Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and his Republican challenger, Corey A. Stewart, squared off Wednesday in a mostly hostile prime-time debate, sparring over immigration, transportation and health care on a night underscored by the rancor in Washington over Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.
Minutes into the event, their mutual disdain was evident as they talked over each other in a series of exchanges that included Stewart implying — without evidence — that Kaine has committed sexual assault.
“There have been 268 allegations of sexual harassment against you and others [in Congress],” Stewart said. He was referring to $17.2 million paid by Congress since 1990 for 264 settlements and awards to federal employees for violations of a wide variety of employment rules, ranging from the Americans With Disabilities Act to sexual harassment. It is not publicly known how many were due to sexual misconduct.
“You just tried to slip in that there were complaints against me, and that is completely false,” Kaine said.
“How do we know that?” Stewart shot back.
“Oh, so you just think you can make it up,” Kaine said.
The hour-long debate, moderated by NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, was the second of three before the Nov. 6 election.
Kaine (D), who is leading Stewart by nearly 20 points in most polls, has cast the race as a referendum against President Trump’s unsteady leadership.
He characterized Stewart as a Trump loyalist who will do the president’s bidding at any cost, while demonizing immigrants and minimizing the allegations against Kavanaugh.
“It comes down to our very campaign themes,” Kaine said, addressing a crowd of about 200 people inside the Capital One bank headquarters in Tysons. “I’m running on an upbeat theme: ‘A Virginia that works for all.’ My opponent is running on an angry and divisive theme: ‘Take Virginia back.’ ”
Stewart, who pledged “the most vicious, ruthless campaign” to unseat Kaine, called the former Virginia governor and lieutenant governor ineffective in Washington and a “bitter” partisan who wants to undermine the president because he hasn’t gotten over 2016, when he was Hillary Clinton’s running mate and they lost the presidential election to Trump.
“You’re bitter about 2016; you’re voting against every single thing,” Stewart said. Kaine noted that he has written 17 pieces of legislation that have been signed into law by Trump as evidence that he can work with the president.
The Senate race has long been considered Kaine’s to lose in a state that Clinton carried by five points in 2016 and where Trump remains deeply unpopular.
Kaine — who raised $19.3 million this summer — has unleashed a steady flow of TV and social media ads saying that Stewart would “hurt Virginia.” He has also trekked across the state to try to help Democrats running for the House in what his party hopes will be a blue wave.
Stewart, meanwhile, has been marred by controversy over ties to white supremacists while running a bare-bones campaign that has raised just $1.3 million.
While Stewart has attacked Kaine relentlessly — including a tweet this month about immigrant-related crimes that showed a doctored image of Kaine with blood on his hands — his party has been split over his candidacy.
That challenge was highlighted earlier Wednesday when former Republican senator John Warner announced that he is endorsing Kaine — a fact Kaine celebrated Wednesday night by acknowledging Warner in the audience.
In recent weeks, Stewart has tried to soften his image. He fired a top consultant last month, whom he blamed for setting an angry tone for the campaign that alienated potential voters, and for encouraging Stewart to align with right-wing extremists such as Paul Nehlen.
At Wednesday’s debate, he highlighted his role as chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, saying he has worked to build roads and schools in that diverse community.
“I’ve had to twist a few arms, maybe even break a few, to get things done in Prince William County,” Stewart said.
But then he slammed Kaine for voting against a budget bill in January to fund 355 Navy ships — a proposal important to the state’s shipbuilding industry.
Kaine actually co-sponsored the legislation that commits the Navy to acquire 355 ships but voted against it when it was part of a short-term continuing resolution that he felt was irresponsible. Three months later, Kaine voted for a $1.3 billion spending bill that included his legislation requiring the 355 ships; Trump quickly signed it.
“Corey may think it’s nothing to build a 355-ship Navy, or battle opioids,” Kaine said. “He thinks it’s nothing to expand career education and technical education and medical research, but Virginians think it’s something.”
Some of Stewart’s accusations were so well worn, they were on a list the Kaine campaign sent to reporters ahead of the debate that was titled “10 Lies You Will Hear Corey Stewart Say At Tonight’s Senate Debate.”
In one exchange, Stewart bashed Kaine’s proposal to provide Medicare as an option on the health exchanges created through the Affordable Care Act.
“You know what that means? He wants to take it all — from your pockets,” Stewart said to the audience, arguing that the idea would raise insurance costs.
Kaine accused Stewart of “smearing” undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers,” after Stewart said he would not allow those who were brought into the country as children to remain in the United States out of worry that some would commit murder.
In response to a question about whether Virginia should become the final state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection for women as part of the Constitution, Stewart said it would lead to men suing to get into women’s athletic programs. He said the idea was good only for “litigators and lawyers” who would profit from lawsuits.
“Good for litigators and lawyers? How about good for women?” Kaine said, calling the response indicative of a dismissive attitude toward women that includes Stewart characterizing the allegations against Kavanaugh as “a bunch of crap.” “These actions do not suggest respect for women, and it makes your opposition to the ERA pretty easy to understand,” Kaine said.
A few times, Todd tried to get the candidates to find common ground, asking at one point how they might avoid “the national train wreck” that is sure to come from Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, his first public accuser.
Kaine argued that the accusers should be treated with respect.
“Remember, our children are watching,” he said.
Stewart ignored the question and, again, accused Kaine of helping to cover up sexual assault allegations against lawmakers in Congress.