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Kaine, Stewart spar over Kavanaugh during Virginia Senate debate

The candidates squared off over the Supreme Court controversy in suburban Virginia
Image: Virginia Senate Debate
Republican Corey Stewart, at left podium, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, at center podium, participate in a senatorial debate as moderator Chuck Todd stands at right at Capital One headquarters, in McLean, Va on Sept. 26, 2018.Katherine Frey / The Washington Post via AP, Pool

McLEAN, Va. — Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and Republican Corey Stewart displayed deep divisions over the sexual assault allegations facing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as they locked horns Wednesday night during a fiery Virginia Senate debate.

Sharing the stage at an NBC4 Washington debate moderated by NBC News political director and "Meet the Press" moderator Chuck Todd, Kaine called on the Senate to subpoena witnesses and hear testimony from all of Kavanaugh's accusers.

Stewart dodged his previous criticism of an accuser to argue that the Senate's poor record on investigating its own sexual harassment allegations makes them hypocrites.

"They spent $17 million to quash accusations of sexual harassment against them and now they are going after Judge Kavanaugh, 36-year-old allegations from when he was in high school. Who are they to judge?" Stewart said.

That $17 million figure is a reference to the amount of payments that have been made by Congress to pay workplace dispute settlements. The figure came to light as part of the reporting into sexual harassment settlements on Capitol Hill, but it's unclear how much of that was spent on sexual harassment settlements.

Kaine criticized Stewart for that framing, pointing to his comments to the Richmond Times-Dispatch calling the allegation levied by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh assaulted her while they were high school students decades ago "a bunch of crap."

The Democrat also referenced a sarcastic tweet from Stewart that asked: "What else did Judge Kavanaugh do — pull a girl's pigtail in 1st grade?"

"There is no equivalence between pulling a girl's pigtails and an allegation that two 17 year olds barricaded a 15-year-old girl in the bedroom and sexually assaulted her," Kaine said.

"To minimize the seriousness of these allegations, now four accusers, and you are going after the accusers as you always do, trying to demean them."

One two separate occasions, Stewart modified his riff about the settlement payments to directly accuse Kaine of having allegations of sexual harassment against him. He said that Kaine can't be cleared of wrongdoing because of the lack of sunlight on congressional harassment settlements.

There have been no public allegations levied against Kaine, and Stewart admitted to reporters after the candidates left the stage that he does not have any evidence of any complaint.

"Do we have any specific allegations? No, we don't. But there are 268 allegations of sexual harassment against members of Congress and there's suddenly silence," Stewart said.

"I don't know if Sen. Kaine is on that list or not, but he certainly got nervous and it certainly does make me wonder if he is on that list."

During the debate, the Democratic senator blasted Stewart for the suggestion and said he's been a leader in the calls to make the list of accusations public.

"You just tried to slip in that there were complaints against me, that's completely false," Kaine said. "You just think you can make it up without any facts."

Throughout much of the evening, the two candidates traded allegations of discrimination and partisanship that turned contentious at times.

Kaine accused Stewart of identifying with "noted white supremacists" thanks to past praise of appearances with far-right figures from which Stewart has since sought some distance. He also said the Republican is "running on an angry and divisive theme."

Stewart called Kaine's support for affirmative action "discriminating" and a reflexive "no" vote blocking President Trump from his agenda.

"You've become a very bitter, partisan figure. You're against everything the president is trying to do," he said.

The two also took opposite sides over the attempt to rename a Senate office building after the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. The building is currently named after the former Georgia Democratic Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr., a major figure in the Senate but also one who supported segregation.

Kaine said he "absolutely" supported the measure.

Stewart, evoking a similar argument he's used to defend preserving Confederate monuments, came out against it.

"You've got somebody who's so bitterly partisan, who's deliberately trying to cause a racial divide in this country at every single opportunity, trying to demonize Virginians who simply are proud of their heritage, proud of their past," he said.

"We need to protect our history. Leave the names alone. Leave the statues alone. And let's go and fix our healthcare. Let's secure the border. Let's make sure that we have an economy that is thriving. Let's build some infrastructure. That's what we need to be focusing in on."

The two met less than six weeks before Election Day. Kaine has held a consistent, double-digit lead in all public polling done since the June primary election. The most recent poll, conducted by SSRS for the University of Mary Washington, showed Kaine up 16 points.