Pri­mary could pro­duce the beast of a bad bunch

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There are 155,000 rea­sons why Corey Ste­wart, the shock jock of Vir­ginia Repub­li­can pol­i­tics, should win his party’s U.S. Se­nate nom­i­na­tion Tues­day to op­pose Demo­cratic in­cum­bent Tim Kaine.

That is Ste­wart’s vote to­tal from the 2017 gu­ber­na­to­rial pri­mary in which he nearly de­feated Ed Gille­spie.

Ste­wart came within 5,000 votes of Gille­spie. It was tan­ta­liz­ingly close, given Gille­spie’s lop­sided fi­nan­cial and or­ga­ni­za­tional ad­van­tages as the Estab­lish­ment can­di­date, and it ex­posed a nasty di­vide within the GOP that would con­trib­ute to his land­slide loss to Demo­crat Ralph Northam.

Though turnout in the Se­nate pri­mary is ex­pected to dip from last year — a de­cline in ab­sen­tee vot­ing in­di­cates as much — Ste­wart’s vote might not.

A lawyer and Prince Wil­liam County su­per­vi­sor, Ste­wart has tended to his base al­most non­stop since the gu­ber­na­to­rial pri­mary, cam­paign­ing all-out for the Se­nate even as Gille­spie and Northam bat­tled through the au­tumn.

Ste­wart had then — and has now — some­thing that Gille­spie, flack-for-hire cre­den­tials, not­with­stand­ing, could never muster: a shrill, Don­ald Trump-like mes­sage — re­fined long be­fore Trump — that whips up the cranky pot­pourri of neo-Con­fed­er­ates, gun-rights ab­so­lutists, im­mi­grant-bash­ing na­tivists, and just-say-no abor­tion foes that, in Vir­ginia, re­flects what the Repub­li­can Party has be­come na­tion­ally.

It could en­sure vic­tory in the pri­mary in June. It could guar­an­tee de­feat in the gen­eral elec­tion in Novem­ber.

To vary­ing de­grees, it is a shtick mim­icked by Ste­wart’s op­po­nents: Nick Fre­itas, a ju­nior mem­ber of the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture from ru­ral Culpeper County, and E.W. Jack­son, a Ch­e­sa­peake min­is­ter who was the GOP’s un­suc­cess­ful can­di­date for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor in 2013 — nom­i­nated in a thinly at­tended con­ven­tion over Ste­wart and sev­eral oth­ers — and who has been barely vis­i­ble this go-around.

But Ste­wart is unique, tire­less in his abil­ity to make Vir­ginia pol­i­tics very per­sonal; for ex­am­ple, ty­ing the Repub­li­can col­lapse on Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion to sex­ual im­po­tence. He is the beast of a bad bunch.

Pointed pro­nounce­ments are the prin­ci­pal re­source of the Repub­li­can pri­mary can­di­dates.

Be­cause they are cash-poor — the Repub­li­cans have raised a to­tal of $1.6 mil­lion, com­pared with more than $16 mil­lion by Kaine, ac­cord­ing to OpenSe­crets — the three have had an un­even on­line and broad­cast ad­ver­tis­ing pres­ence. In­stead, they are try­ing to get vot­ers’ at­ten­tion largely with smash-mouth philip­pics that gen­er­ate press cov­er­age.

This in­cludes, most notably, Fre­itas’ at­tack this past week on Ste­wart, link­ing him to racially tinged vi­o­lence last Au­gust in Char­lottesville, where a woman was killed demon­strat­ing against the white su­prem­a­cists who de­scended on the city to protest the pro­posed re­moval from a park of a statute of Robert E. Lee, the Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral.

The broad­side com­pelled the Repub­li­can Party of Vir­ginia to is­sue a state­ment de­fend­ing Ste­wart and re­but­ting Fre­itas’ sug­ges­tion — one from which he later at­tempted a re­treat — that Ste­wart is a bigot.

The party’s state­ment may have been in­tended as a tem­per­a­ture-low­er­ing timeout in the fi­nal count­down to the pri­mary, when vot­ers are sharply fo­cus­ing on their choices, but it was also viewed as a sign that GOP lead­ers, like it or not, are an­tic­i­pat­ing a Ste­wart vic­tory and ready­ing to de­fend him against Demo­cratic at­tacks.

