As he ran for governor in Virginia, Corey A. Stewart faced ridicule from fellow Republicans as he cast himself as an unapologetic clone of Donald Trump, who, even as he captured the White House, lost the commonwealth to Hillary Clinton.
Yet Stewart insisted that he understood Virginia’s electorate and refused to abandon his divisive rhetoric and raw-toned defense of Confederate monuments that drew support from white nationalist groups.
On Tuesday, Stewart proved himself something of a political sage, astounding Virginia Republicans by coming within a shade over one percentage point of upsetting Ed Gillespie, the front-runner throughout the campaign who was far better-known and raised more than $4 million more than his opponent.
Standing before a cheering crowd of supporters, Stewart refused to concede, saying he would not support Gillespie as the party’s nominee and promised “to continue the revolution that Donald Trump started.”
“There is one word you will never hear from me, and that’s unity,” Stewart said. “We’ve been backing down too long. We’ve been backing down too long in defense of our culture, and our heritage and our country.”
In an era of seismic political surprises, Stewart’s primary showing in miniature was as whiplash-inducing as Trump’s victory in November and Virginia Republican Rep. Dave Brat’s upset over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014.
“Negative campaigning always does well, and Corey’s strategy, though not honorable, was a path to victory,” said Shaun Kenney, the former head of Virginia’s Republican Party. “You drive down turnout to the fanatical base and lean on that base to turn out. And that’s what Corey accomplished.”
Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who has advised numerous statewide candidates in Virginia, said he was dumbfounded that Stewart came so close. But he rejected any suggestion that Stewart’s performance was a validation of Trump-style politics, if only because the business executive fired Stewart when he served as his Virginia state chairman during the presidential campaign.
Instead, LaCivita said, Stewart’s showing was “an affirmation of an old political saying, which is to never let your opponent define you.”
“Corey Stewart ran an extremely nasty campaign that was never responded to,” LaCivita said. “The fact of the matter is that Ed never laid a glove on him. Corey was a very vulnerable opponent with minimal resources.”
For more than a year, Stewart portrayed himself as a Trump acolyte, echoing the Republican’s attacks on political correctness and undocumented immigrants. During campaign appearances, Stewart relished the chance to remind audiences of his own crackdown on immigrants as the chairman of Prince William Board of County Supervisors.
More recently, he tethered himself to the Confederate flag, repeatedly traveling to Charlottesville to protest local officials who wanted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from downtown.
As polls showed Stewart trailing Gillespie, Virginia Republicans and political observers mocked his approach, predicting failure not only statewide but also in Prince William, where he faces reelection in 2019.
“You had to ask if he was running for the president of the Confederacy or governor of Virginia,” Mark Rozell, a political-science professor at George Mason University, said a few days before the election.
Yet those same political observers were scrambling to make sense of the results as they came in after the polls closed Tuesday night.
The strength of Stewart’s performance, said Thomas M. Davis (R), a former Virginia congressman, signifies that “the Republican Party is moving from the country club to the country.”
“Republicans used to play in high-end suburbs and now it’s a different equation,” Davis said. “Now it’s blue collar. Trump understood this and that was Stewart’s playbook.”
Only last week, Davis, like many Virginia Republicans, forecast that Stewart would be roundly defeated in the primary. Davis even questioned whether Stewart would abandon politics altogether, calculating that, because of his divisiveness, Prince William voters would reject him if he runs for reelection in 2019.
As the results came in Tuesday, Stewart held a 2-to-1 advantage in Prince William.
Nevertheless, Davis said Stewart would face hurdles to retaining his seat in Prince William, a county that has undergone a demographic shift and has switched from supporting Republican presidential candidates to Democratic ones.
“It will be difficult for him to win a general election in Prince William,” Davis said, speculating that Stewart may fare better as a statewide candidate.
Even before Tuesday’s vote, Republican circles were rife with chatter about potential challengers to Stewart if he decides to run in Prince William in 2019.
During the primary campaign, a preponderance of the county’s political establishment abandoned him in favor of Gillespie, including the county’s sheriff, who recanted his endorsement of Stewart, saying he had become disgusted with his rhetoric.
“There are a lot of people smelling blood in the water right now,” said Willie Deutsch, a Republican member of the Prince William County School Board. “He will have a very difficult time getting renominated or reelected.”
Pete Candland, a Republican supervisor in Prince William who endorsed Gillespie, said Stewart focused on “divisive issues” at a time when “people are weary” of political conflict.
“He has made some big miscalculations,” said Candland, among those considering a future race for Stewart’s seat. “As I’ve talked to voters, they want to hear about the issues that are concerning to them, and they are the issues that Corey usually talks very well on — improving roads, cutting taxes. Any other topic, they see as distractions.”
Patrick Sowers, the president of a homeowners’ association in Prince William, volunteered for Stewart’s 2015 reelection campaign in the county, and was eager to support him in the gubernatorial race.
But Sowers said he became uncomfortable because of Stewart’s divisiveness and alliances with extremists. “Corey picked a fight that shouldn’t have been picked and, instead of backing away from it, he doubled down,” Sowers said.
To support Stewart in the future, he said before Tuesday’s vote, he would “need him to — I don’t want to say recant — but I want to hear him publicly rethink some of the policies he has supported.”