At a public celebration last summer, Corey Stewart, Prince William County’s top Republican, praised his county’s diversity and welcomed the renaming of a middle school once christened for a prominent segregationist.
Five months later, in the throes of his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor of Virginia, Stewart joined a group railing against the planned removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park in downtown Charlottesville.
“We’ve got to defend our culture. We’ve got to defend our heritage,” Stewart barked before supporters that included men holding Confederate flags, according to a video on his Twitter page.
With a ravenous appetite for rhetorical bombast, Stewart is campaigning as an unapologetic disciple of President Trump, echoing the president’s populist diatribes against the Republican establishment, undocumented immigrants, political correctness and the media.
Yet in purple Virginia, the only Southern state that Trump lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton, Stewart is struggling to captivate voters. Three months before the June 13 primary, polls show him in single digits, far behind front-runner Ed Gillespie, a former lobbyist and adviser to President George W. Bush, in a field that also includes state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach).
Hoping to raise his profile, Stewart, 48, has adopted Lee’s statue as a cause celebre and deployed showman-like antics such as raffling off a semiautomatic weapon to raise campaign cash. On Twitter, he lacerates Gillespie with Trumpian flourish, referring to the former chairman of the Republican National Committee as “Establishment Ed.”
Yet Stewart had only a quarter of the nearly $2 million that Gillespie amassed by the start of this year, according to campaign finance records, and recently sent out fundraising pleas that he said would “help cover” the cost of gas, a sound system and security needed to stage a rally.
“Corey has labeled himself as Trump’s Mini-Me, but the mojo ain’t there,” said Shaun Kenney, the former executive director of Virginia’s Republican Party. “Trump had the advantage of monopolizing the national narrative. Corey is the echo of that, but no one likes what they’re hearing. Virginia is barely a state that voted for Trump.”
Even in his own county, where for a decade he has served as chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, Stewart has encountered resistance. On a recent Saturday, 62 percent of those in a straw poll conducted by the county’s Republican Party chose Gillespie, while 24 percent backed Stewart.
At a supervisors’ meeting on Valentine’s Day, dozens of speakers — including a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty — criticized Stewart after he made a public show of encouraging the federal government to deport undocumented immigrants residing in the county.
The speakers included Rafi Uddin Ahmed, a leader of the Muslim Association of Virginia who has donated $1,500 to Stewart’s previous campaigns. “I’m not happy when there’s anyone who can divide us and put a minority under the microscope,” Ahmed, the owner of a car repair shop, said in an interview. Asked if he would support Stewart in the future, Ahmed said, “I’d rather not comment.”
Stewart, in a telephone interview, expressed no concern about disagreements with allies, saying they are a routine fact of his combative political life. He offered a broad rebuke of those who criticized him at the supervisors’ meeting as “the same old liberal wack jobs who have been protesting me for 10 years.”
Stewart’s credentials as a self-styled voice of Trumpism may seem dubious, since the president’s own campaign dismissed him as its Virginia co-chairman in October. Stewart had ignored the campaign’s order to refrain from protesting the national Republican Party’s treatment of Trump.
“He got fired for not following directions,” said John Fredericks, Trump’s Virginia co-chairman. “He may own the Trump style, but he doesn’t own the Trump brand. The Trump people don’t like him.”
Told about Fredericks’s remarks, Stewart said, “I hate that guy,” and contended that he was fired “because I was too loyal.” He remains devoted to Trump, he said, and is confident that he can ride the anti-establishment spirit the president unleashed to the governor’s mansion.
“In-your-face conservatism,” Stewart said, describing Trumpian politics. “I’m the anti-establishment candidate who’s going to burn the s---house down.”
Four years ago, during Virginia’s previous gubernatorial race, a civil war erupted within the state’s Republican Party between the business-oriented establishment and grass-roots activists who included libertarians and tea party loyalists.
The activists won the struggle, nominating at the party’s convention Ken Cuccinelli II, then the state’s attorney general, though the division helped lead to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s victory. Delegates also anointed E.W. Jackson as the party’s choice for lieutenant governor, over a field that included Stewart.
The rift within the state’s GOP, Republicans say, has largely dissipated. A key reason is that Gillespie forged relationships with grass-roots activists once aligned with Cuccinelli during his unsuccessful 2014 run for the U.S. Senate, they say.
“Gillespie has been the marriage counselor that the Republican Party needed,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “He has managed to spread himself across the divide. He has inoculated himself because he has talked to a lot of people.”
