RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - Republican Corey Stewart stands at the foot of the Virginia capitol just moments after four GOP state senators break ranks and vote in support of Medicaid expansion, a five-year-old goal for state democrats.
“Weak Republicans are the reason we continue to lose elections,” says the Prince William County supervisor who lost last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, but is leading in name recognition in this year’s GOP senate primary.
His second trip to the capitol in as many weeks, Stewart last appeared to call GOP officials who voted in support of expansion “flaccid” and “garbage.”
“[Republicans] are looking for someone to support the president,” he told a scrum of reporters. “Even when it's controversial.”
About eight miles to the west on the same day, Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer and democratic candidate in Virginia’s 7th congressional district, is broadcasting a Facebook Live interview with a leader of Emily’s List, a PAC that works to get progressive women elected.
“[Every issue] leads to the [Trump] administration, but with so many of the people we’re talking to, we don’t have to talk about that,” says the candidate, noting the anti-Trump energy she’s seen on the campaign trail throughout the suburbs of the state’s capital.
With only a few days until Virginians return to the polls, and only eight months after democrats flipped 15 seats in the state legislature, helping coin the term “blue wave,” the congressional primary elections this Tuesday will offer several chances to test the Trump administration as well as democrats’ energy going into the 2018 midterms.
Stewart, a long time GOP firebrand who defended his follower’s attacks on his primary opponent Nick Freitas’ last name as “something you’d find on the dollar menu at Taco Bell,” is on track to take the Senate GOP Primary against Democratic Incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine.
His opponents, rural state Delegate and establishment favorite Freitas and Virginia Beach Pastor E. W. Jackson, have had mixed success with hardliner messages, but both trail Stewart in favorability and name recognition according to recent polling.
Those numbers, collected by Roanoke College’s Institute for Public Opinion Research and released this week, are worse for the GOP as a whole as all three lag behind Kaine by double digits.
“It seems now its setting up to be a competition to be the best Trump ‘yes man’ they can find,” said Kaine about his primary opponents in an interview with Courthouse News earlier this year.
With about 25 years in Virginia politics, starting as the mayor of Richmond and working his way to his current state-wide seat, Kaine is confident staying positive and reaching out to Virginians Trump has neglected, if not attacked, will keep him in power come November.
But GOP woes in Virginia extend past the nearly-insurmountable task of unseating Kaine.
The once-reliably red state went for Hillary en mass in 2016, as well as Democrat Ralph Northam in last year’s gubernatorial race. And the congressional districts where Clinton and Northam won often overlap with Republican-held seats to create what some consider three flippable seats in the democrat’s war to retake the House.
Virginia’s 10th District, currently held by Republican Barbara Comstock, is considered the most contentious race in the state. The Cook Political Report gives it a +1 for Democrats and six contenders have stepped up to the challenge.
Most notable are State Senator Jennifer Wexton, former Obama State Department official Alison Friedman and Army Veteran Dan Helmer. While Wexton is no stranger to state politics, winning her senate seat in 2014, Friedman, a newcomer to political office, leads in fundraising with over $1 million raised during this campaign season, about twice what Comstock has raised.
But Helmer has managed to find the spotlight thanks to a campaign ad calling Trump the biggest threat to democracy since Osama bin Laden. The ad managed to draw the attention of White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah who called it “reprehensible” in an official statement.
“I would say any Democratic congressional candidate would call it a win if they get attacked by the White House,” said University of Mary Washington Professor of political science and longtime Virginia politico Stephen Farnsworth. He said Trump is undoubtedly the largest influencer for Democrats this year as polls show he continues to have abysmal favorability in the state.
And while Comstock has gone back-and-forth with her support for the Commander and Chief, her voting record shows she votes with the president nearly 100 percent of the time, a valuable talking point for whoever wins the Democratic Primary next week.
Virginia’s second most contentious race lies along its south eastern coast. Virginia 2, which encompasses the usually conservative regions of the rural Eastern Shore and military-rich Virginia Beach, has a Cook Report score of R+3 with Congressional freshmen and former Navy Seal Scott Taylor facing off against teacher Karen Mallard or former Navy commander Elaine Luria depending on Tuesday’s results.
Taylor has worked to appeal to the area’s more progressive base on issues like same-sex marriage, but he’s still taken flack in local Letters to the Editor where self-proclaimed republican-voters, like Norfolk resident Ellen Carlson, have announced they’ll vote for whomever runs against him as he’s become “a Trump acolyte and the absolute poster child for exclusion.”
Virginia 7 has also been considered flippable by national media outlets despite the large swath of rural and traditionally red voters. There, one of two democrats, Spanberger or former-Obama State Department member Dan Ward, will challenge incumbent and tea-party-legacy Dave Brat. Brat made headlines when, in 2014, he defeated former House Speaker Eric Cantor, with help from Steve Bannon and hardliner conservative media exposure.
Now, the two democrats are hoping for a similarly newsworthy upset, and they might have the numbers to do it.
“There’s a lot of anti-Trump hostility in suburban areas,” Farnsworth said, comparing the 7th District to the upset the GOP saw in Pennsylvania’s 18th district special election earlier this year.
And Farnsworth’s theories are playing out through folks like Kathy Nunn, a Henrico County resident and empty nester who found herself motivated enough to volunteer for a political campaign for the first time in decades.
“I’m concerned with the way things are going in Washington,” Nunn said in between making phone calls to support Spanberger’s campaign. “And I can’t complain unless I’m willing to get involved, so here I am.”
Virginians head to the polls Tuesday, June 12.
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