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Tim Kaine looks to keep Democratic streak alive in Virginia

November 20, 2018

Just a few election cycles removed from when Republicans had a solid lock on Virginia’s congressional delegation, Sen. Tim Kaine is on the brink of ensuring the commonwealth is represented by two Democrats in the Senate for at least another two years.

Republicans have been shut out in statewide races since 2009, and Virginia’s ever-changing demographics coupled with a suburban revolt against President Trump suggests that streak will continue this year.

In the 2018 Senate race in Virginia, Mr. Kaine has far outpaced Republican challenger Corey Stewart in both public polling and fundraising and said he thinks Virginians will respond to a positive message.

“I believe that there is a clear choice in my race between backward-focused, angry and divisive and forward-looking, positive and unifying,” Mr. Kaine told radio hosts John Fredericks and Chris Saxman. “I think I know who Virginians are I think they want somebody who will ennoble and uplift and motivate rather than divide.”

Mr. Stewart has tried to carry the pro-Trump mantle in the race, closing the campaign with a message of “Jobs not Mobs” and saying Mr. Kaine and other Democrats want open borders and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Mr. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, says voters can count on him to mix things up in the Senate and that his internal polling shows the race is much closer than public surveys have shown.

“People know exactly what I stand for, and that’s engendered a lot of passion,” he said. “People are excited about my race. Some people hate me, too, but there’s a lot of passion on our side and that passion was lacking in 2017 for [Ed] Gillespie.”

Mr. Stewart narrowly lost to Mr. Gillespie in the GOP primary in last year’s governor’s race, and Mr. Gillespie went on to lose to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam by 9 percentage points.

Mr. Gillespie won more votes than any Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia history, but that milestone was drowned out by a surge in Democratic turnout amid a significant anti-Trump wave being felt in an increasingly bluish Virginia.

Mr. Kaine, first elected in 2012 after former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb chose not to run for a second term, led Mr. Stewart by close to 19 points in the latest Real Clear Politics average. Mr. Kaine has raised more than $21 million for his re-election, squirreling away more than $4.8 million for the campaign’s closing stretch.

Mr. Stewart, meanwhile, raised $2.4 million and had about $714,000 on hand as of mid-October.

Republicans can’t completely embrace Mr. Trump in a state Democrat Hillary Clinton carried and expect a positive result, said J. Tucker Martin, a GOP consultant who advised Mr. Gillespie’s campaign last year.

“In the Trump era, Virginia is a blue state, because he is just a bad fit for what Virginia is and he makes life so much more difficult for Virginia Republicans,” Mr. Martin said.

Mr. Martin also worked for former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who led a Republican sweep of Virginia’s top three statewide offices in 2009. He also worked on Mr. Gillespie’s Senate campaign in 2014 when he nearly ousted Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who will next face voters in 2020.

Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Gillespie both downplayed divisive social issues in those campaigns and hammered home themes tied to jobs and the economy.

“I think for Virginia Republicans, being boring is good,” Mr. Martin said. “We didn’t chase shiny objects there was no attempt to be provocative.”

That’s a contrast to Mr. Stewart, who intentionally pushes the envelope to attract media attention.

He made defending Confederate monuments a key part of his 2017 and 2018 campaigns, and has recently asked whether Mr. Kaine might be on a secret list of sexual harassers on Capitol Hill a claim Mr. Kaine has repeatedly denied.

“I’m a pot-stirrer,” Mr. Stewart said. “That’s the problem with the Senate it has to be shaken up.”

The close Warner-Gillespie race suggests that the right kind of Republican, in the right environment, can win statewide in Virginia though not necessarily this year, said Dan Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond.

“I think you need somebody like a Gillespie or a McDonnell,” he said. “The state has changed since McDonnell ran for governor, but he’s the kind of Republican who can win here. Conservative, principled, but acceptable to the mainstream in terms of his style, which is a more bipartisan style or at least kind of statesmanlike, if you will.”

Mr. McDonnell was convicted on corruption charges after he left office for accepting gifts from a wealthy supporter as governor, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2016.

Both Mr. Kaine and Mr. Warner posted solid if unspectacular approval numbers in a Morning Consult survey released last month, suggesting that they don’t necessarily have a permanent lock on their seats.

Forty-five percent of Virginians said they approved of the job Mr. Kaine was doing, compared to 34 percent who said they disapproved. Mr. Warner, first elected in 2008, had a 49 percent-30 percent approve-disapprove split.

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