By ALAN SUDERMAN
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Some GOP congressmen in Virginia want nothing to do with their own party’s provocative candidate for Senate, Corey Stewart, an outspoken acolyte of President Donald Trump and defender of Confederate monuments. Stewart says he’s fine with the cold shoulders if it helps Republicans win.
By contrast, Democrats appear to be one big happy family, with down-ballot Democrats eager to campaign with incumbent Tim Kaine.
It’s a dynamic that could affect overall turnout in Virginia and have far reaching effects. Republicans currently hold seven U.S. House seats in Virginia and Democrats are bullish on their chances of flipping four of them. That would go a long way in helping the party take control of the House. Nationwide, Democrats need to flip 24 seats to take a majority.
Kaine and Stewart are set to face off Saturday in their first debate.
While 136,000 primary voters have made Stewart his party’s de facto state standard bearer, Stewart’s in-your-face style is too politically toxic for much of the state’s congressional GOP caucus.
Rep. Rob Wittman said his schedule is so full he can’t find time to run with Stewart. Rep. Barbara Comstock has all but ignored Stewart. And Rep. Scott Taylor has told media outlets that Stewart has “no way in hell” of winning the general election without a campaign makeover and that he “doesn’t give a (expletive) about Corey Stewart.”
But if Stewart is offended, he’s not showing it. Stewart said such snubs are all part of politics. All he cares about is whether Republican candidates succeed in turning out GOP voters.
“I want him to win, I want him to generate the most votes possible, and if that means bashing me, I don’t care,” Stewart said of Taylor’s remarks.
The treatment Stewart is getting from fellow GOP candidates is similar to how some Virginia Republicans have treated Trump. Comstock and Taylor have both at times criticized the president and sought to amplify their own political identity. Comstock is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country, as Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam won her Northern Virginia district by 9 percentage points.
Northam also won Taylor’s Hampton Roads district by more than 4 percentage points.
Ed Gillespie, the GOP nominee for governor in 2017, never sought to campaign with Trump and rarely mentioned his name. But Gillespie actively tried to court Trump voters by embracing the president’s rhetoric supporting Confederate monuments and condemning NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. The strategy, which former Trump strategist Steve Bannon dubbed “Trumpism without Trump,” failed miserably and Gillespie was easily defeated by Northam.
The mood on the other side is noticeably different, where Democrats are eager to campaign with Kaine. This year will be Kaine’s first at top of the ticket since his successful 2005 gubernatorial bid. His campaign plans to manage a coordinated statewide effort that will help down-ballot Democrats identify voters and get them to the polls.
During a recent 41-stop campaign swing, Kaine said he campaigned with a Democratic congressional candidate in 25 of those events.
“We do want to run as a team,” Kaine said at a recent campaign stop in Arlington. “That’s a real contrast with the other side.”
Kaine’s high visibility as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate has helped him raise heaps of cash. And he can use those funds to help down-ballot Democrats. One of his political committees has already donated more than $1 million to the state party this year.
Stewart has struggled to raise serious money and national GOP groups have also indicated they don’t expect to spend money helping him.
With a growing urban and suburban population that trends more liberal, Virginia has increasingly become a tough sell for statewide GOP candidates. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2009. Virginia was the only Southern state Trump lost.
Stewart said he’s planning a more subdued approach in the general election, with promises to focus more on economic issues and less on social ones. He said his previous promises to run a “vicious” campaign against Kaine means he’ll be “brutally honest” about Kaine’s record, and not attack him personally.
“I’m not trying to be over the top,” Stewart said.