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In a swing district, a moderate Democrat risks her seat to support an impeachment inquiry

Representative Elaine Luria (right) called alleged misdoing “a threat to all.”
Representative Elaine Luria (right) called alleged misdoing “a threat to all.” Win McNamee/Associated Press/Getty Images

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Representative Elaine Luria’s decision to support an impeachment inquiry into President Trump wasn’t just about his political future. It also put hers on the line.

She is a moderate Democrat who last year narrowly won the congressional seat for southeastern Virginia, a district dominated by the largest Navy base and carried by Trump in 2016. Supporting an impeachment effort could seriously endanger her reelection and she had for months declined to do so. But she was finally persuaded to join many of her Democratic colleagues last week by the allegations that Trump had asked the leader of Ukraine to investigate a political rival.

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And in her first large-scale encounter with constituents since joining them, Luria was greeted with more support than opposition in a district that Republicans are expected to target next year — particularly after her decision.

“I didn’t go to Washington to impeach the president,” she told an audience of almost 300 at a town hall meeting in Virginia Beach Thursday night. “But I’d also say that I didn’t spend 20 years in uniform defending our country to watch something like this.”

A Navy veteran who commanded a combat unit, the 44-year-old Luria said she felt she had to stay true to the oath she first took to protect the Constitution when entering the Naval Academy at 17 years old.

Luria and six other moderate, first-term House Democrats with military and national intelligence backgrounds who won districts long held by Republicans wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post last week declaring the allegations about Trump’s actions with Ukraine “are a threat to all we have sworn to protect.” Their decision to back the call for a formal impeachment inquiry was a major factor in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to move ahead with one.

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With Congress on recess this week, Luria visited local businesses, appeared on national television, and faced constituents’ questions. When Scott Taylor, the Republican congressman she defeated in 2018, alleged on Twitter that Pelosi had used the moderate Democrats as cover for the impeachment move, Luria responded by inviting Taylor to her town hall meeting at New Hope Baptist Church.

As people arrived Thursday, they passed by tables where pamphlets with the Constitution were neatly arranged. Attendees were asked to write questions on cards color-coded by subject. Yellow for public safety. Blue for health care. Purple for impeachment.

An associate pastor and a volunteer of the church read the questions out loud.

“I want to thank you for your patriotic decision on impeachment inquiry,” one person wrote, while another asked: “When are you going to get off the Pelosi wagon and stop the impeachment BS?”

Luria responded that she was not moving to impeach Trump, but simply to open an investigation.

“If we are going to do an inquiry, that is an investigation to find facts,” Luria said. “If you are saying we don’t have facts, then we need to do an investigation to find facts, and that is exactly what I am calling for.”

Luria spoke with her constituents after a town hall meeting at a church in Virginia Beach.
Luria spoke with her constituents after a town hall meeting at a church in Virginia Beach.Parker Michels-Boyce/Washington Post

Her comments often triggered a roar of applause from the crowd as some waved American flags, and she received a few standing ovations. Others booed her answers or gave her the thumbs down. But Luria dispatched the questions with military precision.

“We have an election every two years, so if you don’t like who is representing you, you can vote them out of office,” she fired back at one point, contesting a claim that Democrats were engaged in a power grab.

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Back in Washington, another day of turmoil over impeachment had just taken place, as Trump asked China to investigate Joe Biden’s son and insisted he did no wrong in requesting Ukraine to do the same.

Luria said it all reinforced her difficult decision to push for the probe. “I think it’s reprehensible, and I don’t think that we can allow it,” she told reporters before the town hall.

Since 2011, this area had been a Republican stronghold. Her suburban waterfront district is dominated by Norfolk Naval Station and home to one of the country’s largest veteran populations. Navy ships cut across the water and fighter jets through the air. Trump won the district by three percentage points in 2016. But last year, a national Democratic wave fueled by women and minorities angered by Trump helped Luria upset Taylor.

The White House reportedly plans to target voters in moderate districts such as Luria’s to rally support for the president.

Pelosi feared such problems in swing districts when she for months remained hesitant to go for a formal impeachment inquiry, opting for a more gradual approach through the courts and ongoing congressional probes. But the op-ed by Luria and other lawmakers helped spur Pelosi to move.

Luria said she texted other women in a close-knit group of former military and CIA officers — self-dubbed “The Badasses” — to let them know she planned to come forward on impeachment.

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Taylor did not attend Luria’s town hall meeting. Reached in Bogotá, Colombia, where he spoke at a conservative conference, he said it was “disgusting” for Luria to use her military credentials to justify her decision.

“It’s irresponsible, it’s divisive, and it tells her voters that their votes are irrelevant,” Taylor said.

Across her district, people who weren’t burned out on Washington controversy had polarized views on Trump’s impeachment. Behind the cash register at a store selling flip flops near the Virginia Beach boardwalk, Janae DeSantis, a single mother and personal trainer, said she had stopped watching politics, just as she had her favorite reality TV shows.

“As long as it keeps getting popular ratings, they will keep it around,” she said of the impeachment frenzy. “ ‘American Idol’ is still playing and that should have been off the air years ago.”

In York County, the most Republican part of the district, people were quicker to criticize Biden, Pelosi, or House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff than Trump.

Junior Cox, 73, owns Coxton’s Gold Team Collision Center body shop, one of the businesses to which Luria paid a surprise visit on Thursday. He said he did not talk with her about impeachment, but he was vehemently opposed to her decision on it. “All they do is scream and fight,” he said of Democrats and the impeachment inquiry. “They’re haters.”

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But plenty of impeachment backers turned out at Luria’s town hall to show their support for her call for an inquiry, including some who had wanted her to do it earlier. Carol White, 73; Debbie Polak, 65; and Patti Wilson, 67, said they knocked on doors and registered voters in the 2018 campaign, and remained hopeful Luria will hold on to her seat.

“We have even more respect for her now,” Polak said.


Jazmine Ulloa can be reached at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com.