RICHMOND — Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and his Republican challenger, Corey A. Stewart, rekindled their animosity Tuesday in a final debate before the Nov. 6 election that was fueled by Stewart’s repeated suggestions, without evidence, that the Democrat has been accused of sexual harassment.
Again and again, Stewart referred to $17.2 million that Congress has paid out since 1990 for 264 awards to federal employees for violations of a wide variety of employment rules, including the Americans With Disabilities Act and those governing labor and sexual harassment. A “large portion” of the cases involved cafeteria workers, groundskeepers and Capitol Hill employees other than lawmakers and their staffs, according to the congressional Office of Compliance.
But Stewart told the crowd inside the WCVE television studios in Richmond that the money was spent to settle claims of members of Congress “who have been harassing women in the halls of Congress.”
“We still don’t know who they are,” Stewart said, referring to the confidential settlements. “Is Senator [Cory] Booker on that list? Is Senator Kaine on that list? Is Senator [Richard] Blumenthal on that list?”
Kaine, interrupting, compared Stewart to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who accused members of Congress and the federal administration of being communists during the Red Scare of the 1950s.
“Corey, don’t make stuff up,” Kaine said. “. . . There has never been a claim filed against me or anyone in my office, and you know that.”
Kaine said Stewart’s concerns about sexual misconduct weren’t sincere because Stewart has dismissed the recent allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh as “a bunch of crap.”
“Don’t pretend you care about sexual assault,” Kaine said. “If you did, you wouldn’t have called Dr. Ford a ‘bunch of crap.’ If you did, you wouldn’t have gone to Alabama to campaign for [Senate candidate] Roy Moore, and, just last month, you wouldn’t have gone to Amherst County to campaign with Vance Wilkins, who had to retire as speaker in disgrace after paying hush money to settle sexual harassment claims.”
The debate, moderated by Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, was the last of three between the candidates before the midterm election.
Co-sponsored by AARP, the candidates fielded questions about Social Security, pharmaceutical costs and traffic congestion.
Kaine, a popular former Richmond mayor, lieutenant governor and governor, helped deliver Virginia to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as her running mate in 2016. Far ahead of Stewart in campaign cash and polls, Kaine has been trying to expand the map for Democrats running in House races across the state, hoping for a blue wave that could help Democrats win control of the House.
“This race really isn’t about Tim versus Corey,” he said. “It’s about which direction you want Virginia to go.”
Stewart, who almost won the GOP nomination for governor last year by pledging to protect Confederate monuments and root out undocumented immigrants, has tried to gain ground on Kaine in a number of different ways in the five weeks remaining in the race.
In August, he fired a top consultant who he blamed for an abrasive tone in his campaign that alienated potential moderate supporters while courting favor with white nationalists who have mired Stewart in controversy.
On Tuesday, he cited the nation’s 3.9 percent unemployment rate and a bullish stock market as positive results of Trump’s leadership.
“What do Tim Kaine and the Democrats have to offer? Resistance,” he said.
But Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, kept returning to the theme of sexual misconduct. He has been trying to tap into frustration felt by Republicans over the current FBI investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made against Kavanaugh.
Stewart’s suggestion that Kaine and others opposed to Kavanaugh are trying to hide their own sexual harassment claims muddles the history behind $17.2 million in settlements.
After Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) were forced to resign over sexual harassment claims, Kaine pushed for the public release of settlements related to sexual misconduct by senators or their staff, though he said he would not share the identities of the accused or their alleged victims.
That effort was nonetheless rejected by the congressional Office of Compliance, which cited federal confidentiality laws.
The Richmond audience mostly favored Kaine, who served as the city’s mayor between 1998 and 2001 and who still lives in the city with his wife, Anne Holton, a onetime state education secretary who is the daughter of former Republican governor Linwood Holton.
Like his father-in-law, Kaine described himself as a pragmatic legislator who is willing to work across the aisle to get things done.
He cited 17 pieces of legislation that he wrote signed into law by President Trump, including a bill to boost funding for career and technical education and another one that increased funding for scholarships in cybersecurity.
Kaine also attacked Stewart for allowing funding to be cut for gang prevention and youth substance abuse programs in Prince William.
Stewart characterized Clinton’s 2016 running mate as a man still “bitter” over their loss to Trump who opposes the president at every turn.
He said Kaine lacked any substantive accomplishment.
“He’s had six years in the Senate, four of which were under a Democratic president, and he’s got nothing done, folks,” Stewart said.
Stewart noted that he has been elected four times as leader of one of Virginia’s most diverse counties. He said that, under his leadership, the county’s crime rate has dropped and that Prince William passed a $300 million transportation bond issuance that has paid for improvements along Route 1 and other major roads.
He said the bond issue was necessary because Kaine did little for local roads during his term as governor.
Kaine pointed to Metrorail’s Silver Line extension and high-occupancy toll lanes on Interstate 95 as proof that Stewart was “making stuff up.”
Mostly, the two battled over the Kavanaugh nomination, with Stewart hoping to score points over the sexual harassment allegations.
In one exchange about Social Security benefits, Stewart accused Democrats of “dipping into” the trust fund to pay out the $17.2 million in settlements.
“It’s ridiculous; it’s a theater of the absurd,” he said, pounding his fist on the lectern.
Kaine, turning to him, said: ‘The theater of the absurd is the answer you just gave.”