RICHMOND — By embracing Confederate symbols and flirting with the alt-right, Corey Stewart seems, to many political analysts, to be handing the GOP nomination for Virginia governor to rival Ed Gillespie.
Some also think Stewart is damaging the Republican brand in a way that could hurt Gillespie’s chances in November — in a general election that could reverberate beyond the Old Dominion.
“The rest of the country’s looking at us and saying, ‘Look at these hicks in Virginia!’ ” said Brian W. Schoeneman, a Virginia political analyst and blogger who served in the George W. Bush administration. “They don’t realize that he’s not representative of the broader GOP and the vast majority of us — including Ed — are looking at him with horror.”
But Stewart says defending Confederate symbols against “political correctness” is not just a cause, it’s a winning strategy in an off-year primary.
“It’s a very small turnout election — we’re talking maybe 4 or 5 percent of the entire voter base,” he said. “So you’ve got a certain percentage of the electorate who are going to vote on abortion. You’ve got a certain percentage of the electorate who are going to vote on illegal immigration. And then there’s going to be a percentage who will vote on the historical-monuments issue. Pretty soon, you add them all up and it’s a significant portion of people.”
As for damage to the Republican brand, Stewart contends that Gillespie and other establishment Republicans have hurt the party by cutting deals with Democrats and refusing to stake out bold positions on tough issues.
“It’s the Bush family and other establishment Republicans who hurt the Republican brand so badly that we got Barack Obama,” he said.
Virginia hasn’t had a statewide candidate stand accused of being too cozy with the Confederacy since George Allen’s Senate reelection bid in 2006. The issue resurfaces now in a particularly high-profile race at a chaotic moment in American politics.
Virginia is one of just two states — the other is New Jersey — with a governor’s race this year. The contest is drawing national attention as an early referendum on President Trump and as an example of the populist/establishment tug of war within both major political parties.
Trump’s surprising path to the presidency could embolden more politicians to seek office as provocateurs, political analysts said. Yet the lesson here could be that only Trump, by virtue of his celebrity and personality, can get away with it.
“He’s made the mistake of saying, ‘This [monument removal] is what’s going on. I’m going to go big,’” Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report, said of Stewart. “But he might have fallen off the cliff. When we’re dealing in an atmosphere of deeply Southern states starting to remove their Confederate monuments, maybe it’s not the issue to go crazy on.”
But Kyle Kondik, who analyzes elections at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said he thinks the strategy could work for Stewart, whose rallies sometimes draw more counterprotesters than supporters. He noted that polls show many voters have not made up their minds or even tuned into the race.
“If you’re an underdog candidate looking for something to get attention with, Stewart has certainly gotten attention for this,” he said. “Just the name ID can be more than half the battle. . . . Sometimes it matters not so much what your own position is, but who your enemies are. Maybe Stewart’s calculation is if he can fire up these protesters, those are people that conservative Republicans think are riffraff. Therefore, he becomes an enemy of the left, and that generates more support on the right.”
Stewart and Gillespie started the primary race — along with underdog state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach) — as seemingly perfect symbols of the GOP’s intraparty angst.
Stewart cut a brasher-than-Trump figure as someone who had led a crackdown on illegal immigration in Prince William County a decade ago. He was such an over-the-top Virginia chairman for Trump last year that the campaign fired him. Gillespie was the cautious establishment type, a former lobbyist, Republican National Committee chairman and White House counselor to Bush who kept his distance from Trump.
Which one would sell in an off-year contest in Virginia, a state that favored Hillary Clinton by 5 points in November but also gave Trump a narrow primary win? That looked like an open question at first, when Stewart aimed to attract populists energized by Trump’s surprise White House victory.
Then Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, took his campaign in an unexpected direction. The impetus was a vote early this year by the Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park.
Stewart saw an opening and rallied to oppose the monument’s removal. The move brought him considerable attention after news videos showed counterprotesters shouting him down.
From there, he made Confederate monuments the centerpiece of his campaign — one that allowed him to skewer “Establishment Ed” for what he deemed a mealy-mouthed stance: While the former RNC chief is also opposed to removal, he said it’s a matter left to local authorities, not the governor.
Stewart held multiple rallies for the monument, unfurled the Confederate flag at other events and attended an Old South ball in an outfit approximating a Civil War dress uniform.
Along the way, he gave an interview to Mike Cernovich, the alt-right Internet figure who helped popularize the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory. The alt-right is a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state. Adherents of the alt-right are known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.