They will come — and could well in­clude the words that Fre­itas hurled at Ste­wart.

Kaine, seek­ing a sec­ond term in the Se­nate, may have a niceguy im­age, but he is skilled at wield­ing a rhetor­i­cal knife. Kaine can overdo it — as he did as the Demo­cratic vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee in 2016.

In a tele­vised de­bate with Mike Pence at Long­wood Univer­sity in Far­mville a month be­fore the elec­tion, Kaine chan­neled Trump, ham­mer­ing Pence with a stri­dency ap­par­ently in­tended to draw the sharpest con­trast be­tween the Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic tick­ets. In­stead, Kaine came across as an over­caf­feinated, un­couth brute.

For Repub­li­cans, in­cred­i­ble, if not in­cred­u­lous, crit­i­cism of Kaine may be their only weapon. Be­cause if none of the three Repub­li­cans can de­feat Kaine, each will still try to ding him, draw­ing on a shared but vary­ing tal­ent for be­ing provoca­tive.

Ste­wart’s, how­ever, seems bound­less.

He has even set up as a straw man one of Kaine’s sons, Woody. Ste­wart trashed the younger Kaine as a mem­ber of the protest group An­tifa be­cause he was sen­tenced to a year of pro­ba­tion and fined $236 for re­sist­ing ar­rest af­ter dis­rupt­ing a Trump rally in Min­nesota — Ste­wart’s home state.

Be­cause Kaine, run­ning in a blue-trending state, is well known and pop­u­lar, his seat is a stretch for Repub­li­cans. Their best op­por­tu­ni­ties for pro­tect­ing, if not im­prov­ing, their Se­nate ma­jor­ity are in the 10 Trump-car­ried states where Demo­cratic se­na­tors are stand­ing for re-elec­tion, in­clud­ing next door, in West Vir­ginia.

That means, when it comes to cash, staff and ser­vices, the Repub­li­can can­di­date in Vir­ginia could be on his own.

The Na­tional Repub­li­can Sen­a­to­rial Com­mit­tee, cam­paign arm of the Se­nate GOP cau­cus, is un­likely to throw much, if any, money at the nom­i­nee here.

And if it is Ste­wart — no fan of the party hi­er­ar­chy and it no fan of his — he would prob­a­bly have to make do with his own pool of donors.

In­deed, tra­di­tional sources of Repub­li­can funds — the Amer­ica Lib­erty PAC of Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky and the Koch broth­ers-backed Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity — are break­ing to Fre­itas, so far spend­ing $362,000 in his be­half on ad­ver­tis­ing, can­vass­ing and tele­phone banks. Fre­itas also has been en­dorsed by the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion, renowned for its nim­ble voter-con­tact pro­gram.

Such sup­port is sup­posed to graft Estab­lish­ment le­git­i­macy to Fre­itas, a two-term mem­ber of the House of Del­e­gates who ini­tially dis­tin­guished him­self as a can­di­date with a de­cid­edly un-Estab­lish­ment, if not Ste­wart-es­que, floor speech in the clos­ing days of the win­ter ses­sion of the Gen­eral Assem­bly.

In re­marks that went vi­ral and got him face time on Fox News, Fre­itas — speak­ing shortly af­ter the mass shoot­ing at a Park­land, Fla., high school — of­fered an unyield­ing de­fense of gun rights. He also de­cried abor­tion as con­tribut­ing to the break­down of fam­i­lies and linked the Demo­cratic Party to South­ern seg­re­ga­tion­ists it re­pu­di­ated long ago.

If he didn’t learn then, Fre­itas is learn­ing now that you can’t out-Ste­wart Ste­wart.

GRA­HAM MOOMAW/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Corey Ste­wart, who is seek­ing the GOP nom­i­na­tion to chal­lenge Demo­cratic Sen. Tim Kaine, held a roll of toi­let pa­per out­side the state Capi­tol while he de­rided Repub­li­cans who sup­ported Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion.

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