correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) remains a member of the state House. An earlier version incorrectly referred to him as a former legislator.
NORFOLK — As Virginia Republicans met to figure out how to reverse a decade-long losing streak, their most recent standard-bearer and most polarizing figure, Corey Stewart, announced that he would retreat from statewide contests after a disastrous loss in November.
Many blamed Stewart’s campaign against Sen. Tim Kaine (D) for the losses suffered by down-ballot Republicans last month and said it helped Democrats flip three congressional seats. Virginia Republicans acknowledged that their woes run deeper than Stewart, but some say his retreat will be a start to a recovery by the party.
“This party has to have a public exorcism of Corey Stewart — complete with holy water and green vomit,” said conservative radio host John Fredericks.
Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nominations for lieutenant governor in 2013 and governor in 2017. He announced his retirement from state races to party activists and leaders who gathered for a weekend retreat at a Marriott hotel in Norfolk.
“I’m going to take a step back, I think, for a couple of years at least,” said Stewart, an international trade lawyer. He clarified in an interview afterward that he has not ruled out running for reelection in Prince William. Stewart was Virginia chairman of President Trump’s campaign for most of 2016. Virginia was the only Southern state Trump lost to Hillary Clinton, whose vice-presidential running mate was Kaine.
“I think if I said I was going to run for something again, my wife would come right over . . . and strangle me,” Stewart said.
The impulse to wring Stewart’s neck might not have been limited to Maria Stewart, had he not stepped back. Critics fear he did lasting damage to the state party through campaigns in which he embraced Confederate monuments and associated with white supremacists.
Republicans met to try to set a new course, attending closed-door strategy sessions with titles such as“Winning Back Suburbia” and “How to Win Again.”
At times, it seemed that Republicans had managed to put the “party” back into the state’s beleaguered GOP, animated by craft whiskey, the cha-cha slide and lip-syncing to Bon Jovi in a string of hotel suites. But the fun went only so far.
“The booze disguises a lot,” said Zach Werrell, a Republican strategist. “It’s like an Irish wake. It’s like, ‘Ah, they’re dead. But, hey, let’s get drunk!’ ”
For 35 years, Virginia’s GOP activists have thrown an annual confab they call the Republican Advance, a bit of branding meant to signal that the party does not retreat. That positive spin never seemed more strained than this year, as a notably smaller group met in the aftermath of yet another disappointing November, when Virginia Republicans lost three seats in Congress.
The party has not won statewide since 2009 and holds just a two-seat majority in each house of the General Assembly. If it doesn’t turn things around in 2019 legislative elections, it will lose control of not just the state House and Senate, but also the redistricting process that will determine the contours of Virginia’s congressional and state legislative maps for the next decade.
And so the gathering of about 350 — down from around 500 in recent years — had a sense of urgency that could force the long-fractured party to finally put differences aside for the sake of survival. A call for unity came from an unlikely source: Stewart, who assured his fans that the state GOP had been “exceptionally helpful” to his campaign, so none of his supporters should harbor resentment against party leaders.
The party showcased two newly elected members of Congress, who won seats being vacated by Republicans Bob Goodlatte and Thomas Garrett. Former state delegate Ben Cline will represent Virginia’s 6th Congressional District, and Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner and former Air Force intelligence officer, will serve the 5th District.
Their wins came in rural territories that heavily favor Republicans, but activists welcomed them as fresh faces who might bring new energy to the party. Cline and Riggleman took the stage after Stewart’s exit, sitting on bar stools and chatting in an informal, talk-show style.
Each threw out a bit of red meat, with a dig at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), both favorite targets of the GOP. But mostly, they offered up bits about their orientation in the Capitol with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” wonder.
Cline, who scored first dibs in the office lottery, lamented that national news organizations clamored to cover him for that victory but took no interest in what he wants to do in Congress.
Riggleman marveled over a tour of Israel that he and five other freshmen had been given to help them understand the Middle East. Riggleman played bartender at his suite party, pouring his family’s own Silverback whiskey.
Some party leaders and activists also said they saw a future for Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper), who lost the Senate nomination battle to Stewart. Like Stewart, Freitas was host in a suite. Frietas waved off questions about his future. He was seen leading the cha-cha slide and donning a wig for a Bon Jovi impersonation.
Even with a few bright spots, Republicans know they have their work cut out for them. Some used the Advance to voice competing views on the right fix, exposing some generational and philosophical rifts.
To Morton Blackwell, who represents Virginia on the Republican National Committee and regaled riders in a hotel elevator with memories of the time he met Richard Nixon and Bob Hope, the answer was sticking to classic Republican principles. Those include opposition to the federal Equal Rights Amendment, he said in a speech Friday to the party’s governing body.
Cole Trower, the GOP committee chairman in Norfolk, broke in to say Blackwell had it exactly backward: Backing the ERA, as some Republicans in the state Senate are doing now, could help a party that has been losing women in droves.
Many said they were concerned about losses in the suburbs, where Trump has energized highly educated female voters against the party. To keep that in focus, even amid the Friday night carousing, activists sported lapel stickers: “Conservative. Suburban. Virginian.”
“We know what our mission is — suburban women,” said Wendell Walker, the party’s vice chairman for the western half of the state.
The politics of the party’s statewide standard-bearers have swung wildly from election to election, from culture warrior (Ken Cuccinelli II for governor in 2013) to an establishment figure (former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie for Senate in 2014) to an odd hybrid of “big tent” and harsh anti-immigration messaging (Gillespie for governor in 2017). Republicans have embraced Trump (Stewart) and kept him at arm’s length (Rep. Barbara Comstock).
They all lost, and the results do not show a clear path.