Trump ally’s ap­peal to GOP base will be put to test Tues­day

Ste­wart prom­ises to wage ‘ruth­less’ cam­paign against Kaine if he beats Fre­itas, Jack­son in Se­nate pri­mary

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - BY PA­TRICK WIL­SON

Corey Ste­wart has a the­ory. Repub­li­cans can win statewide in Vir­ginia for the first time since 2009 if they just pick him as their nom­i­nee, if they let him run his brand of pol­i­tics.

Come Tues­day, Ste­wart will find out if months of cam­paign­ing dur­ing two statewide races will earn him the chance to run a “vi­cious and ruth­less” cam­paign against a Demo­cratic politi­cian that even many Repub­li­cans don’t think can be beat, Sen. Tim Kaine.

Con­ser­va­tive min­is­ter E.W. Jack­son also is on the bal­lot, but Ste­wart faces his tough­est com­pe­ti­tion from Del. Nick Fre­itas, R-Culpeper. Fre­itas avoided at­tack­ing Ste­wart un­til last week, when he un­leashed a broad­side

against Ste­wart’s past as­so­ci­a­tions with white su­prem­a­cists, plead­ing for the Grand Old Party to re­ject “hate mon­gers” and pro­tect the con­ser­va­tive move­ment from Ste­wart.

Nom­i­nat­ing Ste­wart means the party would lose to Kaine and could lose GOP-held con­gres­sional seats this year, Fre­itas wrote in an email to sup­port­ers.

The party’s top brass in Vir­ginia didn’t like the at­tack. For one, should Ste­wart win the nom­i­na­tion, Fre­itas’ at­tack gives more fod­der to Democrats.

Party chair­man John Whit­beck stepped in to ref­eree, say­ing there was no firm ev­i­dence Ste­wart sym­pa­thized with white na­tion­al­ists.

“Over the years there have been times where Corey Ste­wart and I have had our dif­fer­ences, but this is not such an in­stance — we both con­demned the vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville and the groups be­hind it,” he said in a Face­book post on Thurs­day.

But Fre­itas’ at­tack high­lighted Ste­wart’s past as­so­ci­a­tion with Ja­son Kessler, the white su­prem­a­cist who, af­ter hold­ing an event with Ste­wart last year, went on to co­or­di­nate a torch rally in Char­lottesville and then the Au­gust “Unite the Right” rally that turned deadly.

There was also Ste­wart’s praise in Jan­uary 2017 of Paul Nehlen, a far-right Wis­con­sin politi­cian who lost in a pri­mary run to House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2016 and later made anti-Semitic posts on Twit­ter.

Ste­wart was put on the de­fen­sive for the first time in months of cam­paign­ing — in this year’s GOP Se­nate pri­mary and in his run for gov­er­nor last year, where even­tual pri­mary win­ner Ed Gille­spie ig­nored Ste­wart’s at­tacks and nearly lost to him.

In re­sponse to Fre­itas, Ste­wart said he wants noth­ing to do with Kessler and said his sup­port for Nehlen came be­fore the anti-Semitic so­cial me­dia posts.

“I think Corey Ste­wart has hor­ri­ble judg­ment,” Fre­itas said in an in­ter­view. “And I don’t like the idea that the Repub­li­can Party of Vir­ginia and all of us who as­so­ciate with Repub­li­can phi­los­o­phy could be branded by the mis­takes that Corey Ste­wart has made with re­spect to the peo­ple he has as­so­ci­ated him­self with.”

Fre­itas, a na­tive Cal­i­for­nian and for­mer Army Green Beret, didn’t have money for TV ads in this race. Ste­wart, a na­tive Min­nesotan and chair­man of the Prince Wil­liam Board of County Su­per­vi­sors, is launch­ing one in the fi­nal days of the cam­paign, high­light­ing his sup­port for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and for pro­tect­ing pub­lic mon­u­ments to Con­fed­er­ates.

And Fre­itas has had his own as­so­ci­a­tion with a top cam­paign aide, Mark Kevin Lloyd, who made so­cial me­dia posts in which he called women the B word and at­tacked Is­lam.

Jack­son was the GOP’s can­di­date for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor in 2013, hav­ing won the nom­i­na­tion in a con­ven­tion in which one of the los­ing can­di­dates was Ste­wart. Jack­son lost badly in the gen­eral elec­tion that year to Demo­crat Ralph Northam.

In this cam­paign, he held a prayer break­fast in Ch­e­sa­peake with the Rev. Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Strik­ing na­tion­al­is­tic tones, Jack­son said in a dig­i­tal ad that he is an Amer­i­can and shunned the la­bel “African-Amer­i­can.”

“In the fi­nal week of the pri­mary, the Repub­li­cans are ar­gu­ing over who’s racist and who loves Trump more,” said Kaine spokesman Ian Sams.

While Fre­itas has fo­cused on a lib­er­tar­i­an­lean­ing po­lit­i­cal brand in the mode of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Ste­wart’s fo­cus has been aimed at the heart of the Vir­ginia Repub­li­can elec­torate — un­apolo­getic sup­port for Trump.

Dozens of Ste­wart back­ers waited for him to ar­rive Thurs­day evening at Anna’s Ital­ian Res­tau­rant and Pizze­ria in the GOP strong­hold of Hanover County in sub­ur­ban Rich­mond, just down the road from a high school named af­ter Robert E. Lee and Jef­fer­son Davis, whose mas­cot is the Con­fed­er­ates.

