An­tics by Ste­wart, or a crafty plan?

Some say de­fend­ing Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols has harmed Va. GOP’s im­age

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LAURA VOZZELLA

rich­mond — By em­brac­ing Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols and flirt­ing with the alt-right, Corey Ste­wart seems, to many po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts, to be hand­ing the GOP nom­i­na­tion for Vir­ginia gov­er­nor to ri­val Ed Gille­spie.

Some also think Ste­wart is dam­ag­ing the Repub­li­can brand in a way that could hurt Gille­spie’s chances in Novem­ber — in a gen­eral elec­tion that could re­ver­ber­ate beyond the Old Do­min­ion.

“The rest of the coun­try’s look­ing at us and say­ing, ‘Look at th­ese hicks in Vir­ginia!’ ” said Brian W. Schoen­e­man, a Vir­ginia po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and blog­ger who served in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. “They don’t real­ize that he’s not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the broader GOP and the vast ma­jor­ity of us — in­clud­ing Ed — are look­ing at him with hor­ror.”

But Ste­wart says de­fend­ing Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols against “po- lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” is not just a cause, it’s a win­ning strat­egy in an off-year pri­mary.

“It’s a very small turnout elec­tion — we’re talk­ing maybe 4 or 5 per­cent of the en­tire voter base,” he said. “So you’ve got a cer­tain per­cent­age of the elec­torate who are go­ing to vote on abor­tion. You’ve got a cer­tain per­cent­age of the elec­torate who are go­ing to vote on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. And then there’s go­ing to be a per­cent­age who will vote on the his­tor­i­cal-mon­u­ments is­sue. Pretty soon, you add them all up and it’s a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of peo­ple.”

As for dam­age to the Repub­li­can brand, Ste­wart con­tends that Gille­spie and other es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans have hurt the party by cut­ting deals with Democrats and re­fus­ing to stake out bold po­si­tions on tough is­sues.

“It’s the Bush fam­ily and other es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans who hurt the Repub­li­can brand so badly that we got Barack Obama,” he said.

Vir­ginia hasn’t had a statewide can­di­date stand ac­cused of be­ing too cozy with the Con­fed­er­acy since Ge­orge Allen’s Se­nate re­elec­tion bid in 2006. The is­sue resur­faces now in a par­tic­u­larly high-pro­file race at a chaotic mo­ment in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

Vir­ginia is one of just two states — the other is New Jersey — with a gov­er­nor’s race this year. The con­test is draw­ing na­tional at­ten­tion as an early ref­er­en­dum on President Trump and as an ex­am­ple of the pop­ulist/es­tab­lish­ment tug of war within both ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Trump’s sur­pris­ing path to the pres­i­dency could em­bolden more politi­cians to seek of­fice as provo­ca­teurs, po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts said. Yet the les­son here could be that only Trump, by virtue of his celebrity and per­son­al­ity, can get away with it.

“He’s made the mis­take of say­ing, ‘This [mon­u­ment re­moval] is what’s go­ing on. I’m go­ing to go big,’” Jen­nifer Duffy, se­nior ed­i­tor for the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port, said of Ste­wart. “But he might have fallen off the cliff. When we’re deal­ing in an at­mos­phere of deeply South­ern states start­ing to re­move their Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments, maybe it’s not the is­sue to go crazy on.”

But Kyle Kondik, who an­a­lyzes elec­tions at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia Cen­ter for Pol­i­tics, said he thinks the strat­egy could work for whose ral­lies some­times draw more coun­ter­protesters than sup­port­ers. He noted that polls show many vot­ers have not made up their minds or even tuned into the race.

“If you’re an un­der­dog can­di­date look­ing for some­thing to get at­ten­tion with, Ste­wart has cer­tainly got­ten at­ten­tion for this,” he said. “Just the name ID can be more than half the bat­tle . . . . Some­times it mat­ters not so much what your own po­si­tion is, but who your en­e­mies are. Maybe Ste­wart’s cal­cu­la­tion is if he can fire up th­ese pro­test­ers, those are peo­ple that con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans think are riffraff. There­fore, he be­comes an en­emy of the left, and that gen­er­ates more sup­port on the right.”

Ste­wart and Gille­spie started the pri­mary race — along with un­der­dog state Sen. Frank W. Wag­ner (Vir­ginia Beach) — as seem­ingly perfect sym­bols of the GOP’s in­tra­party angst.

