NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A Republican congressman in Virginia and former Navy SEAL has canceled a debate appearance on a public radio station after it broke a story about his campaign gathering signatures to help put an independent candidate on November's ballot.
U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor said Tuesday that he looks forward to debating his Democratic opponent, just not at Norfolk-based WHRV-FM or its sister television station, WHRO-TV.
Taylor claimed that WHRV has been unfairly biased against him.
The station's reporting began Aug. 1. It has sparked a criminal investigation into possibly forged voter signatures that were submitted by Taylor's campaign staff on behalf of the independent candidate.
Democrats also filed a lawsuit on Monday to try to remove the independent candidate from the ballot. They're alleging voter fraud by Taylor's staff as well as other problems among the signatures that were turned in.
The efforts by Taylor's campaign staff have been widely seen as a strategy to split the Democratic vote in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District.
Shaun Brown, the independent, is a former Democrat who could potentially siphon votes away from Democratic candidate Elaine Luria. National Democrats view Luria as a candidate who could flip this traditionally Republican district and help the party retake the U.S. House.
Taylor's decision to pull out of October's debate is latest development in what's become an increasingly dramatic race on Virginia's coast.
In a statement, Taylor claimed that WHRV-FM producer Paul Bibeau is "a rabid anti Scott Taylor attacker online and even called Trump supporters 'thumbless imbeciles.'"
But Bert Schmidt, the president of the organization that owns WHRV, said Bibeau hasn't made such pronouncements while working for the station. Bibeau joined WHRV in 2018.
Schmidt also stood by WHRV's reporting,
"This is not any sort of partisan, gotcha thing," Schmidt said. "We report things on the ground."
Democrats were targeting Brown's ballot petitions well before the news broke of the Taylor campaign's involvement.
The first person to file a public records request for the petitions was Elisabeth Frost, a partner of the Democratic law firm Perkins Coie, according to Virginia's Department of Elections. The same law firm represents Democrats in their suit to remove Brown from the ballot.
Frost filed her request on June 26. WHRV filed its request on July 17.
Frost did not immediately respond to an email or phone call seeking comment.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said Frost's request illustrates how major campaigns operate these days.
"No stone is left unturned," Farnsworth said. "This is an area where you can expect a great deal of scrutiny. It's why you have to operate by the book. Because if you don't, you'll be caught."
Brown, the independent candidate, is facing trial in October on charges that she defrauded the federal government through a summer meal program for children. But her candidacy still poses a threat to Democrats in what could be a war of attrition for votes.
"If you're a Democratic candidate (in the 2nd District), you do not want an African American independent on the ballot with you," Farnsworth said.
"It makes perfect sense why the Republicans would try to do this," he added. "And it makes perfect sense why the Democrats would try to stop this."
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