“This is a president who’s really dominating the narrative every news cycle. That creates a very difficult environment for candidates to be heard in their own voice, be they Democrats or Republicans this year.” —Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington
Elections rarely get do-overs. Winners make victory speeches, and losers slink away to become consultants. But this year’s election for U.S. Senate features two key players in the 2016 presidential election that upended American politics. For both sides, it’s become a proxy of sorts. Democrats are eager to undo what they see as the damage that happened two years ago. And Republicans are aiming to improve on their lackluster performance in Virginia. And yet, even though voters will be confronted by a ballot that includes Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Corey Stewart, it’s likely that voters will view this race squarely as a referendum on President Donald Trump.
“This is a president who’s really dominating the narrative every news cycle,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. “That creates a very difficult environment for candidates to be heard in their own voice, be they Democrats or Republicans this year.”
Kaine, a former governor, worked his way up in Virginia politics by serving as mayor of Richmond and lieutenant governor before becoming governor and ultimately U.S. senator. Stewart is a chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors who became a lightning rod in the immigration debate after leading the charge to have officers in his county check the citizenship for everyone suspected of violating state or local law. Kaine was on the ticket in 2016 as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Stewart served as the chairman of Trump’s campaign in Virginia until he was fired after leading a protest at the Republican National Committee.
“When Corey Stewart says ‘Take Virginia Back,’ Virginians don’t want to go back,” said Kaine during a recent debate in Northern Virginia. “There’s nothing in the rearview mirror that looks better to Virginia than what we can see in the windshield going forward.”
Stewart has been trailing in the polls for months, and the latest poll from the University of Mary Washington has Kaine leading the race by 16 points. Kaine has a 15-to-1 fundraising advantage, in part because a lot of the big-money Republican donors are staying away from Corey Stewart — people like the Koch brothers, for example, or the National Republican Senate Committee. And as the campaign stretches into the final few weeks heading into Election Day, Stewart is amping up the rhetoric and vowing to live up to the promise he made before securing the Republican nomination that he would run a “vicious”campaign against Kaine.
"What about the $17 million you paid in hush money to the 268 separate complaints, senator, against you and other members of the U.S. Congress?” Stewart asked Kaine during the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce debate in Tysons Corner.
“You just tried to slip in that there were complaints against me,” Kaine shot back. “And that is completely false.”
“Well how do we know that?” replied Stewart.
"Oh, so you think you can just make it up without any facts,” responded Kaine.
After the debate was over, both candidates took questions from the media at the Capitol One Center. Stewart was pressed for any evidence that anyone had ever filed any kind of complaint against Kaine. He was unable to present any, an indication that the final few weeks of the campaign might end up being a wild ride for Republicans. Earlier this year, the party’s chamber-of-commerce faction failed to gain any traction against the Trump wing of the party that Stewart has been leading since long before the New York developer and reality TV star announced for president.
“You had the same battle with Oliver North. You had the same battle with Ken Cuccinelli,” said Republican consultant Dan Scandling. "It’s a long-standing, long-running arch-conservative versus the quote-unquote establishment conservative.”
BEHIND THE RHETORIC and the insults, much of the campaign is a rather garden-variety contest between red and blue. Kaine supports universal background checks for gun purchases while Stewart supports ditching gun-free zones. Kaine supports the ongoing investigation into Russia’s role in influencing the 2016 election; Stewart invited a round of unintentional laughter during a debate earlier this year when he suggested Trump was “standing up to Russia.” Perhaps one of the starkest policy distinctions is international trade, a topic where Stewart is on board with the president’s tariffs.
“Go visit the Ikea plant in Danville,” Kaine said to Stewart at one debate earlier this year. "Go visit other advanced manufacturing facilities in Danville that I worked on when I was governor. I know that you haven’t.”
In response to that moment on the campaign trail, Stewart scheduled a press conference in Danville. Standing in front of a shuttered factory, Stewart defended the president’s protectionist policies.
“We’ve had enough,” Stewart said. "And let the word go out there on behalf of the president of the United States and all those who are standing up for American workers: We’ve had enough, and we’re bringing back manufacturing to Danville and in fact all of the United States of America.”
It’s that sense of urban versus rural that is at the heart of the campaign between Kaine and Stewart. Polling suggests that Kaine is doing well in the population centers, especially along the Interstate 95 corridor or east of it. These are places where Democrats have picked up popularity and support since 2016. Stewart, on the other hand, is doing well in Southwest Virginia. That’s a part of the state that’s actually experiencing somewhat of a “red wave.” Last year’s election returns showed this part of Virginia has actually become more Republican since Trump was elected.
“He’s doing very well in places where there aren’t as many people,” said Farnsworth. "That’s not a recipe for a statewide election victory.”
KAINE AND STEWART are not the only names on the ballot. Libertarian Matt Waters is also on the ballot, but he’s struggling to raise money and gain attention. The University of Mary Washington poll has Waters at 6 percent, and campaign finance records show he’s raised about $30,000. Election returns from recent statewide elections show Libertarians ending up with anywhere from 7 percent to 1 percent of the vote. Back in 2014, Libertarian Robert Sarvis received 2.4 percent during his bid for U.S. Senate. On the campaign trail, Waters has advocated doing away with restrictions on guns and abolishing the federal income tax.
"I want to give American workers a seven to 10 percent pay raise by ending the federal income tax and replacing it with nothing,” said Waters in his campaign announcement. "Which is more important, being forced to pay for the Department of Education and Agriculture, or keeping more of our hard-earned money? Our paychecks do not belong to Washington. They belong to us. It is our money, our property."