Ste­wart cut a brasher-than-Trump fig­ure as some­one who had led a crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion in Prince Wil­liam County a decade ago. He was such an over-the-top Vir­ginia chair­man for Trump last year that the cam­paign fired him. Gille­spie was the cau­tious es­tab­lish­ment type, a for­mer lob­by­ist, Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair­man and White House coun­selor to Bush who kept his dis­tance from Trump.

Which one would sell in an off-year con­test in Vir­ginia, a state that fa­vored Hil­lary Clin­ton by 5 points in Novem­ber but also gave Trump a nar­row pri­mary win? That looked like an open ques­tion at first, when Ste­wart aimed to at­tract populists en­er­gized by Trump’s sur­prise White House vic­tory.

Then Ste­wart, chair­man of the Prince Wil­liam Board of County Su­per­vi­sors, took his cam­paign in an un­ex­pected di­rec­tion. The im­pe­tus was a vote early this year by the Charlottesville City Coun­cil to re­move a statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a down­town park.

Ste­wart saw an open­ing and ral­lied to op­pose the mon­u­ment’s re­moval. The move brought him con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion after news videos showed coun­ter­protesters shout­ing him down.

From there, he made Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments the cen­ter­piece of his cam­paign — one that al­lowed him to skewer “Es­tab­lish­ment Ed” for what he deemed a mealy­mouthed stance: While the for­mer RNC chief is also op­posed to re­moval, he said it’s a mat­ter left to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, not the gov­er­nor.

Ste­wart held mul­ti­ple ral­lies for the mon­u­ment, un­furled the Con­fed­er­ate flag at other events and at­tended an Old South ball in an out­fit ap­prox­i­mat­ing a Civil War dress uni­form.

Along the way, he gave an in­ter­view to Mike Cer­novich, the al­tright In­ter­net fig­ure who helped pop­u­lar­ize the “Piz­za­gate” con­spir­acy the­ory. The alt-right is a small, far-right move­ment that seeks a whites-only state. Ad­her­ents of the alt-right are known for es­pous­ing racist, anti-Semitic and sex­ist points of view.

Ste­wart also at­tended a Charlottesville news con­fer­ence with Ja­son Kessler and Isaac Smith, founders of Unity and Se­cu­rity for Amer­ica (USA), a fledg­ling group that calls for “de­fend­ing Western Civ­i­liza­tion.”

Smith has some­times in­tro­duced Ste­wart at events and ap­peared at his side with alt-right sym­bols, such as plac­ards with Pepe the Frog and a glad­i­a­tor-style shield. At one rau­cous rally with Ste­wart at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, Smith used a shield to push against coun­ter­protesters.

Ste­wart said he does not conSte­wart, done white supremacy but wel­comes sup­port from any­one who wants to up­end the GOP es­tab­lish­ment.

“There’s a revo­lu­tion go­ing on here in con­ser­va­tive cir­cles, and th­ese young peo­ple are com­ing up — very so­cial-media savvy — and they are shak­ing things up, and their views are very dis­parate,” he said. “I’ll take sup­port where I can get it. But that doesn’t mean I be­lieve in ev­ery­thing they be­lieve in.”

Smith, 20, said he en­joyed needling lib­eral ac­tivists with Pepe signs and shields at Ste­wart’s events, al­though he re­jects the alt-right la­bel.

“The term I might use is ‘dis­si­dent right.’ It’s the part of the right wing that has fun,” Smith said. “And part of the fun is just get­ting a rise out of th­ese sen­si­tive — and I’d say sen­si­tive for no good rea­son — peo­ple . . . . It’s a frog. It’s not like I’m send­ing a pic­ture of a mem­ber of the Ku Klux Klan hold­ing a noose. It’s a smil­ing frog. Why does this up­set you so much?”

The provo­ca­tions have suc­ceeded in some ways. Late last month, as Ste­wart railed against the re­moval of a New Or­leans mon­u­ment, he wound up in a Twit­ter war with mu­si­cian John Leg­end and others. But the at­ten­tion has not trans­lated into sup­port, as mea­sured in re­cent polls.

