The candidates in Virginia's U.S. Senate race had a quarrelsome first debate Saturday with President Donald Trump serving as a frequent focal point of the sparring.
Republican Corey Stewart, a one-time state chairman of Trump's presidential campaign, accused Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of being an ineffective elitist who puts his opposition to the president above all other considerations. Stewart said Trump-backed tax cuts and increases in military spending were helping Virginia's working class and chided Kaine for not being more supportive.
"Whether it's good for Virginia or bad for Virginia, he opposes everything that President Trump does automatically," Stewart said.
Kaine, a former vice presidential candidate seeking his second term in the Senate, said he's worked with Trump on areas of common agreement but always puts Virginia's interests first. Kaine said he's a needed check against the president and mocked Stewart for saying the president was "standing up" to Russia.
"If there's anything that demonstrates the difference between us, it's Corey Stewart standing up here and saying that President Trump is standing up to the Russians," Kaine said. "President Trump is caving to the Russians."
Officials in both political parties have grown increasingly concerned about Trump's cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kaine is an early favorite to win and national attention and deep-pocketed outside groups are more focused on other Senate races. The former governor has a huge cash advantage over Stewart, who has never run a statewide general election campaign before.
Stewart's full embrace of Trump puts him at odds with many elected Virginia Republicans, who have tried to keep their distance from the president. Virginia's growing urban and suburban areas have made the state increasingly friendly to Democrats. Trump lost Virginia in 2016 and Republicans haven't won a statewide election in the Old Dominion since 2009.
The debate, sponsored by the Virginia Bar Association and held at the posh Homestead Resort in Bath County, featured plenty of sharp exchanges and was often punctuated by boos and jeers from the crowd. Previous VBA debates have been much more staid.
A conservative provocateur who often insults politicians in both parties, Stewart launched several broadsides against Kaine's record as governor and in the Senate.
"He's too weak, he's too liberal, and he's got nothing done," Stewart said.
Kaine accused Stewart of lying in order to deflect criticism for his past associations with unsavory people. Kaine said it was "disgraceful" that Stewart had campaigned in support of Roy Moore, a defeated Senate candidate in Alabama who was accused of sexual misconduct.
Kaine said Stewart's campaign strategy was clear: "Make it nasty, make it personal, or make it up."