Putting Brown on ballot attempt to split Democratic vote, political scientists say

srobertsjr@vagazette.com, jojacobs@vagazette.com

The push by Scott Taylor’s campaign staffers to put an independent candidate on the ballot in the upcoming 2nd Congressional District election isn’t a new tactic in politics, and whether it proves politically fatal to the incumbent has yet to be seen.

Four Scott Taylor campaign staffers worked to collect signatures needed to put independent candidate Shaun Brown on the November ballot. Taylor, a former Navy SEAL and freshman Republican who represents the 2nd Congressional District, also faces Democrat Elaine Luria, a Norfolk business owner and Navy veteran, in November.

Now, some political scientists say Taylor staffers are trying to give a leg up to Brown in an attempt to split the Democratic vote in the Republican-leaning district.

The tactic isn’t terribly unusual said John McGlennon, a political science professor at the College of William and Mary. McGlennon is also a Democrat on the James City Board of Supervisors.

“It’s not uncommon to try to gain advantage by supporting a candidate you can get to split the vote,” McGlennon said.

Taylor’s campaign has said the staffers volunteered to collect signatures for Brown out of a desire for fairness rather than a desire to split Democratic voters between Luria and Brown, both of whom run on liberal platforms.

“I suspect they would not be as enthusiastic about a Libertarian candidate,” McGlennon said.

For Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director at the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, Taylor’s team had one goal: put Brown on the ballot “to shave off some support that might otherwise go to the Democratic Party nominee.”

Bitecofer said the race is likely to be a close one.

“Maybe even within 1,000 votes,” she said. “If so, votes cast for Brown may be decisive.”

It’s hard to gauge how the exposure of the signature collection operation may factor into the race, which observers from the Wason Center in Newport News and the Center for Politics in Charlottesville see as a toss-up.

That the signatures were collected at all may be an indicator that the Taylor camp thinks so, too.

“You don’t take that risk when you’re confident you’ll win,” McGlennon said.

For Williamsburg-James City County Democratic Committee chairwoman and longtime political operative Jen Tierney, the attempts were ham-fisted at best.

“They left such an easy trail to follow,” Tierney said of Taylor’s staffers. “I think most candidates and campaigns wouldn’t do that. This is clumsy.”

Tierney, a political consultant for 19 years, remains convinced the Taylor staffers never counted on being discovered.

“They never planned on getting caught,” Tierney said. “I think they thought this would fly under the radar. I think they didn’t think what would happen if somebody did (find them out).”

The incident has been an “embarrassment” for the Taylor campaign while providing greater exposure for his Democratic challenger. But cynicism about politics may make some voters just shrug in response to the situation, McGlennon said.

“Voters don’t see it as good, but they may see it as part of the political process,” he said.

At the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, spokesman and political scientist Geoffrey Skelley said the scandal puts Taylor’s team on the defensive.

“It could rub voters the wrong way,” Skelley said before explaining Taylor presents himself as a “conservative, but not too conservative member of Congress who is a Navy SEAL, a straight-laced sharp guy.”

“Obviously, if you can take the shine off of that image to some degree because of this, it’s probably good for Elaine Luria,” Skelley said. “If you can get Brown off the ballot, that’s also probably good for Luria.”

The 2nd Congressional District encompasses an area stretching from most of Greater Williamsburg to Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore.

Brown failed to file the necessary nomination paperwork to be considered a candidate for the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary race after she was indicted on charges including one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of wire fraud and one count of theft of government property. The U.S. attorney’s office argues Brown’s Jobs Virginia Community Development Corp. falsified daily meal counts in a U.S. Department of Agriculture summer feeding program for the needy in 2012. Earlier this month, Brown’s trial on the fraud charges ended with a hung jury. In October, Brown will be retried, according to previous reports in the Daily Press.

Taylor’s staffers gathered about 570 of the 1,000 signatures Brown needed to get on the ballot just before the June 12 filing deadline. That some of the signatures turned out to be from those already deceased has cast doubt on the validity of the rest of the signatures. The state Democratic Party has asked a Richmond court to overturn the state board of elections’ decision to include Brown on the ballot, according to the Daily Press.

Brown ran against Taylor in 2016, losing by a landslide. Brown lost every locality in the district except the City of Williamsburg, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Taylor’s campaign has said Brown was treated unfairly by the Democratic Party, which endorsed Luria in the primary.

A Taylor spokesman did not return a request for comment for this story.

Brown previously told the Daily Press she didn’t coordinate the effort with the Taylor campaign. Brown didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

While the story and fallout from the incident precipitates, Skelley said this sort of behind-the-scenes vote wrangling is just another part of American politics.

“Look, I think we need to be a little bit more cautious,” Skelley said of the scandal. “It’s a bad look for Taylor, there’s no question about that, but I do think a lot of times this sort of insider election maneuvering to try and screw with the other party’s chances of winning is standard operating procedures. You see this in a lot of races.”

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329 or on Twitter @SPRobertsJr. Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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