Even at the re­cent Shad Plank­ing, a spring­time po­lit­i­cal con­fab in the piney woods of South­side Vir­ginia that was open only to white males un­til the late 1970s, sup­port for Ste­wart was luke­warm. When a sup­porter flew over­head in a plane stream­ing a Con­fed­er­ate flag and a Ste­wart sign, it drew eye­rolls.

“He’s rel­e­vant in the sense that we’re all talk­ing about him, but we’re talk­ing about him be­cause he gob­s­macked us all at how ex­treme his cam­paign has be­come,” said Quentin Kidd, a Christo­pher New­port Univer­sity govern­ment pro­fes­sor and poll­ster.

Ste­wart’s sup­port slipped fur­ther in re­cent weeks, when “all that Con­fed­er­ate stuff” led Ste­wart’s lo­cal sher­iff and long­time ally to yank his en­dorse­ment. Four of the five Repub­li­can su­per­vi­sors who serve with Ste­wart came out for Gille­spie, aban­don­ing plans to stay neu­tral.

Ste­wart knows peo­ple are count­ing him out — but says they are wrong.

“The last time lib­er­als got mad at some­one & said ‘his cam­paign is im­plod­ing’ we took back the White House,” he tweeted.

If he makes it to the gen­eral elec­tion, Ste­wart said that he would start em­pha­siz­ing more kitchen table is­sues with broader ap­peal.

“You don’t change your po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion, just what you talk about,” he said. “Ob­vi­ously I’ll be talk­ing more about bring­ing back jobs and re­duc­ing taxes.”

Most po­lit­i­cal strate­gists and ob­servers don’t think Ste­wart will be in the race after the June 13 pri­mary. They say the leader of Vir­ginia’s sec­ond-largest ju­ris­dic­tion, some­one who had man­aged to win re­elec­tion four times in racially di­verse North­ern Vir­ginia — has turned him­self into a fringe can­di­date.

“This is manna from heaven for Gille­spie,” said Bob Holsworth, a for­mer Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist.

“On the one hand, [Ste­wart] has ba­si­cally ceded much of his home turf to Gille­spie, which is re­mark­able. And sec­ondly, the other ben­e­fit it pro­vides Gille­spie is that the cam­paign is so out­ra­geous that it cap­tures all of the media at­ten­tion and en­sures that Frank Wag­ner gets no trac­tion, too.”

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts are more di­vided on whether even a badly de­feated Ste­wart would give the GOP a black eye that lasts through the gen­eral elec­tion. Many think that come fall, Gille­spie will have to worry more about be­ing tied to Trump than to Ste­wart. But Democrats would like to yoke him to both. They are al­ready crit­i­ciz­ing Gille­spie for not con­demn­ing Ste­wart’s far-right ap­peals, a line of at­tack that echoes their com­plaints about Gille­spie’s re­luc­tance to speak out against Trump.

“Not even a Con­fed­er­ate apol­o­gist try­ing to use racism to score po­lit­i­cal points can draw con­dem­na­tion from @EdWGille­spie. Says it all,” tweeted for­mer con­gress­man Tom Per­riello, one of two Democrats vy­ing to suc­ceed termlim­ited Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

Abbi Sigler, a spokes­woman for Gille­spie, de­clined to com­ment on Ste­wart’s cam­paign or Demo­cratic crit­i­cism of his si­lence.

“Can­di­dates speak for them­selves,” she said. “Ed is speak­ing about how we make this a stronger econ­omy for all Vir­gini­ans, and it’s very clear that his pos­i­tive mes­sage is res­onat­ing with vot­ers statewide.”

Some Repub­li­cans wish Gille­spie would con­demn Ste­wart — among them Schoen­e­man, ed­i­tor in chief of the con­ser­va­tive blog Bear­ing Drift.

“Maybe you lose some gen­eral­elec­tion votes, but at least you can look your­self in the mir­ror in the morn­ing,” he said. “I think it has a neg­a­tive im­pact on the party as a whole . . . . This is not some­thing that is even re­motely rea­son­able.”

But Chris LaCivita, a top ad­viser at the RNC for the Trump cam­paign, does not think Ste­wart’s Con­fed­er­ate an­tics will do any last­ing dam­age. And he thinks Gille­spie is smart to stay mum about him.

“The first rule in pol­i­tics is not to en­gage the id­iot,” LaCivita said. “Let the id­iot be the id­iot.”

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