Stewart’s strategy rests on the faulty assumption that Trump’s blueprint will work in Virginia, Kidd said. “I don’t think Trumpism is as powerful a force in Virginia as it is elsewhere,” he said. “And where it is powerful — in southwest, for example — a lot of people don’t know about Stewart because he’s from Northern Virginia.”
Stewart has cultivated his own network of grass-roots alliances, a group that includes veterans of Trump’s Virginia campaign such as Waverly Woods, former chair of the Hampton Roads tea party. Woods, now working for Stewart’s campaign, said the candidate’s loyalty to Trump is a virtue.
“The people who turn out at the polls are the Trump supporters,” she said. “The people who liked Trump know what Corey was doing” during the presidential campaign. The passion Stewart exudes for issues such as the Lee statue helps endear him to voters, she said. “I love the fact that he talks about sticking up for our heritage,” she said.
During a rally for the statue in mid-February, counter-demonstrators shouted Stewart down. He cited the altercation with what he described as “radical left-wing agitators” in subsequent fundraising pleas.
While he was at the rally, Stewart met the leaders of a fledgling right-wing group known as Unity and Security for America, who asked him to return the following week for a news conference. He accepted the invitation.
The group, which has fewer than a dozen members, supports immigration laws “that require that most immigrants come from Western countries,” according to its website. Jason Kessler, the leader of the group, tweeted in November that Trump is “the savior of Western Civilization” and that “his acts of bravery have inspired a movement that will outlive us all.”
“Corey Stewart showed up when we needed him,” said Isaac Smith, a spokesman for the group. “He stood by us.”
Yet other Republican activists, including those who agree that the statue should remain in its spot in downtown Charlottesville, said Stewart should be more focused on substantive issues. The statue “does not get me a job or reduce taxes — I’m against moving it, but it’s not something I would crusade on,” said Rich Buchanan, chairman of Virginia’s tea party, who is backing Gillespie.
Buchanan, who supported Stewart’s unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 2013, described his current campaign as “one of the most derogatory, negative I’ve seen in a while.”
“I don’t think it’s working,” he said. “There’s no one in my circle who’s saying, ‘Hey, look at Corey go!’ ”
Stewart equates the removal of Lee’s statue to “historical vandalism” and said “it’s about political correctness gone mad. This is an opportunity to crush the throat of political correctness.” He also noted that a video clip of him defending the statue had drawn “over 100,000” views on Facebook.
Since his forays to Charlottesville “there has been a palpable change in the direction of the campaign,” he said, predicting that his standing in future polls “will have dramatically shifted.”
After his 2006 election as Prince William’s chairman, Stewart captured national attention with his public campaign to deport undocumented immigrants — or “criminal illegal aliens,” as he calls them.
At the same time, Prince William was growing more diverse and its politics shifted leftward, enabling President Obama to win the county in 2008 and 2012. While he never changed his position on immigration, Stewart chose to focus on more pragmatic concerns, such as education, traffic and budgetary issues.
Stewart, a lawyer who grew up in Minnesota, has won election as chairman four times in campaigns fueled by contributions from developers and other establishment types. He said that qualifies him as “part of the Prince William establishment but not the Virginia establishment.”
“The establishment in Virginia is in Richmond and all those guys are supporting Ed,” he said, referring to Gillespie.
At various points in his political career in Prince William, Stewart told reporters he did not want to be known as the “immigration man” and said he hoped to build ties to Latinos and other minorities. To win in Northern Virginia, Republicans needed to be inclusive and emulate his minority outreach, he said two years ago.
In August, Stewart spoke at the renaming ceremony for the Mills E. Godwin Middle School, a Woodbridge building originally named in honor of a former governor who, as a state lawmaker in the 1950s, led the “massive resistance” movement against school integration. The county’s board of education renamed Godwin for an African American philanthropist, George Hampton.
“It’s been a long, long, long time in coming, that’s for sure,” Stewart told the audience at the ceremony. “A lot of things have changed in Prince William County since 1970, and let me tell you something: Those changes have been good.”
He described Prince William as “the most progressive, futurist county in the United States.”
Recalling the moment, Willie Deutsch, a conservative school board member, said it suggested that Stewart “is more focused on winning over audiences he is speaking to than sticking with a core set of principles.”
“At times he may be hard right, at other times he may be more of a pragmatic conservative,” Deutsch said. “He reinvents himself to create the version of himself he thinks he needs to be to move to the next level.”
Stewart waved off that depiction, saying that his views on immigration and diversity have remained consistent. He said he had opposed removing Godwin’s name from the school despite his remarks at the ceremony.
“I wasn’t going to rain on the parade,” he said.
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.