Among the Ste­wart back­ers was Ron Hed­lund, a Repub­li­can ac­tivist from Hen­rico County who now lives in Hanover. As ev­i­dence of Ste­wart’s mo­men­tum, he men­tioned a web­site called “Pre­dict It,” a “real-money po­lit­i­cal pre­dic­tion mar­ket for pol­i­tics.”

Ste­wart’s stock price was go­ing up.

Ste­wart’s strength, he said, comes in his align­ment with Trump, while Fre­itas wasn’t al­ways sup­port­ive.

And Whit­beck slap­ping Fre­itas on the wrist for at­tack­ing Ste­wart is huge, Hed­lund said.

Su­san Wright, a re­tired teacher from Hen­rico who at­tends county GOP meet­ings, ar­rived un­de­cided on which can­di­date to sup­port to find out more about Ste­wart.

“I think Nick Fre­itas is a good per­son. The only thing I re­ally have seen about him is a video on­line where he spoke down­town in Rich­mond, and I liked what he said,” she said.

That video, which spread na­tion­ally on­line, was a speech Fre­itas made this win­ter on the floor of the state House of Del­e­gates in which he de­fended gun rights and de­nounced Demo­cratic at­tacks on Repub­li­cans.

Wright said she couldn’t re­mem­ber the name of the third can­di­date in the race. Jack­son’s cam­paign has been less vis­i­ble than that of Ste­wart or Fre­itas.

De­scrib­ing her­self as a huge Trump sup­porter, Wright said she’s known for a long time that Ste­wart was strong on stop­ping il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. And like many other Repub­li­cans, she said she’s tired of the idea that any­one needs to apol­o­gize for sup­port­ing strong bor­der con­trol.

As a na­tive of Eden,

N.C., once home to thriv­ing linen and car­pet man­u­fac­tur­ing, she’s con­cerned about job losses. As she looked at a piece of Ste­wart lit­er­a­ture, she saw things she liked: crack down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, build a wall, de­fund Planned Par­ent­hood.

Ste­wart burst into the ban­quet room fol­lowed by a small en­tourage that in­cluded his wife, Maria, film­ing him with her phone.

Stand­ing near a card­board cutout of Trump, Ste­wart told the crowd Democrats have never played fair and that he doesn’t in­tend to, ei­ther. He’s bring­ing a knife to the fight.

As Ste­wart spoke, one of his sup­port­ers, Ge­orge Ran­dall of Hal­i­fax County, de­cided he didn’t want a Demo­cratic tracker in the room to re­main, and kicked him out. Track­ers are op­er­a­tives whose job is to fol­low a can­di­date from the op­pos­ing side, con­stantly film them and oc­ca­sion­ally yell out a ques­tion or two. “It’s a pri­vate event. You’ve got to go,” said Ran­dall, who wore a Con­fed­er­ate flag neck­lace.

The crowd cheered when Ste­wart talked about de­fend­ing Vir­ginia’s her­itage and said his first TV ad fea­tures Gen. Robert E. Lee. He said he’ll work with Trump to bring back jobs and said Kaine hadn’t done any­thing for Vir­ginia in six years ex­cept run for vice pres­i­dent, “and ob­vi­ously he didn’t do a good job at that.”

Wright liked the speech. “I like his ‘dog in the fight’ at­ti­tude,” she said af­ter­ward.

“I am a lit­tle con­cerned when he brings in Robert E. Lee and all these oth­ers that he’s go­ing to lose the black vote,” she said. “If I was his ad­viser, I’d say let’s not go there.”

How­ever, with po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum in some Vir­ginia cities to re­lo­cate or take down mon­u­ments to the Con­fed­er­acy, de­spite a state law that for­bids it, the is­sue is im­por­tant to the Repub­li­can base in Vir­ginia.

Ste­wart made it a fo­cus of his cam­paign against Gille­spie last year, forc­ing Gille­spie to also cam­paign on the is­sue in his un­suc­cess­ful gen­eral elec­tion run.

Ran­dall, who kicked out the tracker, is a mem­ber of the Vir­ginia Flag­gers who said he be­lieves Abra­ham Lin­coln was a war crim­i­nal and that pro­tec­tion of the flag and the Con­fed­er­acy is im­por­tant.

“Even though he’s a Yan­kee, I like him,” he said of Ste­wart. “An­tifa had an X on me and a friend of mine — an X on us to get rid of us. Corey’s the only one who’s stood up to An­tifa.”

The word is short for “anti-fas­cist,” a de­scrip­tion for far-left-lean­ing mil­i­tant groups that re­sist neo-Nazis and white su­prem­a­cists at demon­stra­tions.

Matt Colt Hall, a 26-yearold Repub­li­can ac­tivist from Roanoke, said in an in­ter­view that the Vir­ginia GOP is at a cross­roads.

For his gen­er­a­tion, grow­ing up in an era of ex­panded government un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, Fre­itas is the choice.

“You’ve got one who’s got a lib­erty mes­sage and one who’s got an au­thor­i­tar­ian mes­sage,” he said of Fre­itas and Ste­wart. “Do you want an au­thor­i­tar­ian leader who’s go­ing to make an ass of him­self at any given time, or do you want some­one who can rep­re­sent our party with dig­nity and grace?”

Hall said he was dis­ap­pointed in Whit­beck and party lead­er­ship for cod­dling Ste­wart.

“There’s a lack of moral courage at RPV right now,” he said.





Repub­li­can Se­nate can­di­dates (from left) E.W. Jack­son, Nick Fre­itas and Corey Ste­wart, seen at an April 19 de­bate in Lynch­burg, are com­pet­ing to chal­lenge Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

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