VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Sen. Tim Kaine (D) has ventured deep into Virginia’s red zone during the past several weeks — Appomattox, Lee County and portions of the Eastern Shore that were once safely Republican.
Little of that has to do with his Republican opponent, Corey A. Stewart, in the Nov. 6 midterm election.
Instead, Kaine is devoting time and money in the two months before Election Day, trying to expand the map for Democrats in Virginia to help his party win back control of the House.
“We’re going to send a message of hope this November,” Kaine recently told a cheering crowd of business owners and executives packed inside a Virginia Beach hotel ballroom to meet Democrat Elaine Luria. “Do you want to be part of that?”
With that, Luria, a former U.S. Navy commander running her first campaign, had some more volunteers in a bid against Rep. Scott Taylor (R) that has been gaining steam amid charges that the congressman’s staffers forged signatures to get a spoiler candidate on the ballot.
“When you’re out there talking about the election,” Luria told the crowd. “Tell them: ‘Kaine and Elaine on November 6.’ ”
Kaine, far ahead in campaign cash and poll numbers over Stewart, has traveled this summer to all seven House districts where Democratic challengers — five of them first-time candidates — are taking on a Republican incumbent.
The senator’s political action committee, Common Ground, has donated $5,000 apiece to the seven challengers — the maximum allowable amount — spending a total of $66,420 in Virginia this year, records show.
The main focus has been on four districts Democrats consider vulnerable: Taylor’s 2nd District, which is largely Virginia Beach but includes the Eastern Shore, the sprawling 5th District in central and western Virginia being vacated by Rep. Thomas Garrett, Rep. Dave Brat’s 7th District in the central part of the state, and Rep. Barbara Comstock’s 10th District in Northern Virginia.
Whether the extra help will make a difference remains to be seen, especially in conservative-leaning areas where Republicans have held office for as many as 20 years.
“There may be Republicans who would vote for Tim Kaine but might be tempted to revert back to the party for the congressional race in that district,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political-science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
But, Farnsworth said, the strategy is worth the effort in a state where Republicans appear to be divided over both Trump and Stewart, whose controversies over ties to white supremacists have led several House candidates in his party to steer clear of his campaign.
“You’re talking about a Democratic senator who wants to cover as much of the state between now and Election Day anyway,” Farnsworth said. “Given that he is more popular and better known than other Democrats on the ballot, it makes perfect sense for them to have joint events.”
Kaine, who helped deliver Virginia to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as her running mate in 2016, said half the battle is simply showing up.
“You’ve got to be present, so I’m doing that as much as I can,” he said during a recent stop in Appomattox to campaign with Democratic journalist Leslie Cockburn in her 5th District race against Republican businessman Denver Riggleman.
“If you have the right policies, but you’re not here, then people don’t really believe you’re sincere about the policies,” Kaine said. “The other thing that I think is important is, you’ve got to rally the team.”
Crowds of Democrats have indeed lined up to get a glimpse of the genial former Virginia lieutenant governor and governor, posing for selfies with the man supporters like to call “America’s Dad.”
During those appearances, Kaine makes the case that a House majority for Democrats would, among other things, make less expensive health care available to more people under the Affordable Care Act and set the table for immigration restructuring that would include a path to citizenship for immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
“We are the ‘for all’ party in 2018,” Kaine says in his stump speeches, a reference to the last words in the Pledge of Allegiance. “We have a president who is not a ‘for all’ kind of guy.”
Stewart, chair of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, whom Kaine has outraised $19.3 million to $1.3 million, barely gets a mention in those speeches.
Still, Stewart supporters have shown up to counter Kaine’s effort in some areas.
In Appomattox, where Kaine and Cockburn celebrated the opening of the local Democratic Party committee’s new headquarters, a small group stood across the street holding campaign signs for Trump, Stewart and Riggleman.
“We like guns; we like religion,” said Wayne Schmitt, 73, holding a Trump campaign sign. “Counties that hunt vote Republican.”
Trump won Appomattox County by 47 points in 2016. Stewart, who models himself after the president, won the June primary election by 15 points and last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary by 12 points, although he fell short statewide to Republican Ed Gillespie.
When Kaine was elected to the Senate in 2012, he lost Appomattox by 34 points. In 2005, when he became governor, he lost the county by 18 points.
That history — replicated in large swaths of the 5th District south of Charlottesville — has both the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and the Cook Political Report predicting the congressional race will lean Republican, despite Garrett’s surprise announcement in the spring that he would resign to seek alcohol addiction treatment.
Samuel E. Carter, chair of the Appomattox County Board of Supervisors, said there may be enough frustration in the area since Trump took office for Democrats to mine.
Appomattox has been reeling economically since the 2010 closure of a Thomasville Furniture Industries plant led to the loss of about 1,100 local jobs.
With no major improvements under Trump, “there is some dissatisfaction out there,” said Carter, who says Republicans may lose the 5th District despite his own plans to vote for Riggleman and Stewart. “I see it going Democrat, I really do.”
Kaine says he can help less seasoned Democrats seize on such potential openings by offering wisdom gained after nearly 25 years in Virginia politics, as well as logistical help, such as computer software, field offices and reams of detailed voter data.
“Having somebody who has run a few campaigns who can work together with them, I do think that helps,” the senator said, after his Virginia Beach appearance with Luria in the 2nd District.
That race has intensified after an investigation was launched earlier this month into allegations that Taylor’s staffers forged signatures to get an independent candidate on the ballot.
The once-conservative district that is home to about 35,000 federal employees in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area — most of them military personnel — has in recent years ping-ponged between Democrats and Republicans.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), an Eastern Shore native who represented the area in the General Assembly, won there by four points in November. In 2016, Trump won by three points. In 2012, President Barack Obama won by one point, and Kaine won by four points.
Stewart lost most of the area to state Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) during the June GOP primary and hasn’t campaigned there much since, local Republican Party officials say.
Taylor, who won his 2016 election with 61 percent of the vote, has kept a mostly low profile since the forged-signatures controversy, though on Twitter, he called the backlash “white noise.” His campaign did not return messages for comment about the election.
In Virginia Beach, the scandal pulled some voters to Luria.
“I think Scott Taylor made a terrible mistake” with the forged signatures, said Ann Wright, 73, an independent who initially planned to vote for the congressman over his support on some environmental issues, including protecting wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay. “He’s discredited himself.”
Chad Green, a York County supervisor who sits on the state Republican Party’s central committee for the 2nd District, said Taylor has garnered enough goodwill in the district to weather the storm.
Green cited efforts by Taylor to increase federal spending in the area as a member of the House Appropriations Committee and the fact that the congressman is a former U.S. Navy SEAL.
“That plays big with voters,” Green said. “He’s more well known now than he was two years ago.”
Luria — who, among other things, wants to shore up funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs — said Taylor has lost the confidence of his constituents.
She made that argument during her event with Kaine after introducing herself to an audience that still didn’t know much about her.
“What we need to do to change the conversation in Congress is to change the people in Congress,” Luria said, echoing Kaine’s talking points.
The message won some applause. But not as much as Kaine’s exhortation moments later for Democrats to show the country “who Virginia is and who Virginia isn’t.”
Terry Stevens, a Virginia Beach real estate agent in the audience worried most about gun violence in schools, said the senator motivated her to help spread the word about Luria and other Democrats, including to some of her Republican friends.
But “they need to make their own decisions,” she said. “I’ll tell them what my choices are. But they also need to research the candidates. There’s a lot of people who don’t even know who is on the ballot.”