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GOP Congressional primaries in Virginia clouded by 2020 election

A person during summer 2021 outside of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond holds a sign that says "Full Forensic Audit" while protesting the outcome of the 2020 election. (
Crixell Matthews
A person during summer 2021 outside of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond holds a sign while protesting the outcome of the 2020 election. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Republicans in Virginia are optimistic about their odds in a congressional election year seemingly dominated by bad news for Democrats: high inflation, supply chain issues and an unpopular president. 

But some Republican candidates aiming to represent Virginia in the House of Representatives haven’t completely moved on from the last federal vote. Leading GOP candidates in two of Virginia’s tightest congressional primaries have cast doubts about the 2020 presidential elections — with some claiming outright fraud. Others have declined to call the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol an insurrection or voted to spend millions of dollars conducting a “forensic audit” of the election. 

Judges tossed out more than 60 lawsuits from former President Donald Trump and his allies challenging the results of the 2020 vote. There is no evidence of voter fraud affecting the election’s outcome. 

Still, none of the four Republicans who represent Virginia in the House of Representatives voted to certify the 2020 vote. A year and a half later, GOP candidates largely didn’t respond when VPM News emailed a question about whether they would have certified the vote. 

The 2020 election has come up on the campaign trail, as well, including at a forum for the six GOP candidates running in the 7th District. The seat is currently held by Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, but is a top target for Republicans looking to flip the House. At the April 20 event, a moderator asked whether the candidates believed the 2020 election was stolen due to fraud. VPM News obtained a recording of the exchange and verified its authenticity with a person who attended the event. 

State Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), who narrowly leads the field in fundraising, agreed that it was stolen. “Bottom line: It’s happening,” Reeves said at the event hosted by Republican Women of Virginia. “Until we have forensic audits throughout the country and get down to the nuts and bolts, and do that thing, we're not going to know.” 

Yesli Vega, an auxiliary deputy in the Prince William County Sheriff’s Office, said “there's evidence that continues to come out that indicates that the election of 2020 was interfered with.” Asked to give a yes or no answer on whether she believed the election was stolen, however, Vega said “no.” 

“I don’t want to speculate,” said Vega, whose campaign  hired the GOP firm that helped Gov. Glenn Youngkin win office. “I need more evidence.” 

Derrick Anderson, an Army veteran who has also posted strong fundraising numbers, claimed that the election was stolen “not by fraud, but by COVID,” pointing to temporary changes to voting rules enacted during the 2020 election. 

Anderson and Reeves told the crowd they did not believe the Jan. 6 attack should be classified as an insurrection, according to a video using their remarks produced by the Democratic Party of Virginia. Vega said it was “actually a group of Americans exercising their First Amendment right. And as a result of doing that, they’ve been persecuted, they’ve been shamed, they’ve been forced out of their jobs, they’ve been forced to retire.” 

Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District

The 2020 election has also crept into the GOP primary in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, anchored in Hampton Roads, where Republicans are attempting to unseat Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria.  

One candidate in the June 21 primary, Jerome Bell, has called for trying and executing the perpetrators of what he claims is widespread voter fraud. The frontrunner in the race, state Sen. Jen Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), has been more muted in her rhetoric. The nurse practitioner and former Navy helicopter pilot declined to tell the New York Times in a recent interview whether she believed President Joe Biden’s election was legitimate. 

Kiggans and Reeves were two of just four senators to vote for a $70 million “forensic audit” of the 2020 election proposed by state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), one of the state’s most vocal boosters of former President Trump’s false claims of election fraud. Speaking on the floor of the Senate ahead of the Feb. 24 vote, State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) called the proposal a “conspiracy theory bonanza.” 

Bell was the only one of the 10 Republicans running in Virginia’s 2nd and 7th districts who directly responded to an emailed question from VPM News asking whether they would have voted to certify the 2020 presidential vote. (Bell said he would not have done so). The campaigns for Reeves, Vega, and Kiggans did not respond to requests for comment on their past statements. 

The two districts are likely to be among the closest fights in the country. The  Cook Political Report ranks both as Democratic-leaning toss-ups. Luria, a member of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, is facing an especially tough re-election in a district where Democrats hold a 49.6% to 48.3% advantage based on elections from 2016 to 2020, according to experts who drew Virginia’s new Congressional boundaries.  

The 2020 election has also cropped up in the bluer-tinted 10th district, anchored in Northern Virginia and currently held by Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton. Navy veteran Hung Cao captured a party-run firehouse primary nomination last month. He cast doubts on the 2020 results at an event in April, questioning how then-candidate Joe Biden was able to win with reduced public appearances during the pandemic. 

“It's just very difficult for me to understand what happened in 2020 when [Biden] sits in their basement for the whole election cycle and they got more votes than Barack Obama,” Cao said. 

Mike Ongstad, a former Republican staffer who is now a spokesperson for the "pro-democracy" group Renew America, said he’d seen rhetoric on fraud from GOP candidates across the country. Renew America has backed Democrats like Luria and Spanberger, as well as a smaller clutch of Republicans, including Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney.  He said he believed issues like the economy and public safety often took precedence for voters over “broader democratic issues.”  

“The only way you can solve for kitchen table issues is to make sure that you still have the ability to vote for the new and better candidate in the future,” Ongstad said. 

Virginia Republicans have tried to balance the desires of their base with the broader electorate in the past. Youngkin embraced Trump and the topic of “election integrity” ahead of the GOP nomination but wouldn’t say whether the 2020 election was fair. After his nomination, he said Biden’s win was legitimate and brushed off attempts by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe to connect the former CEO to Trump. 

But Trump has continued to loom over the primaries. Reeves released an ad last month noting he served on Trump’s 2016 election campaign. “I’m ready to finish what he started,” Reeves said in the ad

Vega told conservative talk show host John Fredericks she would “absolutely” support a third presidential run by Trump in 2024. Vega has also been endorsed by several GOP figures aligned with the former president and his attempts to overturn the election, including Rep. Bob Good (R-05), Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Vega told conservative talk show Fredericks last week that she would vote in favor of articles of impeachment against Biden. 

Kiggans has been more circumspect about her support for Trump, telling Fredricks in April she would be excited to have a Republican back in the White House. Fredricks, a Trump loyalist, pressed her to say that Trump would run again and win in 2024. “Donald J. Trump is his name, Jen,” Fredericks said. “You can say it, it’s OK. Your tongue is not going to fall out of your mouth.” 

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.