In a party that belongs to Trump, Republican candidates in the midterm elections are ultimately just sideshows — even those that mimic the president. Michael Knigge reports from Virginia.
Days before the US midterm elections, an evening with a Republican Senate candidate in rural Virginia showed how nationalized and centered on US President Donald Trump these elections are. Just four years after entering the national political stage, he has made the Republican Party his own and has firmly ensconced himself as the point around which the rest of the right rotates.
A rally for Republican candidate for Senate Corey Stewart this week in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, three hours from Washington, proved that point.
In front of an all white, mostly middle-aged-and-up group of about 100, Stewart, flanked by banners bearing his name below a red emblazoned "Support Trump" slogan, entered the room in the Augusta County government building to the "USA, USA" chants that have become a staple of Trump rallies.
All about immigration
Like his party's leader, Stewart hammered home the president's central campaign theme of illegal immigration.
Whether he applied it to undocumented immigration, human trafficking, gang violence, the opioid epidemic or what he called depressed wages for blue collar workers, the audience approved Stewart's oft-repeated refrain, "We must build the wall."
Stewart — who once called himself "Trump before Trump" for the hard line he took on immigration, and was endorsed by the president after winning a bruising primary battle against Virginia's Republican establishment candidate — went on to echo Trump in other ways as well: blaming Democrats for standing in the way of curbing undocumented immigration, attacking liberal billionaire George Soros for funding so-called left protesters, praising divisive Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, castigating Democrats for allegedly trying to exploit the tragedy of the recent synagogue shooting, and calling for more armed guards at places like schools and houses of worship.
While Stewart's earlier campaigns for state-wide office fizzled out and he currently trails in the polls behind the Democratic Party candidate and 2016 candidate for vice president, Tim Kaine, Trump's ascent buoyed Stewart, which is especially remarkable in a swing state like Virginia that has traditionally elected moderate Democrats or Republicans with broad appeal, such as longtime Republican Senator John Warner.
But at least for now — in 2018 — in Virginia and in other parts of the country, a different cast of Republicans, sometimes called the "mini-Trumps" for their efforts to mimic the original, represent the new face of the GOP. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 89 percent of Republicans approve of Trump's performance, only two points below his all-time high of 91 in the same survey.
Choosing Trump a no-brainer
"We could all do with less tweets, we could all do with less outspoken crude, coarse comments, but I think he is a man who is willing to listen and willing to adjust," said Martha Waltz, a retired educator from Augusta County who attended the Stewart rally. "I was completely against Trump in the beginning, but when it came down to him being the candidate for the Republicans or when it came to a choice between Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, it was a no-brainer."
Many gathered on this Thursday night don't condone everything Trump says or does, but are willing to look the other way because they are convinced he is putting the country back on the right course.
"The Democrats are becoming a mob," said Jesse Hancock, a soft-spoken retired electrical engineer. "They are fighting authority. It doesn't work in this country."
While he acknowledges that Trump is "sort of controversial figure," he said he thinks Trump will restore the United States to being the great nation it was when Hancock, now 83, grew up, "I think the country was founded on Christian beliefs and over time we strayed from those."
What are commonly called Christian values are also a key reason why Sharon Griffin, a retired educator, backs Trump and the Republicans.
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"We are pro-life, we want reasonable immigration, not this insanity at the border, and are pro-religious liberty," she said. "Under Obama things really went downhill, and there was hostility towards religion, particular towards Christianity. And that's not right. Our country was founded on principles of the Judeo-Christian world and it's the end of our country if we abandon that."
If Stewart, who originally hails from the Midwest state of Minnesota, does not feature prominently in the minds of rally-goers, it is for a simple reason: He has portrayed himself as a local extension of Trump. It's a move the president himself approved of, recently telling Republican voters to pretend he was on the ballot.
"I think Corey and other Republicans that I know in our area are supporting Trump's effort to restore the country," said Hancock.
"The scary thing is, if Congress shifts," said Griffin, "Trump can't get anything done. And the truth is he has been getting things done like a bulldozer. It's amazing."