Democrats were left “emotionally shaken.” Republicans couldn’t get enough.
Video of the speech has been viewed more than 14 million times on Facebook. A conservative media headline gushed, “A Star is Born!” “Fox and Friends” put him on the air. Lou Dobbs called it “brilliant,” tweeting, “Watch this!”
The speech helped Freitas, a little-known lawmaker, to present himself as a credible alternative to Corey R. Stewart in the primary contest to field a GOP challenger to Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in November.
Stewart’s 12 years as chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and two statewide campaigns, including his near-win in the gubernatorial primary last year, make him the most widely known of six Republicans seeking the Senate nod.
But he’s also a bomb thrower who waves the Confederate flag, demonizes undocumented immigrants and recently said he felt bad for the wives of “flaccid” fellow Republicans in the General Assembly.
Stewart’s approach unnerves Republicans who haven’t won a statewide race since 2009 and watched their party take a shellacking at the polls in 2017, in a massive backlash to President Trump.
While very conservative in his own right, Freitas, 38, could be the fresh-faced antidote to all that, they say.
“It’s rare that you have somebody with the characteristics that Nick has,” said Morton Blackwell, Virginia’s representative on the Republican National Committee. “He’s an extraordinarily dynamic person. The news that there have been millions and millions of people viewing that speech of his is very good news. I had seen it and liked it but, wow, that’s great.”
Blackwell, who backed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie last year and Stewart in his unsuccessful 2013 bid for lieutenant governor, said he wished Stewart had been more supportive of Gillespie after he beat Stewart for the GOP nomination for governor.
“A lot of people have high name identification,” he said, without naming Stewart. “That doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to vote for them. I would say there’s a pretty good correlation between the people who know Nick Freitas and the people who are going to vote for him. That can’t be said in every election.”
Besides Blackwell, Freitas has the endorsements of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and former governor Robert F. McDonnell.
Stewart, who has been praised by populist heroes Stephen K. Bannon and Laura Ingraham, isn’t interested in endorsements from establishment politicians.
“[Freitas] is not going to be able to rally Trump voters,” Stewart said. “There are a lot of conservatives out there who want a fighter, who want somebody who’s going to support the president.”
Freitas now backs Trump, but in deleted social media posts from 2015 and 2016, Freitas referred to him as a “5 time draft deferring ‘tough guy’ ” who would “take some candy from a small child . . . or maybe kick a kitten” and said Trump is not the candidate for “liberty minded conservatives.”
John Fredericks, host of a popular conservative radio show who was co-chair of Trump’s Virginia campaign after Stewart was fired from the post, said Freitas has a shot, but Stewart is the favorite. Anyone who runs against him has to be as aggressive as he is, Fredericks said.
“The thing is, if you don’t respond to Corey he’s going to blow your head off,” he said. “Corey plays to win. He goes to a slingshot fight and he brings a bazooka.”
When he announced his campaign, Freitas pledged not to attack his GOP competitors, but three months later, he says he won’t let personal attacks go unanswered.
He raised concerns that Stewart staff members and volunteers in comments online poked fun at his last name, which is Portuguese, and misrepresented his positions.
“If Corey decides he wants to make the main thrust of his campaign to attack me,” he said, without suggesting that will happen, “I’m going to defend myself. I think it would be very unwise for Corey to try to come after me.”
Freitas, who is in his second term in the House of Delegates representing a rural Piedmont district, enlisted in the Army after high school, rose to the Special Forces and served two combat tours in Iraq.
“He went full mission and said if I’m going to execute the mission you need to know where I stand and I’m not going to be pushed around,” said Denver Riggleman, a Republican distillery owner who briefly ran for governor last year and has endorsed Freitas.
In his seven-minute screed, Freitas said he tried to convey how Democrats who compare gun-rights advocates to Nazis or segregationists shut down any chance for a real debate.
“It was not our party that supported slavery, that fought women’s suffrage, that rounded up tens of thousands of Asian Americans and put them in concentration camps, that supported Jim Crow, that supported segregation or supported mass resistance. That wasn’t our party,” he said. “That was the Democrat Party.”
He also suggested that deterioration of the nuclear family created conditions for violence to flourish. It didn’t quite come out that way.
Citing a Brookings Institution study, he said, “various cultural changes that happened in the ’60s to include the abortion industry,” contributed to more out-of-wedlock-births and broken families.
“I’m not blaming single mothers,” he said in an interview. “I grew up with a single mother. But I do think it’s important for us to take a look at all of the different factors that have gone into an increase of violence.”
Freitas’s remarks visibly upset several Democrats, many of them African American, and they walked off the House floor in protest.
While Republicans applauded the speech, some said Freitas could have better framed his argument.
“Nick was trying to make a very passionate speech about a right that many people hold dear and other people took away from it what they did based on their own experiences,” said House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who endorsed him. “If we can learn anything from this, I think it’s that everybody views the world differently.”
The point was made Thursday in Richmond when the tongue-in-cheek “Sensitivity Caucus” distributed dubious honors to lawmakers.
For Freitas’s abrasive speech, only one type of award would do: “coarse sandpaper.”
Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.