Conservative firebrand Corey Stewart won the Republican nomination to take on incumbent Democratic Senator Tim Kaine this fall. He almost won the party’s nomination a little more than a year ago, in a narrow loss to establishment-favored Ed Gillespie in the primary for governor. (Gillespie wound up losing the general election by almost nine points) Stewart, who was the Virginia co-chairman of the Trump presidential campaign two years ago, was immediately endorsed by President Trump after securing the nomination.
Why are some Republicans worried about him being their top statewide candidate in the Commonwealth of Virginia this fall?
Stewart emerged as a fierce defender of the Confederate monuments scattered throughout the commonwealth last year in the wake of the white supremacist Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville. Stewart has also associated himself with rally organizer Jason Kessler. Stewart also spoke highly of far-right figure Paul Nehlen, who has expressed anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic views and is currently running for the Republican nomination to fill the Wisconsin congressional seat being vacated by outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. According to the New York Times, Stewart has since distanced himself from both Kessler and Nehlen.
Stewart shares President Trump’s hardline views on immigration. As chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, he pushed a proposal that would have allowed police to check the immigration status of anyone they arrested. He also pushed the birther conspiracy theory in a tweet last year about the Alabama Senate race. Steve Bannon once called him the “titular head of the Trump movement” in Virginia.
One concern is that Virginia – which has slowly but steadily become a more Democratic state at local, state, congressional and presidential levels – will again reject the Stewart-Trump brand of culture warrior politics.
Virginia Democrats have more or less cracked the code to consistently win statewide races in the commonwealth over the past fifteen years or so, through a combination of candidate recruitment and favorable demographic trends. They have done this so well that they managed to exceed their own expectations during last November’s statewide elections. Not only did they manage to hold all of the statewide offices, but they came within one seat of getting a 50-50 tie in the House of Delegates, erasing what had been a 66-seat Republican supermajority.
Beyond that, Stewart’s popularity as the highest-ranking Republican on the statewide ballot this year – or the lack thereof – could have a trickle-down effect on other Republicans in down-ticket races. Just as national Republicans are often asked to comment on President Trump’s controversies, Virginia Republicans could be put in a similar bind. According to University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato:
On the day after Stewart’s primary victory, Republican former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling tweeted:
Initial signs from national Republican organizations are not looking good for Stewart. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN the organization has no plans to get involved in the Virginia Senate race. The Republican National Committee has not commented on whether or not it will support Stewart, despite him having secured President Trump’s endorsement.
Stewart could wind up suppressing Republican voter turnout – meaning that voters who might otherwise vote for other Republican candidates could opt to stay home or vote for third party or write-in candidates. If Republican voters don’t turn out in November because they don’t like Stewart, it could have a net negative effect on endangered House Republicans like Barbara Comstock and Dave Brat, or the race to hold the open seat being vacated by Thomas Garrett. The good news for Republicans is that because elections for the state legislature aren’t until 2019, there are only a few down-ballot races this year – a handful of school board and municipal elections throughout the state. Essentially, any negative down-ballot fallout would likely be limited to congressional races.
Larry Sabato and the Cook Political Report both currently project the Virginia Senate race as safely Democratic.