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.
“I run on my gut, I don’t run on polls,” Stewart said. “I think a lot has changed since 2016. [Trump’s] loss in Virginia was very narrow, despite being outspent. … Since then, his efforts to rejuvenate the economy have been successful, the unemployment is at an all-time low. … I think people are a lot more favorable to him now then they were in 2016.”
Stewart, who says he speaks with members of the Trump administration weekly, predicted that an in-person endorsement is forthcoming.
“He can’t resist the temptation to come to Virginia,” Stewart said, alluding to the Trump Winery in Charlottesville, nestled in the state’s rolling hills. “He’s a strong supporter of mine.”
But those who have been tracking politics in the commonwealth for years are less optimistic for Stewart.
Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, is focused for one the lessons from last year’s race, which saw the Republican Party lose 15 seats in the state’s House of Delegates.
Helping to coin the term “blue wave,” heavy Democratic turnout nearly shifted the body to the left for the first time in 18 years.
“The Republicans got a wakeup call for how Trump works in the suburbs in Virginia,” Farnsworth said in an interview.
“Current indications are Trump’s impact in 2017 will look the same in 2018,” Farnsworth added. “Especially those voters who don’t like the combative, chaotic presidency.”
And while the national spotlight has been trained mostly on the Senate race and District 7, one so-called “lean Republican” district held by rising GOP star Scott Taylor is also grabbing headlines.
That Taylor sent his paid staff to collect signatures for a progressive, independent candidate is not itself notable; Farnsworth and others have said the strategy is common enough for candidates trying to split the vote on what could be a tight race.
What aroused a criminal investigation and civil suit now before a Richmond judge, however, are the claims that Taylor’s staff forged some of the names on that petition, at times using the names of dead people.
Taylor’s campaign did not return a request to be interviewed on these allegations.
Farnsworth thinks this scandal could be the one that tips the scales in favor of Taylor’s Democratic challenger, Navy veteran Elaine G. Luria.
“For an endangered incumbent, the last thing you need is a scandal like this,” the professor said.
Nearly 200 miles inland of Taylor’s coastal District 2, another scandal opened up a reliable red seat in District 5 this past May when Republican Tom Garrett resigned over his abuse of alcohol.
Since then Garrett’s would-be successors have been embroiled in a literal war of words. While Democrat Leslie Cockburn has faced questions about her co-authorship of a 1991 book that criticized Israeli politics, the Republican Denver Riggleman has been confronted about his publications on Bigfoot, and more specifically his social media posts that give graphic dimension to the legendary monster’s genitalia.
Nearby, the 6th District made headlines on Aug. 12 when Democrat candidate Jennifer Lewis received a donation for the maximum individual amount from Bobby Goodlatte, the son of retiring conservative Bob Goodlatte.
When news emerged the next day that the FBI had fired embattle FBI agent Peter Strzok, the younger Goodlatte lamented that Strzok’s exit may have been helped his father’s “political grandstanding” in a congressional hearing.
“That committee hearing was a low point for Congress,” Goodlatte posted to Twitter.
But Farnsworth doesn’t think Bigfoot erotica or family squabbles will change voters’ minds in these reliably red districts.
“They come and go,” he said.
Further up north, in the suburban D.C. battlegrounds of Virginia’s 10th District, incumbent Republican Barbara Comstock faces off against Democratic state Senator Jennifer Wexton in her first run for national office. Comstock has walked the line between Trump acolyte and critic, though her voting record paints a loyal picture. In a district that went for Hillary Clinton by a margin of 9.8 points two years ago, the Cook Political Report is favoring Wexton, whose ground game and name recognition helped her win a tough primary.
Farnsworth said the reason we haven’t heard much drama come out of Virginia’s 10th District is the race is more about each candidate appealing to their base.
“Comstock has to thread the needle,” he said, noting she must continue to appeal to both Trump’s base and those suburban voters who have since turned their backs on the president.
“This is a base election,” Farnsworth said of both candidates’ strategies. “You go to your people. There aren’t a lot of persuadables in the middle. They need to make sure the people who say they will vote actually turn out.”
Virginians go to the polls Nov. 6.