When Corey Stewart, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, won the Republican primary in June, President Donald Trump tweeted congratulations.
“Don’t underestimate Corey, a major chance of winning!” Trump tweeted.
Since then, Stewart has campaigned on his record of “cracking down” on unauthorized immigrants in Prince William County, where he is at-large chair of the board of county supervisors.
More recently, he has attacked the Democratic Party as an “unhinged, angry mob.”
In his bid for re-election to a second six-year term, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine has campaigned on the notion of a Virginia that works for all, including access to jobs, education, healthcare and more.
During this midterm election season, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court became a decisive issue between Kaine and Stewart. Kavanaugh’s nomination was confirmed 50-48 by the Senate on Oct. 6. Kaine voted no on Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Stewart called the sexual assault accusation against the then-nominee “a bunch of crap.” On Oct. 6, Stewart tweeted “Kaine sides with mob, votes against Kavanaugh. Fire Kaine!”
Stewart is spending his final weeks on the campaign trail with a “Jobs Not Mobs” tour.
Attacking Democrats by calling them a “mob” is not a productive way to sway swing voters, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science and international affairs professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
“The normal strategy for success in the wake of a divisive primary is to reposition yourself to be more appealing to a general election electorate that’s more moderate than the Republican primary voters,” Farnsworth said. “Corey Stewart hasn’t really done that.”
The 2017 Virginia governor’s race showed that centering a campaign around illegal immigration is “not a path for victory,” Farnsworth said, adding that Republican nominee Ed Gillespie ran a campaign focused on illegal immigration in his failed bid for governor last year.
“That was a key Republican message, and the Republican candidate lost...” Farnsworth said. “There’s not a lot to suggest that the political environment in 2018 is all that different than in 2017.”
Because Republicans are not unified behind Stewart, campaign donors have not looked at the race as a good investment, Farnsworth said. Kaine significantly outraised Stewart throughout the election cycle, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
“If this race was started to be seen as viable for Republicans, you’d see a lot more money coming into this campaign,” Farnsworth said.
More viable, more complicated
Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-10th District, who is seeking election to a third term, is running against state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-33rd District.
In seeking re-election, Comstock has to win Trump supporters, but at the same time not be so pro-Trump that she loses moderate voters, Farnsworth said.
“Comstock’s problem has been consistently that Donald Trump gets all the media attention,” Farnsworth said. “And it’s very hard for her to run well with suburban voters given how much hostility voters there have to Trump… It’s difficult to appeal to both of these constituencies in these contentious political times.”
In 2016, citizens were voting on what then-presidential candidate Donald Trump might do as president, Farnsworth said. Voters will head into the midterm elections this Nov. 6 after two years of the Trump presidency. Usually during midterm elections, the president’s party sees a backlash.
“Trump may be creating more intense reaction than some [past] presidents, but midterm elections are routinely dominated by voters who are angry about the president,” Farnsworth said. “Barbara Comstock would be in a much more comfortable political position if Hillary Clinton were president. Then the backlash would be against the Democrat.”
Whether having a Republican president will be enough to help Democratic candidates, “we’ll see,” Farnsworth said. “But no doubt about it, midterms are historically about punishing the party in the White House.”
Beyond personalities, current events will likely drive voter involvement on Nov. 6. The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, bomb threats against prominent Democrats, a caravan of asylum seekers marching toward the U.S. border, and the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27 will motivate voters focused on issues like foreign affairs, hyper-partisanship, immigration and gun control.
"You have a wide variety of issues on the agenda,” Farnsworth said. “If you can’t find an issue that interests you in 2018, you’re not paying attention.”