Sen. Tim Kaine on Thursday kicked off a four-day swing through the state, picking up current and former statewide Virginia Democrats — including former governor Terry McAuliffe — along the way in the final push before Election Day. It culminates in a rally with a rock band.
It’s a show of Democratic unity, designed to highlight the party’s dominance of statewide offices and to give a final boost to down-ballot Democrats, especially those running for congressional seats the party hopes to flip.
But the picture is different on the GOP side. Republicans, lacking a popular party standard-bearer — past or present — are taking an all-candidates-for-themselves approach in the final days and importing national figures such as House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).
The tactic reflects the challenge facing Republicans in a year when their Senate candidate, Corey Stewart, is popular in some rural districts and downright toxic elsewhere and President Trump’s approval ratings have been underwater.
“It is a disadvantage, and it is certainly not ideal,” said Tucker Martin, a longtime GOP strategist who worked for former governor Robert F. McDonnell, the last Republican to win the state, nearly a decade ago.
“The one thing you have to have is messaging consistency across all races,” Martin added. “You want to run as a united front. . . . Given the dynamics at the top of the ticket, you don’t have that in the Republican Party.”
Instead, Republican congressional candidates are attracting national figures here and there as schedules allow to remind Republican voters that control of the House is at stake.
Scalise; Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney; and Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, traveled Thursday evening to a Lynchburg restaurant for Republican candidates Denver Riggleman and Ben Cline. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R), who is retiring and whose seat Cline hopes to fill, was also there. On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders headlined an hour-long event with Riggleman at 9:30 a.m. at the Fauquier County GOP headquarters in Warrenton.
Riggleman, a former Air Force intelligence officer and distillery co-owner is running against former journalist Leslie Cockburn in a surprisingly competitive race for an open seat in Trump country.
“It’s a very aggressive schedule,” said Riggleman spokesman Jimmy Keady. “We’ve got a huge district to cover, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Rep. Rob Wittman (R), whose district stretches from the suburbs of Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads, has mixed stints of door knocking with help fundraising for Riggleman and Rep. Barbara Comstock.
Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have also appeared in Virginia to raise money for congressional candidates.
Ryan attended a roundtable in Virginia Beach with Rep. Scott W. Taylor last week to help the former Navy SEAL win a second term in the face of a challenge from retired Naval commander Elaine Luria.
Taylor leads in public polls but was embroiled in a scandal when his aides were accused of forging signatures to help Democrat-turned-independent Shaun Brown get on the ballot in hopes that she would siphon votes from Luria. A special prosecutor is investigating.
Voters got a reminder of the misstep Tuesday when Brown was convicted of defrauding the federal government by inflating the number of meals her nonprofit served children.
The most vulnerable GOP incumbent in the state, Comstock, has gotten a hand from Pence and Ryan as well as former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who attended a breakfast for her last week in McLean. She is running against Democrat Jennifer Wexton.
John Whitbeck, a friend of Comstock’s and former state party chairman, said strategic get-out-the-vote sessions are easier to plan than large rallies with big-name, out-of-state politicians and free the candidate up to spend time raising money.
“Obviously the ideal situation is we don’t have the issues we have in the 2018 cycle, but there’s no evidence it’s had any impact on the congressional races,” Whitbeck said.
Former Trump strategist and Richmond native Stephen K. Bannon announced this week that he plans to visit Virginia to help whip up support for Rep. Dave Brat as he struggles to fend off a well-funded challenge from former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger.
Bannon, who will screen a pro-Trump movie he made, “Trump @War,” was forced out of the White House after seven months and blamed for amplifying the president’s divisive remarks in the wake of last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
Brat’s campaign said the congressman would not attend.
“We were completely unaware he was even coming to Richmond until it was reported by the press,” Brat spokesman Jordan Gehrke said.
Notably absent from Bannon’s plans is an appearance with Stewart, whom Bannon hailed one year ago this month as the “titular head of the Trump movement” in Virginia and the reason Ed Gillespie would win the governorship. Gillespie lost by nine percentage points.
Stewart, an ardent Trump supporter who once chaired the president’s campaign in Virginia, downplayed the lack of interest from Bannon.
“Nobody knows who Steve Bannon is in Virginia,” Stewart said, adding that he doesn’t need help from other Republican political figures.
“There’s unity in the Republican base that I haven’t seen in a long time,” he said. “I’ve never been a politician who has leaned on other politicians to campaign for me. It really doesn’t concern me at all.”
Stewart has campaigned several times with Rep. Morgan H. Griffith, whose Southwest Virginia district voted for Trump by double digits.
This weekend Stewart will also appear with Republicans running long-shot bids in blue districts. Ryan McAdams is challenging Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D) in Richmond, and Jeff Dove is trying to unseat Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) in Northern Virginia.
Kaine has maintained a sizable lead over Stewart since the start, and Stewart has failed to do much to narrow the gap. Some Republicans said Stewart’s lackluster campaign is a net positive for candidates in close races.
“The less heard from Corey Stewart the better for every other Republican in Virginia,” said John Fredericks, the host of Virginia-based conservative talk-radio show and fervent Trump supporter. “Corey doesn’t have any money, so he can’t get in front of people and he can’t say anything. It’s like every other Republican hit the reverse jackpot.”
Before Election Day, Kaine and congressional hopefuls Cockburn, Luria, Spanberger and Wexton will have shared stages with a who’s who of Virginia Democratic politics, including Gov. Ralph Northam, McAuliffe, Democratic primary contender Tom Perriello, Attorney General Mark R. Herring and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
The lineup rounds out with Connolly, McEachin and Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott and Don Beyer.
The agenda includes stops in Manassas, the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia Beach and the Richmond suburbs.
Surveying the GOP landscape, Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, noted former governors George Allen, Jim Gilmore and McDonnell are too tainted by tough losses or scandals to lead any statewide pre-election effort.
“I’m stretching way back a decade or more to find statewide elected Republicans who could have had some credibility and offered their help to Republican candidates running in these House races,” Rozell said. “But they just don’t have anybody.”
Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.