LYNCHBURG, Va. — Two Republicans running for Virginia governor repeatedly accused each other of lying, while the third called their tax-cut plans disingenuous and even dangerous in the only scheduled TV debate ahead of the June 13 primary.
Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, was the most aggressive during the hour-long event at Liberty University Thursday night, taking aim at political strategist Ed Gillespie, the perceived front-runner because he has led in fundraising and endorsements.
Stewart accused Gillespie of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants and of endorsing, in his 2006 memoir, the “individual mandate” for health insurance — akin to a requirement under the Affordable Care Act. Gillespie said neither was true.
“Google ‘Corey Stewart lies’ and you’ll be amazed at all that pops up,” Gillespie said.
Stewart dug in.
“Page 245 of your book, Ed,” he said, referring to the passage in Gillespie’s “Winning Right” that he said endorsed the insurance mandate. “If you really want to find the truth, go to Establishment Ed,” he added, referring to a Web site that mocks the former Republican National Committee chairman.
Despite those jabs and others, the debate among Gillespie, Stewart and state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach) was heavy on substance, with moderators delving into matters as wonky as Virginia’s Certificate of Public Need program, which gives the state a say in whether certain medical facilities may be built. There were no obvious gaffes nor any of the Confederate flag-draped theatrics Stewart has relied on to draw attention to his bid.
The moderators — Liberty spokesman Len Stevens and WSET-TV news anchor Mark Spain — did not touch on abortion, religious liberty or other matters of particular interest to evangelicals, a surprise given that the debate took place at the world’s largest Christian university.
Gillespie shoehorned the lone religious reference into his closing statement, as he wished the crowd “a blessed Good Friday . . . and Easter.”
Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. attended the event but said through a spokesman earlier in the week that he was not following the race closely.
The moderators’ all-business approach seemed to help the often-overshadowed Wagner grab more of the spotlight. Playing up his quarter-century in Richmond, much of it devoted to securing funds for transportation projects, Wagner ridiculed his rivals as they weighed in on issues that he had already worked on as a legislator.
“I missed both of these people when we actually debated and killed Medicaid” expansion, he said at one point. And later: “I missed both of these candidates when we were fighting the [federal] Clean Power Plan in Richmond.”
Wagner, who says the state needs more tax revenue for transportation, also criticized the tax cuts Gillespie and Stewart have proposed. After Gillespie promised to cut income taxes by 10 percent and ticked off plans to improve schools, transportation and drug treatment, Wagner said that would put the state’s AAA bond-rating at risk.
“We’re going to cut taxes and spend more money on this, this, this and this,” said Wagner, a Naval Academy graduate and former shipyard owner, summarizing Gillespie’s promises. “At the Naval Academy, you learned you had to be honest. As a Navy diver, you don’t make statements like that or people die.”
Stewart has called for an even larger income tax cut: a 17.4 percent reduction in the first year and a full phase-out for localities bordering Tennessee, which has no income tax. He also has called for eliminating the tax statewide in “the next several years” under what he calls “Corey’s Big Bold Virginia Tax Cut.”
Stewart questioned if Gillespie’s more detailed tax plan adds up, asking Gillespie, “Is there a single identified cut in your tax plan?”
The debate took place just days ahead of Sunday’s 10th anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, when Seung Hui Cho, a Tech senior with a history of mental health problems, killed 32 people before taking his own life. In light of the anniversary, Spain asked if the candidates favored closing the “gun-show loophole” that allows people to bypass background checks when buying guns from sellers who are not licensed dealers.
All three oppose new restrictions on guns, but their responses highlighted stark differences in style.
Wagner was characteristically direct: “The [current] rules and laws are totally adequate.” Stewart was combative, claiming “the gun-show loophole is a myth” (because licensed dealers who sell as shows must conduct the checks), and accusing Gillespie of skipping a rally with the Virginia Citizens Defense League in January to hang out with lobbyists.
And Gillespie sounded like a general-election candidate trying to appeal to both sides of the contentious issue. He offered his “thoughts and prayers” to Tech families, affirmed his support for the Second Amendment and sought to put the heat on the two Democrats running to succeed term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello. He said Northam and Perriello would seek to limit gun rights.
Gillespie even explained his absence from the gun rally in a way that could play well with general-election voters: He was serving meals to needy families at an African-American church that day, which was Martin Luther King Day.
The three Republicans followed a similar pattern when asked about illegal immigration. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t they understand?” said Wagner, who promised to turn any illegal immigrants arrested in Virginia over to federal immigration officials. Stewart spelled out horrifying details of a recent killing in nearby Bedford County. Three Salvadoran MS-13 gang members in the country illegally have been charged in the abduction and murder of 17-year-old Raymond Wood.
“Three criminal illegal immigrants cut off his feet, cut off his hands and they nearly beheaded him, and they dumped his body in Bedford,” said Stewart, who drew national attention a decade ago with a crackdown on illegal immigrants in Prince William. “If they’re here illegally, you boot them out of the country.”
Gillespie, in turn, offered his “thoughts and prayers” to Wood’s family. Then he turned his attention to Northam and Perriello, criticizing their support for issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Gillespie added that he opposed offering in-state tuition to students brought to the country illegally as children but said nothing about any deportation goals.
The three Republicans are scheduled to square off again April 22 at a Goochland debate