How Corey Stewart Could Impact Democrats' Hopes to Take Back the House

Oct 8, 2018

Virginia GOP senatorial hopeful, Corey Stewart, gestures during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond.
Credit Steve Helber / AP

How the top of an electoral ticket can impact local races down-ballot is a question normally posed during presidential election years. But this year in Virginia a controversial senate candidate could have an impact on tight midterm elections.

It’s a recent night on the campus of Virginia Union University, a historically black college in Richmond.

Senate candidate Republican Corey Stewart, has already made it through an hour of tough questions when local radio host Gary Flowers wraps up with a zinger.

“Mr. Stewart, how do you expect to represent all Virginians when you accept the support from neo-confederates?” Flowers asks. There’s an audible intake of breath from the crowd.  

Stewart has proudly campaigned on preserving Confederate monuments, once with the help of Jason Kessler - one of the organizers of the Unite the Right Rally. Stewart said it occurred before he knew what Kessler was about.

In response to the question, Stewart says he has hundreds of thousands of supporters and he can’t be held responsible for all their beliefs.

Speaking after the forum, Stewart says he gets the question a lot on the campaign trail. But he doesn’t focus on what he can’t control.

“I speak my mind, and some people - you know- are afraid of controversy,” says Stewart. ”They run for the hills at the first chance that somebody talks about something that’s controversial. I’m not like that.”  

Now that he’s running for Senate, that tactic is inspiring eye rolls from Republicans like Matt Walton - a former candidate for Virginia’s House of Delegates.

“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,” says Walton.

Nationally, Republicans have also written the race off. Stewart hasn’t gotten support from the campaign arm of the Senate GOP, and many of Virginia’s Republican congressional candidates have opted not to join Stewart on the campaign trail.

Then there are Virginia voters. Stewart’s opponent, Democrat Tim Kaine, has consistently held double-digit leads in the polls.

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.

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.

And soft support for Stewart could play into that dynamic, says Stephen Farnsworth -- a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

“Stewart is only collecting about 80-percent of the people who identify as Republicans,” Farnsworth says. “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.”

And with four tight congressional races in Virginia every door knocked, every call made, and every dollar spent -- could make the difference.

“And so if those efforts aren’t happening for the Senate candidate it means the Congressional candidate has to work all that much harder to make up for what could have been a more effective coordinated effort,” says Farnsworth.

One of those tight races is Virginia’s 5th District, covering much of central Virginia.

A recent debate between Democrat Leslie Cockburn and Republican Denver Riggleman was held in a high school auditorium in Madison County. The room was filled with a mix of local farmers and Democratic activists from Charlottesville.

Jim Smith is vice chair of the Madison County Republican Committee. When Smith is knocking doors and people ask for yard signs, he says they ask for both Denver Riggleman and Corey Stewart. He shrugs off the idea that Stewart’s unpopularity could affect other candidates.

“Corey’s rock solid. He’s got some bad ink. Some bad press,” Smith says. “But you sit one on one with Corey and he’s a champion for individual liberty, and that’s really what we should be all about.”

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

“If Corey’s on the trail with me great. You know? But right now I just see with his busy schedule he’s not going to be able to do that,” Riggleman said after the debate.

In this final stretch to election day, Riggleman and other Republican House candidates say they’re focusing on their own race.

 This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.