NORFOLK, Va. — A special prosecutor in Virginia was appointed Tuesday to investigate potential election law violations in a tight congressional race that could help Democrats reclaim the U.S. House.
Political observers said the probe could hurt Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor in what's become an increasingly competitive district along Virginia's coast. But it will likely depend on the investigation's outcome.
The special prosecutor will focus on possible discrepancies among signatures that were gathered by Taylor's campaign staff to help an independent congressional candidate get on November's ballot.
The move was widely seen as an effort by Taylor's campaign to split the Democratic vote in Virginia's 2nd District. Taylor is running against Elaine Luria, who is backed by national Democrats. The independent candidate is Shaun Brown, a former Democrat who lost to Taylor in 2016.
Such efforts are not unheard of. But this week, four people told local public radio station WHRO-FM that they never signed a petition to get Brown on the ballot, even though their names appear among the signatures collected by Taylor's staff.
Another woman told the station that her dead husband's name is on the petition. And Virginia Del. Glenn Davis, a Republican, has told media outlets that his name appeared on two petitions. He said he signed one. His first name was misspelled and his address was incorrect on another.
The revelations prompted the commonwealth's attorney for Virginia Beach to request a special prosecutor. A judge appointed Donald R. Caldwell, the commonwealth's attorney for Roanoke.
Taylor's office said he was aware that his staff had volunteered to collect signatures for Brown. But he said he was not at all involved.
"My campaign has a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate activities," he said in a statement. "Recently we became aware of the inconsistencies in a voter petition process along with everyone else."
Taylor said he previously fired his campaign manager over separate issues, but "current knowledge underscores that decision." It also prompted him to fire a campaign consultant.
Taylor said he will cooperate fully with the probe. But he said "these irregularities have no bearing on Shaun Brown's right to be on the ballot."
"National Democrats are engaged in a systematic effort to disenfranchise 2nd District voters by marginalizing a qualified African American candidate."
Brown said she was "shocked" by the Taylor campaign's tactics.
"There was no effort to work with my Republican opponent," said Brown, who added that she and her supporters collected signatures outside grocery stores and at outdoor events.
"It's hard to even fathom," she said. "In 2016, he had refused to even appear on stage with me at a couple different forums. Some of his supporters called me 'Aunt Jemima.'"
Brown said she intends to win in November. She's facing trial in October on charges that she defrauded the federal government through a summer meal program for children. Her first trial ended with a hung jury.
Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, won his first term in 2016 by nearly 23 percentage points. Political observers say he fits the district well with his moderate social views and conservative stances on military and economic issues. It is home to the world's largest Navy base in Norfolk and one of the nation's largest veteran populations.
But national Democrats think they have a shot at unseating Taylor with Luria, a former Navy commander, as well as with anger toward Republican President Donald Trump. The district has been labeled as either leaning Republican or as a toss-up.
Political observers said the tactics of Taylor's campaign staff are common enough. But an investigation into wrongdoing is rare.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said Taylor's opponents could be mobilized and some of his supporters turned off.
"If this is going to be a really close race, Scott Taylor could have turned a couple-hundred-vote win into a couple-hundred-vote loss," he said.
But Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the probe's outcome is what matters.
"Does this matter at the end of the day to most people? Probably not," he said. "It really depends on what the special prosecutor finds."