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
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.