Stewart also attended a Charlottesville news conference with Jason Kessler and Isaac Smith, founders of Unity and Security for America (USA), a fledgling group that calls for “defending Western Civilization.”
Smith has sometimes introduced Stewart at events and appeared at his side with alt-right symbols, such as placards with Pepe the Frog and a gladiator-style shield. At one raucous rally with Stewart at the University of Virginia, Smith used a shield to push against counterprotesters.
Stewart said he does not condone white supremacy but welcomes support from anyone who wants to upend the GOP establishment.
“There’s a revolution going on here in conservative circles, and these young people are coming up — very social-media savvy — and they are shaking things up, and their views are very disparate,” he said. “I’ll take support where I can get it. But that doesn’t mean I believe in everything they believe in.”
Smith, 20, said he enjoyed needling liberal activists with Pepe signs and shields at Stewart’s events, although he rejects the alt-right label.
“The term I might use is ‘dissident right.’ It’s the part of the right wing that has fun,” Smith said. “And part of the fun is just getting a rise out of these sensitive — and I’d say sensitive for no good reason — people. . . . It’s a frog. It’s not like I’m sending a picture of a member of the Ku Klux Klan holding a noose. It’s a smiling frog. Why does this upset you so much?”
The provocations have succeeded in some ways. Late last month, as Stewart railed against the removal of a New Orleans monument, he wound up in a Twitter war with musician John Legend and others. But the attention has not translated into support, as measured in recent polls.
Even at the recent Shad Planking, a springtime political confab in the piney woods of Southside Virginia that was open only to white males until the late 1970s, support for Stewart was lukewarm. When a supporter flew overhead in a plane streaming a Confederate flag and a Stewart sign, it drew eyerolls.
“He’s relevant in the sense that we’re all talking about him, but we’re talking about him because he gobsmacked us all at how extreme his campaign has become,” said Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University government professor and pollster.
Stewart’s support slipped further in recent weeks, when “all that Confederate stuff” led Stewart’s local sheriff and longtime ally to yank his endorsement. Four of the five Republican supervisors who serve with Stewart came out for Gillespie, abandoning plans to stay neutral.
Stewart knows people are counting him out — but says they are wrong.
“The last time liberals got mad at someone & said ‘his campaign is imploding’ we took back the White House,” he tweeted.
If he makes it to the general election, Stewart said that he would start emphasizing more kitchen table issues with broader appeal.
“You don’t change your political position, just what you talk about,” he said. “Obviously I’ll be talking more about bringing back jobs and reducing taxes.”
Most political strategists and observers don’t think Stewart will be in the race after the June 13 primary. They say the leader of Virginia’s second-largest jurisdiction, someone who had managed to win reelection four times in racially diverse Northern Virginia — has turned himself into a fringe candidate.
“This is manna from heaven for Gillespie,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist.
“On the one hand, [Stewart] has basically ceded much of his home turf to Gillespie, which is remarkable. And secondly, the other benefit it provides Gillespie is that the campaign is so outrageous that it captures all of the media attention and ensures that Frank Wagner gets no traction, too.”
Political analysts are more divided on whether even a badly defeated Stewart would give the GOP a black eye that lasts through the general election. Many think that come fall, Gillespie will have to worry more about being tied to Trump than to Stewart. But Democrats would like to yoke him to both. They are already criticizing Gillespie for not condemning Stewart’s far-right appeals, a line of attack that echoes their complaints about Gillespie’s reluctance to speak out against Trump.
“Not even a Confederate apologist trying to use racism to score political points can draw condemnation from @EdWGillespie. Says it all,” tweeted former congressman Tom Perriello, one of two Democrats vying to succeed term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
Abbi Sigler, a spokeswoman for Gillespie, declined to comment on Stewart’s campaign or Democratic criticism of his silence.
“Candidates speak for themselves,” she said. “Ed is speaking about how we make this a stronger economy for all Virginians, and it’s very clear that his positive message is resonating with voters statewide.”
Some Republicans wish Gillespie would condemn Stewart — among them Schoeneman, editor in chief of the conservative blog Bearing Drift.
“Maybe you lose some general-election votes, but at least you can look yourself in the mirror in the morning,” he said. “I think it has a negative impact on the party as a whole. . . . This is not something that is even remotely reasonable.”
But Chris LaCivita, a top adviser at the RNC for the Trump campaign, does not think Stewart’s Confederate antics will do any lasting damage. And he thinks Gillespie is smart to stay mum about him.
“The first rule in politics is not to engage the idiot,” LaCivita said. “Let the idiot be the idiot.”