President Donald Trump and his administration’s policies loomed large over Saturday’s heated U.S. Senate debate in Virginia, as Democratic incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine faced off with avowedly pro-Trump Republican challenger Corey Stewart.
At the Virginia Bar Association-organized debate in Hot Springs, Virginia, both candidates tried to pin down the other on their relationship to President Trump, with Kaine portraying Stewart as “a 100% pro-Trumper” and “President Trump acolyte” whose campaign strategy was to “make it personal, make it nasty, or make it up.”
Ironically, Kaine also defended himself against Stewart’s accusation he was a “left-wing radical liberal” who “opposes everything” Trump does “automatically” by highlighting the times he has found common ground with the man he fought desperately to keep out of the White House as Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
For example, Stewart brushed aside Kaine’s insistence he was considering Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. “You can bet your bottom dollar that Sen. Kaine, who is an ultra-liberal, and who takes his orders from Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton, that he’s going to be voting against Judge Kavanaugh. We know that,” Stewart told to debate moderator Judy Woodruff.
“I have voted for so many of President Trump’s nominees and I work with him every day. I have voted for President Trump, many of his judicial nominees,” Kaine said, also highlighting how he was able to work with moderate Republicans like Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) on legislation.
Tough immigration has long been Stewart’s central issue. In his time as chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, for example, he implemented anti-sanctuary policies to facilitate the county’s jails’ cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
On Saturday, he tried to pin Kaine with the “open borders” label and characterized a “Families Belong Together” rally in Richmond, Virginia, at which he spoke as an “Abolish ICE” rally. Breitbart News reported live from a simultaneous sister-rally in Washington, DC, and can confirm many attendees and a not insignificant number of speakers called explicitly for the abolition of ICE and an end to the enforcement of most immigration laws.
Kaine pushed back on Stewart’s claims he supported “open borders” or “Abolish ICE.” “He recently got fact-checked for that and it was pants-on-fire,” Kaine said.
He characterized the “Families Belong Together” rally, organized by George Soros-funded MoveOn and other leftist groups, as a “family reunification” rally, rather than one to “abolish ICE.”
Kaine emphasized that he supported “comprehensive immigration reform.” “We are a nation of immigrants. It was in the Declaration of Independence,” he said.
Economic and trade issues dominated the early part of the debate in which Kaine staked out his robust support for free trade and his opposition to Trump’s tariffs and “America First” stance against multilateral trade agreements.
“We’ve lost five million manufacturing jobs in this country under the trade agreements … that Sen. Kaine is for,” Stewart said. “I’m an international trade attorney. I believe in free trade. But free trade must be free in both directions. … President Trump is doing the right thing to pry open foreign markets.”
On taxes, Kaine rejected Stewart’s insinuation he was set on repealing Republican’s popular tax cuts. “The priorities were completely wrong. We should have had a tax bill that prioritized tax relief for regular people,” Kaine said, but added, “I’m not gonna repeal the tax cut, but we’ve got work to do to make sure the tax code is fair to individuals and not just a giveaway to the biggest corporations.”
Stewart claimed that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is estimated to put an extra $2,617 in the average Virginia family’s pocket and used an anecdote from Virginia politics to illustrate Kaine, who once served as governor of the state, as a philosophically tax-and-spend liberal.
“Senator, not only are you an extreme liberal, but you also have a very selective memory,” Stewart said, recalling:
When you first became governor and I was chairman of the board of supervisors of Prince William County I thought, “Well, here’s someone who’s got some local background, he’s going to try and fix our local transportation problem.” … Do you know the first thing that he did when he became governor? He proposed a four billion dollar tax increase.
In a section of the debate in which each candidate was allowed to ask the other a question, Stewart hammered Kaine for what he saw as flip-flopping on issues like off-shore drilling and late-term abortion, which Kaine has said it was a “moral imperative” to ban.
“Isn’t it true that when you joined the Hillary Clinton campaign, after Hillary told you to change your positions, you changed all those positions and others?” Stewart asked.
“No,” Kaine answered unequivocally, explaining his shift on drilling to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, assessments by the Department of Defense, and popular opinions in Virginia’s Tidewater coast. On his opposition to a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks, Kaine punted, saying the proposed law was unconstitutional and that Stewart sought to ban all abortion and arrest women seeking them.
Much of the debate also focused on racial and other divides that have become central to Virginia politics over recent election cycles.
“We have a president who’s too divisive,” Kaine said in his opening statement. “We saw the pain of division last year in Charlottesville. Been there, done that, got the scar tissue. Virginia doesn’t want to go back to division. We have to have people who work for all.”
The Charlottesville reference was a none-too-subtle reference to Stewart’s support for the maintenance of Virginia’s Confederate history. Kaine and the moderator both hit Stewart on his associations with fringe figures like Paul Nehlen and Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, whom Stewart has disavowed.
Stewart decried a “double standard,” pointing to Kaine’s endorsement of Democratic congressional candidate Leslie Cockburn, who co-wrote a book on Israeli influence on American foreign policy that the Virginia GOP has called “virulently anti-Semitic.” Stewart also pointed to Kaine supporter Charlottesville City Councilor Wes Bellamy whom Stewart called an “open racist.”
Bellamy was among the leaders of the push to remove Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments that led to the Unite the Rally. He was forced to resign from Virginia’s State Board of Education in 2016 over tweets about how he “hated seeing white people” and found arguments Thomas Jefferson was a white supremacist “interesting.”
“Every time you find a conservative, anybody who supports President Trump, anytime you find somebody who wants to protect our monuments, anytime you find someone who wants to remove dangerous criminal illegal aliens, you call them a racist,” Stewart said after explaining his disavowals of Kessler and Nehlen. “And people are tired of it and they’re sick of it and frankly that is why President Trump defeated you and Hillary.”
Kaine would not have it, responding, “You can look through the record Corey, I haven’t called you a racist. I don’t call people racists unless they’re white supremacists.”