RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - The conference room at Henrico Public Library is standing-room only as Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Abigail Spanberger, a fellow Democrat on the 2018 midterm ballot, enter to roaring applause.
Joining a former CIA analyst and other experts on national security, the pair are part of a panel offering insights into an election season that years ago would have been ignored by the news cycle.
“It didn’t matter who was a Democrat or a Republican,” Spanberger says to the audience, speaking to her years as a CIA case officer, recruiting foreign nationals to share information with her agency to fight terrorism at home and abroad. “We were working together to keep our country safe, to thwart the terrorist threat and inform our policymakers back home.”
The room explodes in applause, applause so loud it nearly dwarfs the reaction Kaine, who has over 20 years in Virginia politics, gets with his own stump speech that day.
Virginia’s 2018 midterm landscape - with all 11 House seats up for grabs along with Kaine’s Senate seat - will undoubtedly be high on the election night watch list. Looking past the top of the ticket, where a Republican candidate who has been called racist by members of his own party, trackers like the Cook Political Report are predicting potential upsets in several traditionally red congressional districts in rural and military-heavy parts of the state.
Vying to represent a district that has been red since 1971, Spanberger stands out. Congressional District 7 made headlines last when incumbent and tea party conservative Dave Brat usurped Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014 with help from the then-unknown Steve Bannon.
Brat did not return a request for comment, but a look at past primary turnout suggests a difference. Brat defeated Cantor with 55 percent of about 65,000 votes cast. Spanberger beat her opponent with 70 percent of about 45,000 votes cast. While comparing primaries might be a fool's errand, it does reflect a difference in energy in a year when energy matters most.
And energy is something Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and Kaine’s Republican challenger is hoping to tap into. After years of vying to get on the ballot for a state office run, he overtook the state party’s preferred candidate by just over 5,000 votes. His tumultuous history of associating with known white supremacists like Jason Kessler (of Unite the Right 1 and 2 fame) has cast a shadow over his first shot at a statewide seat.
“It's a distraction,” Stewart said in an interview regarding the claims by conservative and liberal pundits alike of his views on race. “All these news outlets … have investigated my past thoroughly and they haven’t been able to find a single racist comment I’ve ever made.”
Trailing Kaine by more than 20 points, Stewart’s attempts to douse the heated claims have shown little success. His campaign coffers are also drying up, reporting just over $160,000 in cash on hand to Kaine’s $6 million, thanks to a lack of interest from the Republican National Committee and minimal support from state party members.
But the candidate himself predicts that loyalty to President Donald Trump will be the key to success in November.