Virginia’s Loss

In nominating Corey Stewart for Senate, the state sees its reactionary fringe go mainstream.

Corey Stewart headshot
Corey Stewart at his home on July 13 in Woodbridge, Virginia.
Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post via Getty Images

Corey Stewart is a vocal defender of Confederate monuments and an ally of white supremacists who has rallied with neo-Nazis. And on Tuesday, after leading polls for months, he became the Republican nominee for Senate in Virginia, winning with 45 percent of the vote in a three-way contest against Delegate Nick Freitas and firebrand preacher E.W. Jackson.

Stewart’s campaign was a retread of the one he ran against Ed Gillespie for the gubernatorial nomination in 2017, defined by its revanchist rage against a changing Virginia, whose rising diversity has made it more favorable to Democrats. President Trump praised his win on Twitter, referring to his November opponent, Tim Kaine, as a “total stiff … who is weak on crime and borders.”

The president’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, Stewart will have a steep climb against Kaine, who enters the general election with multiple advantages, from incumbency and unified party support to Democratic enthusiasm and a strong wind against Republicans in the state.

But the horse-race details of Stewart’s bid for Senate are less important than what his win says about the Republican Party. It’s not just that the GOP is avowedly pro-Trump, with voters punishing candidates who are too critical of the president—Rep. Mark Sanford, for example, lost his South Carolina race on Tuesday after getting on Trump’s bad side. It’s that Trump has opened the door to conservative-fringe figures of every stripe, giving them a chance to seize ground and create a space in the mainstream.

But even before Trump, there has been a broader Republican turn toward the extreme and the radical. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were among the 2012 flash-in-the-pan contenders for president, to say nothing of various candidates like Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, and others with views far outside the norm.

In Virginia, Stewart’s rise was preceded by that of Ken Cuccinelli, the right-wing attorney general who made waves as a staunch social conservative and fervent opponent of the Affordable Care Act. Cuccinelli hoped to succeed Bob McDonnell, the scandal-ridden outgoing governor who brought conservative policies and a moderate affect, winning him strong support from the white suburban voters who drive politics in the state. Rejecting McDonnell’s approach, Cuccinelli embraced the Republican base and scored an easy win in the party’s nominating convention (after Cuccinelli’s allies pushed the state party to reject a primary, which would have set up a bruising contest between him and then–Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling). That convention also chose Jackson, whose outlandish statements and beliefs would dominate campaign coverage, as Cuccinelli’s lieutenant, yielding an extremist ticket that tanked at the ballot box, with Democrats winning all three statewide offices.

Virginia Republicans regrouped somewhat in 2014, nominating former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie in the Senate race against Mark Warner and nearly toppling the incumbent, who faced anti-Obama headwinds as well as strong Republican enthusiasm. But after the less radical Gillespie lost, the most hardline and conservative elements in the state Republican Party gained the initiative, backed by an increasingly combative and recalcitrant base.

The rise of Donald Trump only exacerbated and worsened the trend, as he brought explicit racism back to the mainstream of national politics and demonstrated the strength of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim appeals among Republican voters.

Before Trump, Stewart was working in the vein of Marco Rubio and other Republican “modernizers” who emphasized outreach to black and Latino communities. After Trump won by doing the opposite, Stewart became one of the first Virginia Republicans to take that appeal and tailor it to the state. In 2017, he staked his gubernatorial campaign on defense of Confederate memorials against the effort to remove or recontextualize them: “[The Confederate flag] is our heritage, it’s what makes us Virginia, and if you take that away, we lose our identity.” He pledged to “defund” any Virginia city that took down its Confederate memorials and compared those who argue for their removal to ISIS. He also indulged the rhetoric of the “alt-right,” blasting Gillespie as a “cuckservative” during a question-and-answer session on Reddit, mingling online with some of Trump’s most fervent supporters.

Stewart lost the primary to Gillespie (who adopted his former opponent’s Confederate memorial position in his race against Democrat Ralph Northam) but remained on the stage of right-wing politics in the state. He stood with “pro-white” activist Jason Kessler ahead of the Unite the Right rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, and after that event—where a counter-demonstrator, Heather Heyer, was killed—Stewart defended the alt-right attendees, attacking their Republican critics. “All the weak Republicans, they couldn’t apologize fast enough. They played right into the hands of the left wing,” he said to the Washington Post. Most recently, Stewart has had a strong connection to Wisconsin House Republican candidate Paul Nehlen, a virulent racist and anti-Semite. Not only did Stewart praise him for challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan, but his campaign spokesperson was formerly a consultant for Nehlen.

Initial polling puts Stewart far behind Kaine, and national Republicans have already disavowed him and his campaign, leaving the GOP nominee bereft of necessary resources. Barring extraordinary events, Stewart will likely lose. But he isn’t some aberration to ignore or disregard. He is part of what is now the GOP mainstream, with real appeal to traditional Republican voters in the state’s suburbs. He has forged a path for winning a statewide primary, and as Virginia grows more diverse—with more conflicts to come over its heritage and future—another Corey Stewart will emerge to capitalize on those conflicts and divisions, and quite possibly succeed.