(CN) – In their first debate of the 2018 midterm season, incumbent Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and insurgent Republican candidate Corey Stewart devoted most of their energies Saturday to sparring over policies of the Trump administration.
Stewart’s support of Trump helped him take the lead in the primary earlier this year and he was unabashed in that message as he praised the president’s tax reform bill, immigration policy and rollback of regulations.
“We need a senator who will stand with President Trump,” said Stewart as he uttered a line he would repeat throughout the over 90 minute debate. “Kaine is a nice guy, but he’s too liberal and too weak. He’s done too little for the Commonwealth.”
Kaine pushed back saying Trump’s tax efforts benefited corporations instead of citizens and his other policies caused more harm than good.
“It shouldn’t matter where you’re from, who your parents are, who you love,” he said. “We’ve got a president who is too divisive … we need leaders who can pull us together.”
The largest outbursts of the event happened after Stewart was asked about Trump’s relationship with Russia.
“Russians have been spying for years,” he said before going on to blame former President Barack Obama for not being tough enough on Vladimir Putin.
“We have a president [in Trump] who is standing up to the Russians,” Stewart said.
“Ha!” chided Kaine, inspiring cheers from the audience.
But Stewart stayed the course, saying Russia was a needed ally as the world works to handle issues related to China and North Korea.
“We need to continue to work with them,” he said. “They’re always going to be meddling, but you don’t deep 6 that relationship … based upon this alleged meddling.”
Kaine pushed back, saying Trump was “caving” to the Russians and Putin while turning longtime allies against us.
“When he was on stage with Putin… [Trump] went all soft. And he believed Putin over the hardworking Americans that concluded Russia is attacking us,” he said. “We don’t need someone who caves to dictators.”
Trump’s tariff policy was also up for debate. Moderator Judy Woodruff, anchor of the PBS Newshour, asked Stewart about how Virginia’s soybean farmers, or employees at a Volvo plant, should react to the increased costs they are facing under the aggressive international trade policy.
“We have to get tough … No president until now has been serious about opening markets,” Stewart said before listing the export costs US products face when shipping out of the country. “American workers are the most efficient in the world, but it needs to be a level playing field”
Kaine shot back and called the tariff policy “foolish” and said it was hurting Virginian farmers and workers. “[Tariffs do not] help a soybean farmer who is losing enormous value every day.”
“The president is waging a trade war against Americans,” he said before further condemning Trump’s use of tariffs on countries like Canada and the EU.
“He’s using a national security waiver not just against China, he’s using it against Canada,” he said. “Nations that have fought with us side-by-side since the war of 1812.”
On energy issues, Stewart accused Kaine of supporting offshore drilling along the states Atlantic coast, a policy Kaine said he supported, along with the citizens of the coastal areas that would be impacted, until the BP oil spill in 2010.
“There’s no reason to risk economic health on a speculative venture,” he said.
Stewart, meanwhile, praised Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations that he said lead to the death of the coal industry along the state’s western, Appalachian mountains.
“That needs to be our policy,” he said. “I support the president’s policy in continuing to explore for more oil and gas resources.”
On healthcare, Stewart bashed Obama’s ACA plan in all ways accept its protection for pre-existing conditions – counter to a recent Trump admin push- as well as allowing children to stay on their parents policy until they’re 26. He also said healthcare money is wasted at the federal level and insurance companies should be allowed to sell their policies across state lines.
“Medicaid is inefficient and too expensive for the states who have to fund it,” he said. “It needs to be brought back to the states.”
Kaine defended the ACA but also advocated for what he called “Medicare X” which would act as a non-profit insurance company that consumers could purchase on the market while omitting the cost of “fancy salaries and marketing campaigns.”
Woodruff also challenged Stewart on his history of associating with activists in the far-right, namely his multiple appearances with Charlottesville white supremacist Jason Kessler who organized last summer’s deadly Charlottesville Nazi rally. Woodruff also mentioned the National Republican Senate Committee’s refusal to support him financially because of his ties to these groups. But Stewart deflected.
“There’s not a racist bone in my body,” Stewart said before stressing that he’s met “hundreds of people, and I’ve disavowed them.”
Kaine again shot back.
“It was Cory who sought out Kessler, not the other way around,” he said. “He knows who these people are, he knows what they said before, and he’s decided to use whatever he finds attractive to get ahead.”
Stewart pointed to a democratic candidate in Virginia’s Fifth District congressional race, journalist Leslie Cockburn, who wrote a book condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians almost 30-years-ago. Stewart called her an anti-Semite and accused Kaine of failing to disavow her.
“You can be critical of someone’s foreign policy without being an anti-Semite,” Kaine responded.
In wrapping up the debate, Woodruff gave both candidates, both Minnesota natives and Virginia transplants, a chance to talk about which Virginian they admire most.
Kaine said it was his father-in-law Linwood Holton. Holton was born in rural Virginia but went on to become the state’s governor in the early 70s when he helped integrate the state’s schools after years of “massive resistance” kept them segregated.
“Lin has lived out this value that we have to be a Commonwealth for all,” he said.
Stewart responded by claiming he admired Virginians who aimed to preserve their historic legacy. Citing a campaign promise to maintain Civil-war era monuments, he accused those who wish to see them torn down as “trying to remove our history and take down historical monuments that have sat their peacefully for 100 years”
Woodruff then asked for clarification for a “single” Virginian he admires to which he responded his wife, Maria Sjöström, a Swedish immigrant he married in 1994.
Stewart’s loyalty to the president has gotten him this far, but that could end up being a hurdle for the November election. Trump lost the state in 2016, and, according to a June 2018 Quinnipiac University Poll, he remains deeply unpopular with 56% of the population disapproving of his policies.
That same poll found Stewart trails Kaine by about 18 points.
Virginians go to the polls November 6th.