Controversial Candidate In Virginia Senate Race Could Affect House's Balance Of Power

Oct 8, 2018
Originally published on October 8, 2018 6:50 pm
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How the top of a ballot can impact local races down-ballot is a question more typically posed during presidential election years. But this year, a controversial Senate candidate is running in Virginia. And that could have an impact on whether Democrats take control of the U.S. House. Mallory Noe-Payne, of member station WVTF, reports.

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: A few months before last year's deadly Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Republican Corey Stewart stood before stage draped with a Confederate battle flag. He told the crowd he was proud to be there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COREY STEWART: That flag is not - it's not about racism, folks.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No.

STEWART: It's not about hatred.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No.

STEWART: It's not about slavery.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No.

STEWART: It is about our heritage.

(APPLAUSE)

NOE-PAYNE: Stewart has made a name for himself by associating with white nationalists. He wants to deport immigrants who may be here illegally. And after the Unite The Right rally, he falsely blamed left-wing activists for the violence. Now he's running for Senate and inspiring eye rolls from Republicans like Matt Walton.

MATT WALTON: I have some friends that are usually reliable Republican voters that are just frustrated and are really debating whether it's worth showing up at the polls in November.

NOE-PAYNE: Stewart is a local government official and a strong supporter of President Trump. He's proud of stirring up Virginia politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: I speak my mind. And some people are afraid of controversy. And they run for the hills at the first chance that somebody talks about something that's controversial. I'm not like that.

NOE-PAYNE: But those tactics haven't proved popular with most Virginia voters. Incumbent Democrat Tim Kaine has held a consistent double-digit lead in the polls. Nationally Republicans don't expect the race to affect the balance of power in the Senate. The worry now is whether it could affect the balance of power in the House. As many as four Republican-controlled House seats in Virginia could be in play this election. Democrats need to win 23 seats to take the House. Stephen Farnsworth is a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

STEPHEN FARNSWORTH: Stewart is only collecting about 80 percent of the people who identify as Republicans.

NOE-PAYNE: Farnsworth says this close to election day, he'd expect that number to be above 90 percent.

FARNSWORTH: And that lower level of support for Corey Stewart may mean that some Republicans will stay home. It may mean that some Republicans won't donate money. It means that some Republicans won't show up to knock on doors.

NOE-PAYNE: And every door knocked, every call made, every dollar spent could make the difference. One of those close races is in Virginia's 5th District. A recent debate between Democrat Leslie Cockburn and Republican Denver Riggleman was held in a high school auditorium. Jim Smith is vice chair of the Madison County Republican Committee. He shrugs off the idea that Stewart's unpopularity could affect other candidates.

JIM SMITH: Corey's rock solid. He's got some bad press. I mean, if you sat one-on-one with Corey, he's a champion for individual liberty. And that's really what we should be all about.

NOE-PAYNE: Stewart has mostly been campaigning alone, and other Republican House candidates have largely been avoiding him. Denver Riggleman, the GOP candidate in this district, says the Stewart campaign has no impact on him positively or negatively.

DENVER RIGGLEMAN: If Corey's on the trail with me, great, you know, but right now, I just say, with his busy schedule, he's not going to be able to do that.

NOE-PAYNE: Riggleman and other Republican House candidates say they're focusing on their own race in this final stretch to Election Day. For NPR News, I'm Mallory Noe-Payne in Madison, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.