Kaine, a popular former governor and lieutenant governor who was Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential pick in 2016, said he does not think division within the country is “as bad as it seems.”
“I see a lot of common ground,” Kaine said, smiling as he praised the “civility” of Virginians he meets on the campaign trail — even those who he said strongly disagree with him.
Kaine holds a comfortable lead over Stewart in most polls, including a 17-point margin in a poll released earlier this week by Roanoke College, which found 51 percent supporting Kaine and 34 percent backing Stewart.
The Democrat also has a massive financial edge over the Republican. Kaine raised $18.2 million to Stewart’s $1.1 million, according to reports filed at the end of June.
Both candidates gave opening statements and fielded questions from the audience during the hour-long forum, which was moderated by the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Tech. The questions, which audience members could text to moderators, touched on subjects from how Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, will try to win over moderate Republicans to why someone who is against abortion should support Kaine.
Kaine was joined by several Democratic officials, including state Del. Chris Hurst, who represents Blacksburg, and Del. Danica Roem, Virginia’s first transgender state lawmaker, who is from Manassas — the heart of Stewart’s Prince William County. Also applauding Kaine was Anthony Flaccavento, a farmer and Democrat running for Congress from the district surrounding the Virginia Tech campus, and Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, who is a former Virginia education secretary and the daughter of former Republican governor Linwood Holton.
Stewart, an immigration hard-liner who has been associated with white supremacists and whose campaign has been largely abandoned by state party leaders, did not acknowledge any Republican officials in the audience, if there were any. Some of the 11 other Republicans running for Congress from Virginia have said they do not plan to campaign with Stewart, some telling The Washington Post that they fear he is a drag on down-ballot candidates.
“I don’t care about politicians,” Stewart said through a spokesman after the forum. “I care about the people.”
Instead, Stewart offered a sort of rebuke to both parties when asked by an audience member how he will appeal to moderate Republicans who care more about fiscal policy than preserving Confederate statues — a theme of Stewart’s unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for governor last year.
Never directly answering the audience member’s question, Stewart said the United States needs free speech.
“I know there are certainly people on the left, within the media and within my own Republican Party who are trying to shut me down,” he said. “It’s important that we have someone who stands against the grain, and that is what I have done, and what I will continue to do.”
He then said he disagrees with “radicals” on both sides of the aisle.
Stewart, who has long relished his role as a politically incorrect provocateur, said he wants to go to the U.S. Senate to expand nationwide the policy he pushed in Prince William County that directs police to question a person’s immigration status after he or she has been arrested. The policy originally called for police to check the immigration status of anyone they stopped, but it was relaxed following opposition, so that checks are performed only after an arrest, and for everyone taken into custody.
“This is a common-sense approach,” Stewart said, claiming that it has led to the deportation of more than 8,000 “criminal illegal aliens” from Prince William County.
He said that Iowa University student Mollie Tibbetts’s death was partly the result of lax immigration policies, repeating a line which has become a popular conservative talking point, and which one member of Tibbetts’s family called “despicable.”
He then falsely claimed that Kaine wants to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Stewart mentioned Kaine by name several times but when Kaine later took the stage, he never directly referred to Stewart.
Kaine emphasized inclusivity, repeatedly saying that his campaign is about better health care, education and jobs “for all” Virginians.
“I’m obsessed with those words,” Kaine said, noting they are the final two words of the Pledge of Allegiance. “I worry that we’re living in a time when it’s about some, a few, and sometimes just for me. I believe in jobs for all, education for all, health care for all, security for all. . . . We are going to send a message that as Virginians and Americans we still support the ‘for all’ at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Kaine, who was governor during the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting and describes it as “the worst day of my life,” said although there is no “single answer” to ending gun violence, he wants to implement universal background checks and “reasonable limitations,” such as the size of magazines, which he said is “completely consistent with the Second Amendment.”
Kaine has an F rating from the National Rifle Association, which is headquartered in Virginia. Stewart has an A.
Virginia has long taken pride in its gun culture, but in statewide contests in recent years, residents have increasingly elected politicians promising stronger gun control.
The new survey from Roanoke College showed that, for the first time since pollsters began asking the question in 2015, more respondents said gun control was more important than protecting the rights of Americans to own guns. Forty-eight percent of likely voters said it was more important to control guns; 44 percent said it was more important to protect owners.
Asked about abortion, Kaine, who is Catholic, said he lives in accord with the teaching of his church but recognizes that his public duty is different. “I don’t think my role as a public official is to mandate the rules of the Catholic Church for everyone.”
Earlier, Stewart lambasted Kaine’s position, calling it “morally reprehensible.” “I believe an unborn child is a child,” Stewart said.