won her Virginia district by 3 points in 2016, focusing instead on issues like veterans affairs and opposing offshore drilling.
It paid off. Her victory ended eight years of GOP representation and ousted another Navy veteran, Scott Taylor. The district includes Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world, and the town hall was dotted with blue Navy baseball caps — among both supporters and opponents.
Slotkin ran a similar campaign in her southern Michigan district, which includes swaths of the Rust Belt and rural areas.
Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine to open an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden led to the turnabout by the “badass caucus,” the term Slotkin, Luria and three other congresswomen with national security backgrounds use to describe themselves. The group could not reconcile Trump’s apparent use of military assistance to Ukraine as leverage to force an investigation with the oaths they had taken to uphold the Constitution. Republicans have already launched campaigns targeting Slotkin and Rose for backing the inquiry.
Now Luria is ready to mention Trump — and mention him often. She slotted a third of the town hall — her first since she switched sides on impeachment — to dealing with the inquiry.
“I did not go to Washington to impeach the president,” she said in response to the first question. “I didn’t spend 20 years in uniform defending our country to watch things like this happen.”
That was in answer to a friendly question. Others were not so friendly.
Church staffers, who are close to Luria — she attended services there after a parishioner, Keith Cox, was murdered in May in a mass shooting — seemed at times embarrassed reading angry questions that were submitted on index cards.
Luria was asked if she supported the “misrepresentation” of a transcript of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Another questioner suggested that the president was obliged under international law to press the Ukrainians on Biden. A third wondered why Luria was rushing to judgment. She did not retreat.
“If you don’t like who’s representing you,” she said at one point, “you can vote next year.”
In an interview with JTA following the event, Luria said she was interested in preserving her integrity, not her career.
During the town hall, Luria showed how she might still navigate a victory in the swing district, emphasizing her constituent service record, particularly in assisting veterans needing medical care.
“You are not going to be here to heckle the congresswoman!” a staffer told someone who booed her. Ray Cox, the pastor and father of the slain Keith Cox, called her “sister.”
On guns, Luria said she wanted to close loopholes on background checks and backed an assault weapons ban. But like many other Southern Democrats, she also emphasized her closeness to hunters. She recalled her dad taking her shooting when she was growing up in Alabama and said she had just spent time with a local hunting club.
Luria also insistently recalled her military service. “This is a community that is full of people whose livelihoods depend on national security,” she told reporters before the event. “When we talk about issues to do with the military deploying around the world, it isn’t somewhere far off. It’s your husband, it’s your wife, it’s your neighbor.”
Luria still speaks in clipped military jargon. Asked about Trump’s appeal to China on Thursday to also investigate Biden, she said, “It is a near-peer competitor in the Pacific. It is reprehensible and I don’t think we can allow it.”
Despite the pointed questions, the overall reception was supportive, and Luria was given multiple standing ovations, including when she said about backing the impeachment inquiry, “I did it without regard to political consequences. I don’t care because I did the right thing.”
“She did the right thing!” Nancy Lang, a retired secretary, echoed in an interview. “The gentleman in the White House is not very kind.”
Luria also alluded to her Jewish background when she pushed back against a jab at Democrats’ opposition to funding a border wall with Mexico.
“I really hate the rhetoric the discussion of the wall brings up,” she said. “I think about my family and how they came to this country.”
She clarified to JTA afterward that her ancestors were not refugees, that they had come from Poland, Germany and Lithuania pursuing the American dream. “As a country, we’re not clean in this,” she said. “We turned people away during the Holocaust.”
There were some risks Luria would not take.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, was excoriated earlier this year when he explained the procedure for dealing with a terminally ill newborn. Conservatives misrepresented his remarks as endorsing euthanasia.
Answering a question based on the misrepresentation, Luria hesitated, then said to applause, “I would condemn anyone who would think that you can kill a living child.”
Outside the church, about a dozen protesters held up Trump signs and called on Luria to resign. One of them, John Fredericks, a radio talk show host who is among Trump’s leading backers in the state, said Luria had imperiled her re-election.
“She said she would be different, she’s an AOC tool,” he said, referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive from New York who has become a bete noire of conservatives. “We’re going to take this district back.”