On the Republican side, state party bigwigs are pleading with their gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie, to hire advisers who would make him nastier in a more Trumpian way. They are terrified because Corey A. Stewart, famous for baiting immigrants and trying to protect Confederate memorials, unexpectedly came close to knocking mild-mannered Gillespie off in last month’s primary.
All of this is yet more evidence of how Trump’s abrasiveness and strange appeal to conservative and largely rural voters as an anti-establishment go-getter has really made a difference in Virginia.
Reacting, Democrat turned out in huge numbers in the primary, which, in Virginia, is held in an off year so as to dampen voter interest in state politics and make it easier for elites to run the show.
This fervor is spotlighted on Brat, a former economics professor at Randolph Macon College who loves Ayn Rand and hates government. He was seen as a big outsider success when he bumped off Eric Cantor, the sitting House majority leader and favorite son of Richmond’s business elite, in 2014.
Rather than build his appeal as an iconoclast, however, Brat has blundered by insulting women just after reports of Trump’s misogynistic behavior during last year’s presidential race.
Female voters wanted Brat to hold public meetings to discuss new health care legislation. At first he avoided them and ended up voting for the House version of a bill to replace Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. When women wanted answers, Brat came up with the ill-advised quip that “women are in my grill no matter where I go.”
In turn, female Democrats started lining up to challenge Brat in next year’s election. In addition to Spanberger, who graduated from the University of Virginia and worked as a postal inspector before joining the CIA, the list includes businesswomen Kim Gower and Janelle Noble, Helen Alli, an Army veteran, and Eileen Bedell, a Richmond lawyer who lost to Brat in 2016. Also running is Dan Ward, a former Marine who is an airline pilot.
Among Republicans there is widespread concern that Gillespie’s nice-guy image doesn’t suit the era of Trump. A former head of the national Republican Party and a lobbyist, Gillespie has been a go-along, get-along kind of guy who hasn’t made big stands on much of anything. He’s been shunning Trump, and that has proved to be a big mistake.
In the primary, Stewart, a Prince William County supervisor who made national headlines a decade ago for his crackdown on undocumented immigrants, took curious stands to prevent Confederate memorials around the state from being removed from public places or otherwise altered. It seemed strange because Stewart is from Minnesota.
Political analysts and pollsters reported that Gillespie was a shoo-in, but Stewart came within a few thousands votes of beating him.
All of this is more fodder for the national media. Stewart’s success has been seen a positive indication of Trump’s continuing strength. The anti-Brat campaign is a bellwether for action against Trump by newly empowered Democrats. The addition of former CIA officer Spanberger adds more sparkle. She has been the subject of a profile in “Elle” magazine, and the national television networks have taken note.