RICHMOND (CN) – A new statewide poll shows President Donald Trump and his policies are deeply unpopular in Virginia, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans from entering the state’s 2018 Senate primary contest in hopes of taking on the popular Democratic incumbent, Tim Kaine.
Among those who’ll be on the ballot June 12 is Corey Stewart, a current member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and former official on Trump 2016 campaign in Virginia.
But he’s best known for his candidacy in last year’s Republican primary for governor. Stewart, a staunch conservative, lost that race by a only a few thousand votes, and he’s considered to have the best name recognition of any of the GOP hopefuls.
“The president’s tax cut is a game changer,” said Stewart when asked how he plans to overcome the potential anti-Trump backlash in 2018.
The candidate professed to be unconcerned, saying he would “roll out the red carpet” for Trump if the President offered to help his campaign.
In the two–part poll released this week by Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy, Trump’s approval rating sits at 37 percent with 52 percent of Virginia voters “strongly” disapproving of the job he’s doing.
Voters across the Commonwealth are starkly divided on his policy decisions as well: 71 percent support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act to give citizenship to individuals who were brought into the United States illegally as children, and 54 percent oppose his plan to open the mid-Atlantic to offshore drilling.
These numbers, similar to those released by another polling group before the 2017 gubernatorial election, suggest an uphill battle for Republicans.
Last year, Virginia saw an historic increase in the number of Democrats voted into the state legislature. This year, with all 11 congressional seats up for grabs, even more is on the line and the news isn’t much better with this week’s poll putting four formerly-solid red districts in play for Democrats.
“As voters feel the benefit of the tax cut, Trump’s polling numbers will improve,” Stewart said. “As the economy begins to soar, the president’s brand, the conservative brand, will improve as well.”
That said, Stewart‘s penchant for making headlines — he recently stood on the steps of the Capitol and called GOP members of the state house “flaccid” for being willing to compromise on a Medicaid proposal — haven’t won him much support from establishment Republicans.
Instead they appear to be rallying around state Delegate Nick Freitas. An Iraq war Veteran, Freitas raised his national profile just a few days after the Wason Center poll concluded.
In a rousing House floor speech he suggested arming some teachers to counter school shooters and blamed the breakdown of the family and abortions as the reason school shootings happen in the first place.
“Why do mass shootings take place in gun free zones … shooters come from broken homes. What government policies have encouraged broken homes?” he said in the video which has since gone viral and landed him prime TV spots on Fox News. “Look at … the abortion industry… the welfare state as families became more dependent on the government.”
He also authored a “religious freedom” bill during the 2017 session that passed both branches of the state house and was condemned by LGBTQ advocates as a “license to discriminate.” The state’s former governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, vetoed the bill when it arrived on his desk.
Freitas came in a third when pollsters asked which GOP candidate they preferred, but his viral video and the support from Virginia’s House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is growing his base of supporters.
Other names on the GOP ballot include Ivan Raiklin, a national Guard veteran and Arlington-based Tech investor, and Retired Army Major General Bert Mizusawa.
Both Raiklin and Mizusawa offered their military experience as qualifiers for their chance at the Senate seat. But Raiklin is also trying to distinguish himself from his fellow Republicans, saying he’d offer a more center-right approach than his opponents.
“It’s an uphill battle – the competition is great, the other side has national name ID and funding,” he said noting his time and training overseas made him the best equipped to handle the Commonwealth’s growing immigrant communities.
“The demographics coupled with my background, my passions and experience suits better at the federal level, because of my national and international reach.”
Mizusawa, however, was once part of Trump’s transition team and served in an advisory role under the president which could play well with Trump’s base.
But Mizusawa also said he’s his own man, and won’t hesitate to oppose the president when he feels he needs to.
“Trump is now the president of the US and he deserves support when he’s right, but if I disagree with him I will take that position publicly,” he said, noting he was less able to contradict the president in his former advisory role, but that could change if he enters congress. “Mr. Trump listens and he changes his mind. As a Senator, he won’t be my boss, and I’ll be free to speak my mind publicly, but I think he deserves our support.”
No matter who wins in June, the candidate will face a popular incumbent in Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s former VP running mate, who’s roots and political history run deep in Virginia.
Recent polls show Kane currently has at least a 20 points advantage over his prospective Republican challengers, and his job approval rating is over 50 percent across the Commonwealth.
“‘Virginia for all’ is going to be the campaign,” Kaine said. “It shouldn’t matter what region you live in, where you come from, who your family is, or what your income level is … I’m going to run a campaign that celebrates that, but we’ve got so much more to do.”
Steve Farnsworth, a political science professor and political analyst at the University of Mary Washington, said Republicans have quite the advisory in Kaine. He pointed to polling for the senator, the 2017’s “blue wave” or freshmen democrats nearly taking the state House and the impact Trump’s controversial policies and tweets continue to have on voters as reasons for any GOP candidate to be worried.
“Even in an ordinary election cycle, challenging Tim Kaine would be an uphill battle,” he said. noting the lack of well or better known candidates on the GOP ticket so far could also speak to how confident those on the right are when it comes to taking back Kaine’s seat.
“The unpopularity of Trump and the nature of a midterm election which tends to be pretty anti-President … even the most vulnerable incumbents would get top tier challengers and he is not getting top tier challengers,” he said.
But John Whitbeck, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, thinks the polls, the surge of democrat wins in 2017, and the supposed anti-Trump sentiment is all hogwash. He pointed to polls ahead of the 2016 race that had Hillary Clinton thrashing Trump and occupying the White House.
“All polling in Virginia is utter garbage, it’s wrong and you shouldn’t listen to it,” he said, adding. “When I spoke to Trump at the White House Christmas party he told me how committed he was to winning Virginia in 2020 and 2018.”
“[Trump] has a special place in his heart in Virginia,” he said. “It’s always on his radar and I think he’s always committed to help us in any way he can.”
But he wasn’t blind to the energy that’s inspired Democrats to get to the polls here in Virginia and nationwide.
“There is a massive amount of motivation on the other side,” he said. “And we’re going to have to counter that with enough messaging, successes and hard work to turn out voters on our side.