As Virginia Republicans gather Friday for their annual retreat, party leaders are alarmed at the possibility of fielding Corey Stewart as next year's U.S. Senate nominee and, with help from the national GOP, they are maneuvering to recruit someone else to be the face of the party.
Stewart, who narrowly lost the GOP nomination for governor in June on a platform of Trumpism and what he called "Confederate heritage," has promised a "vicious" campaign in 2018 against Sen. Tim Kaine (D), a popular former governor who is seeking a second term in a state that he helped Hillary Clinton carry by five points as her running mate in the 2016 presidential election.
Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, recently summoned former governor James S. Gilmore III to Washington to ask him to run, while Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah) met with Del. Nick Freitas (Culpeper) to advise him on a likely campaign.
Stewart dismissed national Republicans working against him as "Mitch McConnell's bozos," referring to the Senate majority leader.
Republicans of all stripes will collide this weekend at the state GOP's mountain retreat — dubbed the Advance — where activists will regroup after a bruising nine-point loss in last month's governor's race and an unexpected shellacking in House of Delegates contests.
Republicans retain power in the lower chamber by a hair. They hold a two-seat majority, with recounts scheduled in three races and expected in a fourth.
For many party leaders, the message from voters was clear: A Republican who can't appeal to all wings of the party as well as independents has no chance in a state where polls show Democrats are so unhappy with President Trump that they'll punish anyone with an "R" next to their name.
State GOP Chairman John Whitbeck plans a closed-door session at the retreat to discuss how to recover from November's devastating losses, a repeat of a similar all-day event he held for invited activists and elected officials on Dec. 2.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it," he said on WAMU radio last week. "It was bad — it was a really bad loss for us, something we need to learn from very, very quickly."
He said it would be foolish not to realize that the party needs a better message, particularly in Northern Virginia and parts of Richmond.
Besides nominating the strongest possible candidate to face Kaine, the party must defend seven congressional seats.
Republicans have not won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009 — a fact not lost on Bill Bolling, a former Republican lieutenant governor and longtime critic of the party's rapid move to the right.
"At some point, the GOP has to begin the process of repairing its image," he said, "and they're not going to do that with candidates like Corey Stewart."
The criticism only emboldens Stewart, who boasted that his style will turn out voters.
"They keep nominating moderate, establishment losers, and they don't want me because they think I'm too conservative to win in Northern Virginia," said Stewart, who is serving his fourth term on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. "But the irony is, I'm the only one who's been able to win in Northern Virginia."
Ed Gillespie, who narrowly won the GOP nomination for governor this year and went on to lose to Democrat Ralph Northam by a wide margin, could have beaten Northam if he had fully embraced Trump, Stewart said. The president tweeted a similar message on election night before all the votes had even been counted.
"The party, the grass roots — everybody needs to coalesce around the only serious, Trumpesque, populist conservative candidate to take down Tim Kaine," said Jack Morgan, Trump's Southwest Virginia field director and a political consultant.
During the gubernatorial primary, Stewart gave away an assault-style rifle, pledged to "hunt down" illegal immigrants and led an early protest in front of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, which later became the site of a violent demonstration of white nationalists that stunned the nation and left three dead, including two state troopers killed in a helicopter crash.
If Stewart becomes the nominee, "it says that the Republican Party in Virginia hasn't adjusted to the reality of Virginia today," said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Donald Trump is very unpopular in Virginia."
Election exit polls showed 57 percent of Virginia voters disapproved of Trump, 40 percent approved.
The nomination of Stewart, who Skelley said has embraced a "populist, neo-Confederate approach," would also give national Democrats fodder to hammer the GOP and could have a cascading effect down the ballot.
"Nobody can question that Corey Stewart has a strong base and that he is very, very effective at messaging and social media," said Martha Boneta, an activist and owner of Liberty Farm in Fauquier County. "He's not afraid to ruffle feathers."
But Republicans need a candidate who can unite voters, not divide them, she said.
"I just don't think Corey appeals to a broad enough base of voters," said Mark Hile, who with his wife, Anita, helped found the Henrico Tea Party.
Boneta and Hile both like Freitas, a two-term delegate and former head of the Culpeper GOP who served 11 years active duty in the military and two tours in Iraq.
Stewart has been lining up support from some leading figures in the Trump movement. Former Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon declared himself a fan of Stewart, and earlier this week, Stewart won the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University.
But the expected entry into the race of evangelical pastor E.W. Jackson complicates Stewart's path to the nomination, said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and Trump's Virginia campaign chair after Stewart was fired from the post for being too extreme.
"E.W. Jackson is Corey Stewart's biggest nightmare," he said. "The day after he gets in the race, almost the entire Republican evangelical base will move from Stewart to Jackson almost overnight. And that becomes an issue. Therein lies Freitas's path to victory."
Waverly Woods, a Virginia Beach activist and Stewart supporter, said she resents the anybody-but-Stewart sentiment among some party leaders.
"The typical, usual never-Trumpers, never-Corey Stewarts are the ones who are pumping him [Freitas] to run," she said. "I like Nick Freitas. [But] he's not running to beat Tim Kaine. He's running to beat Corey Stewart."
Freitas, who has met with Paul and Lee to seek advice, declined to comment on speculation that he's the alternative to Stewart. "I don't like the fact that politics has devolved into these various personalities battling each other. I really think it should be about ideas," he said.
Gardner, the NRSC chair, asked Gilmore to run, fearful that having Stewart at the top of the ticket would make it harder for GOP congressional incumbents to hold onto their seats, according to two Republicans familiar with the discussions and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information.
Gilmore, who was governor of Virginia from 1998 to 2002 and has been flirting with a Senate bid for months, confirmed that he recently met with Gardner. He said that if he decides to run, his goal will be not merely to win the nomination, but to beat Kaine.
"I know what it takes to win, and it's not an amateur matter," he said.
National party leaders say: " 'We don't care if we can beat Kaine or not. [Stewart is] an embarrassment,' " said one Republican familiar with the thinking at the NRSC.
Stewart said any effort to nudge him out will just help him with voters angry with the status quo.
"It's a badge of honor, this anybody-but-Corey approach," he said. "Digging people up. I mean, and look, I like Jim Gilmore. As an amateur historian, I respect the fact that he was governor. . . . But the Republican Party has to start nominating some proven winners who also know how to stimulate the base, which I've clearly been able to do."
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.