RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — It's the kind of spat you'd expect to find on daytime TV.
An anonymous email alleging an affair. Electronic records that suggest a surprise culprit. Accusations. Recriminations. A once close friendship destroyed.
But it's not a soap opera. It's the GOP primary for lieutenant governor in Virginia. A contest that's typically a little-watched election has turned into a messy public scandal.
Earlier this week, state Sen. Bryce Reeves' lawyer wrote to Sen. Jill Vogel and her husband saying there is "strong evidence" they, or someone at their direction, sent an email to state Republicans alleging Reeves was having an affair with a campaign staffer. The letter asks the Vogels not to destroy any emails or related devices "due to the likelihood of litigation."
Vogel has strongly denied any connection to the email and has indicated she may have been set up.
The letter is the latest step in increasingly hostile feud between Reeves and Vogel, who were once good friends.
Last September, an anonymous Google mail account sent an email to Republicans, including a state lawmaker and an influential conservative pastor, saying Reeves was "carrying on an open and obvious adulterous relationship" with an aide.
"We do not need any more morally bankrupt and deceitful politicians," the email said.
Reeves filed a defamation lawsuit against the email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and was able through subpoenas to obtain some of the email address' digital footprint. Those records list the phone number associated with the account as matching the cellphone of Vogel's husband, Alex Vogel. The subpoenaed records also showed two IP addresses linked to the email account belonging to the Vogels' rural home in Northern Virginia and that of their neighbors.
The Vogels live in a multimillion-dollar estate that once belong to Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, a wealthy arts patron and political financier. Jill Vogel is a former attorney for the Republican National Committee who advises clients on political election law and other issues. Her husband is a well-connected national Republican strategist and consultant.
The Vogels' neighbor, Lisa Gable, told The Washington Post that the two families had a shared wireless system that did not require a password and could have been easily accessed by someone outside of either home.
In a statement, Jill Vogel said she was "horrified" by the episode and regrets that Reeves went public with the "partial information he had obtained without giving us time to investigate and respond."
"We certainly did not send, approve or authorize any anonymous communications," Vogel said.
Her campaign manager, Pat Trueman, said Reeves' "repeated attempts to mischaracterize the facts are disturbing and reckless."
Reeves' campaign spokesman, Sam Azzarelli, fired back that "the facts distinctly point to the Vogels."
"We're willing to help pay for an independent, third-party forensic expert to look into the remote possibility that the Vogels were hacked. We made this offer four days ago and are still waiting on a response from Jill," Azzarelli said Thursday.
Reeves, a former police detective, and Vogel were once close, and both are part of a younger group of ambitious Republican senators. Though largely a ceremonial position with little political power, the lieutenant governorship is often used as springboard to run for governor.
Besides Reeves and Vogel, House Del. Glenn Davis is seeking the party's nomination in the June primary.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said the fallout from the feud still isn't clear but Reeves may benefit if voters believe Vogel was behind the email. Kidd said Vogel has a "pretty short window" to convince voters she had nothing to do with the email.
What is clear is that there will be awkward moments in the coming legislative session, as Reeves and Vogel will see each other daily at private caucus meetings, committee hearings, and on the Senate floor, where they sit a few feet from one another.