Corey Stewart’s Republican nomination for U.S. Senate from Virginia has prompted an identity crisis within the state GOP, with some donors and activists saying they are so turned off that they are willing to vote for his Democratic opponent, Sen. Tim Kaine.
Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, catapulted to the U.S. Senate nomination — and nearly won the gubernatorial primary last year — by celebrating guns and Confederate statues, lambasting illegal immigrants, and associating with white nationalist Jason Kessler and Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin candidate barred from Twitter because of anti-Semitic and racist posts.
Prospects are so dire for the GOP in Virginia that most donors and activists have essentially written off the Senate race, and many now expect the lone surviving Republican member of Congress from Northern Virginia (Rep. Barbara Comstock) to go down. The state party chairman John C. Whitbeck, who presided over the implosion of the state GOP, resigned on Saturday.
As the GOP in Virginia has moved toward nasty nativism, the state’s most populous region, Northern Virginia, is increasingly moderate thanks to the influx of nonwhite voters, government workers, college-educated suburbanites and high-tech employees. The Virginia of George Allen — former governor and senator who in 2006 lost a racially charged Senate race against Jim Webb (D-Va.) — was genteelly conservative, divided between, on one hand, coal country, rural enclaves and native born-Virginians and on the other, more moderate suburbs, and was already shifting from the Virginia of Massive Resistance. The trend away from the bastion of the Confederacy to a state dominated by multi-ethnic, white-collar suburbs accelerated faster than even Democrats expected. Few Republicans or Democrats thought the election in 2009, in which Bob McDonnell (later tried on federal corruption charges, with his conviction reversed on appeal) was elected governor, would be the last election in which a Republican won a statewide race.
The Virginia GOP has gone from candidates too conservative for non-Republican voters (e.g. Ken Cuccinelli in the 2013 gubernatorial race) to candidates trying (unsuccessfully) to straddle the divide between President Trump’s supporters and moderate conservatives (e.g. Ed Gillespie in the 2017 gubernatorial race) to candidates like Stewart who horrify all but hardcore Trump supporters. Instead of moving to the center to follow the Virginia electorate, the Virginia GOP moved far right and overshot even voters who had never voted for Democrats. Sound familiar?
Stewart’s hard-edged opposition to immigration, his defense of Confederate statues and his unsubtle winks at white nationalists are eerily reminiscent of the 2016 campaign in which Trump, whom Stewart clings to, pushed beyond the bounds of prior GOP races, using language and imagery that was offensive to many voters who thought they were conservatives.
Is Virginia a precursor of the Republicans’ fate on a national scale? Well, it is a big diverse country with areas (especially on the coasts and Sun Belt) in which an influx of new, nonwhite voters and white-collar workers are edging toward a majority, and areas with aging populations, less dynamic economic environments and burgeoning resentment about the declining dominance of white Christians. Democrats, as they saw in 2016, should not rely on demographics alone to shift from the latter to the former; a ginned-up white base proved in 2016 it was still capable of outvoting a lethargic Democratic coalition. Democrats naturally look to their younger, more diverse base in blue regions, but they should not forget the GOP refugees such as those voters in Virginia who voted for moderate Democrat Ralph Northam for governor in 2017.
The choice for Democrats should not be either/or — either a progressive base or a moderate ex-Republican constituency. Republicans stranded by their party and independents inclined to vote for moderate Republicans have not vanished. You see them in the suburban districts that have flipped from red to blue. The Republican politicians who once appealed to these voters are gone, but the voters are not.
Andrew Sullivan describes the conservatism that has no place in today’s GOP:
The key to this conservatism is restraint, reform, and concern with the stability of the society as a whole. Conservatives see the modern liberal order as a fragile, precious, and rare historical human achievement, innovated first by the British and then the Americans, conjuring a temperament and politics aimed at keeping the peace, preventing civil conflict, sustaining individual freedom against the mob or the government, generating prosperity, and moving right or left as conditions demand. Conservatism is not designed to usher in a new age, banish injustice, pursue “progress,” or remake human nature. It is indeed, in many instances, justice deferred. But without its attachment to precedent, to gradual change, to evolution rather than revolution, chaos and convulsion would make any justice unsustainable.
Add to that definition of conservatism a belief in America’s international leadership, an appreciation for the global economy, a deep sense of fairness and adherence to rational policy solutions. Those people are not in the same conservative universe as the Freedom Caucus. Democrats and Trumpkins might think they are “moderates” — but that label baffles voters who supported Ronald Reagan, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mitt Romney or reformist governors.
It’s those people — filling the suburbs of Atlanta, Washington and Phoenix (to name a few) — who need a political life raft. A Democratic Party that touts the values Republicans once championed — family values, economic opportunity, fiscal sobriety, etc. — has appeal to the abandoned Republicans. Democrats don’t need to run Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Virginia — and they shouldn’t if they hope to win. But they can be the party of both Ocasio-Cortez and Northam, and they must be if they are to reclaim a governing majority and find a coalition to defeat the scourge of irrational, racist Trumpism.