Primary could produce the beast of a bad bunch
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.
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.