HOT SPRINGS, Va. — Under a banner declaring "Liberty Rising" at a gathering of Virginia Republicans, Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) announced late Friday that he will seek his party's nomination to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D) next year.
Freitas will compete for the nomination against Corey Stewart, the bombastic chair of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors who has fashioned himself after President Trump.
The move is likely to reassure some state and national Republican leaders who have been nervous about Stewart becoming the face of the party in a purple state where Trump is deeply unpopular.
Stewart narrowly lost the primary for governor in June after pledging to crack down on illegal immigration and preserve Confederate heritage.
But Freitas, who was just elected to a second term last month, is not exactly a mainstream figure. At his announcement in a cramped hotel suite at the Homestead resort, the 38-year-old federal contractor delivered a treatise on small government, promising to combat a worldview that "treats free people as if we were subjects instead of citizens."
"Quite frankly, establishment elements from both sides of the aisle have been responsible in thinking themselves made from finer clay than the rest of humanity," Freitas said.
In response to his announcement, Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker lumped Freitas and Stewart together and called the state GOP out of touch.
"This extremist duo of candidates in the race supports Donald Trump's dangerous plans, and neither of them would put Virginia families before their nutty agenda," she said in a statement.
With a conservative voting record and libertarian streak, Freitas expected to line up support from Republicans hoping to rebrand the party with a fresh face. He has sought advice from Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah) and members of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Others are waiting to see how the field shapes up. Evangelical pastor E.W. Jackson is preparing to announce, former governor James S. Gilmore III is considering it, Army veteran Ivan Raiklin filed the paperwork, and policy expert John Norton Moore may run.
Kaine — a popular and well-funded former mayor, lieutenant governor and governor — is seeking a second term after delivering Virginia for Democrats as Hillary Clinton's vice-presidential running mate in 2016.
Freitas said he wouldn't "sugarcoat" the challenge ahead but dismissed critics who warned him the race would damage his political career, saying that wasn't his priority.
He also pledged not to attack his GOP competitors, a refreshing concept to some Republicans weary after the nasty gubernatorial primary between Stewart and Ed Gillespie.
"I'm not here to bash my fellow Republicans," Freitas said. "Period. The end."
Raised in California by a single mother who ran a GOP women's group, Freitas, 38, joined the Army after high school, became a Green Beret and served 11 years active duty.
In the House of Delegates, he is known for giving passionate floor speeches, such as his 2016 defense of Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland, who was facing discharge for beating up an Afghan commander who allegedly raped a small boy.
He is a member of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, and a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association.