Corey Stewart wants to be the next governor of Virginia, and the way he has chosen to get there is by issuing polarizing provocations in support of the Confederate flag. “My purpose is to show I have the guts to stand up to political correctness,” he said. “People voted for Trump because of his guts, not so much because of his policy views.”
Tom Perriello wants to be governor, too, and his message also carries familiar echoes of last year. “Donald Trump was right about some things,” Perriello said on the stump, painting a bleak portrait of a country that’s losing millions of jobs and suffering from an opioids epidemic fomented, he said, by pharmaceutical companies that “created a culture of pain.”
While the rest of the country gets another year to discern the meaning of last fall’s momentous election, people in two states — Virginia and New Jersey — will choose governors this year and decide if the past is prelude: Are voters looking for a booster shot or an antidote — another dose of Trumpism or a traditional focus on the nuts and bolts of governing?
In the run-up to Virginia’s June 13 primary, it’s not clear whether the populist message is a winner. In the GOP race, Stewart lags behind the favorite, longtime party strategist Ed Gillespie, an establishment Republican who focuses on smaller government. According to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll, Stewart is drawing support from only 18 percent of likely Republican voters, compared with 38 percent for Gillespie and 15 percent for the other candidate, state Sen. Frank W. Wagner of Virginia Beach. But in the Democratic contest, other polling shows Perriello is in a tight race with his more staid and traditional rival, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
Six months after the presidential decision, every election in the country is being inspected for hints at whether Trump’s win was unique to his personality or reflects a shift in voter preferences. In a special election in Georgia last month, the Republican congressional candidate who most avidly touted his ties to Trump got clobbered. In a district where Trump won 48 percent of the vote last fall — four points better than he fared in Virginia — Bob Gray, whose campaign slogan was “America First, Conservative Always,” won only 11 percent in the primary, which had 11 Republicans on the ballot. Overall in that race, the more a candidate was aligned with Trump, the worse he did.
Virginia’s primaries both feature one candidate who preaches that the system is rigged while their opponents more or less are the system. But in both races, the president looms large in voters’ minds, especially in parts of the state that went heavily for Trump.
In Pittsylvania County, hard by the North Carolina border, county Supervisor Ron Scearce is still shopping for a Republican governor who will run the state “like a business, just like Trump.”
Scearce, 53, a semiretired Air Force veteran, likes that Stewart was an early Trump supporter — indeed, chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign until he was fired for organizing a protest against the Republican National Committee, which he said was not sufficiently supportive of Trump.
But even though Scearce agrees with Stewart that Democrats are “trying to destroy the history of our country, one monument at a time,” he would rather have a governor focused more on jobs than flags.
In Campbell County, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, Eric Zehr, who owns a house-washing company, keeps meeting people who registered to vote for the first time last year solely “based on Trump’s ability to be politically incorrect.” Trump won 71 percent of the vote in the county in November, but lost statewide with 44 percent.
Zehr, who entered politics a few years ago and is now a county supervisor and chairman of the county GOP, has not made his choice in the primary. He’s looking not so much for a Trump sound-alike as someone who “shares my top two values, right to life and fiscal conservatism.”
But Zehr, 46, worries that many Trump voters will “go back into hibernation this year. They’re just delighted that the president doesn’t have a close guard on his tongue; that comes across as honest and refreshing. We’re hoping for more of the same from a governor — maybe not Trump’s coarseness, but his willingness to go upstream.”
In Northern Virginia, where Hillary Clinton beat Trump handily, last year’s populist surge seems to have less staying power. “In a place like Virginia, in a low turnout, off-year race, people are ready for a cheerful, roll-up-your-sleeves, hard-working traditional governor,” said Will Estrada, the Republican Party chairman in Loudoun County and a Gillespie supporter. “People aren’t looking for another Trump. Trump is an anomaly. Trump is unique.”
Donald Scoggins, a longtime conservative activist in Prince William County who runs Republicans for Black Empowerment, initially endorsed Trump last year then broke with him “because of the way he was going after minorities.”
Now, “I’m looking for normalcy to return to the Republican Party,” Scoggins said. “Governing is more important right now than shaking things up. I don’t want a governor who pines for adulation. It’d be a tragic thing if that Trump attitude percolated down to the state level.”
Among Democrats, anti-Trump fervor has propelled Perriello from a late start to near-even status with Northam in recent polls. Perriello’s boosters often describe themselves as supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid. But there are plenty of Hillary Clinton voters in his audiences, too, and some are struggling to figure out how Perriello’s rhetoric fits with their ideas about what a Democratic governor should be.
“I’m trying not to have that visceral reaction that Tom Perriello is Bernie,” said Melissa Cooper, 38, a government contractor who lives in Loudoun County. “Divisiveness didn’t work very well for us last year.”
After listening to Perriello for an hour, Cooper decided she is likely to vote for Northam. “Northam’s an establishment guy and that’s not what I want,” she said, “but I want to win and I think people are a little tired of people who are all fervor.”
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a longtime Democratic strategist based in Roanoke, is not persuaded that the recipe for victory in Virginia must now include a hefty dollop of populism.
“When times are darkest, the people will always turn to the meanest, toughest son of a b---- in the tribe,” said Saunders, who broke with his tribe last year to support Trump. But although “the Democratic brand is very, very tarnished out here among working-class people,” he said, “the winning margin wasn’t just Trump — it was ABC, Anybody But Clinton.” A Democrat not named Clinton could win, he said, if he forged an authentic connection with voters in rural Virginia — as Mark R. Warner famously did when he launched his political career to become governor and, eventually, a two-term senator.
Trump made that connection as “somebody who would stand up to the status quo, the political establishment and political correctness,” Stewart said. “I’m betting that Trump voters have that same desire this year for somebody who says things you’re not supposed to say. It’s a risky move, but I want to demonstrate that I’m willing to be vilified. If the Republicans choose the establishment guy who’s mouthing the same old garbage that Republicans have for 30 years, then we lose.”
Perriello rejects the idea that if Stewart is the Trumpian figure in this election, he is the Sanders analogue. “People have trouble putting us in a box,” Perriello said. “We’re very explicitly trying to unite the Bernie, Hillary and Obama wings of the party.” Rather than populist, he calls his approach “noncompliance,” a rebellion marked “not by the volume of my voice, but by pushing back against [Trump’s] agenda.”
Perriello is by no means all passion; he’s a strikingly policy-oriented candidate, with a command of detail reminiscent of fellow Virginia Democrats Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine. “We need Hillary’s command of policy and Bernie’s sense of the corruption in the system,” he said.
Perriello doesn’t apologize for seeking wholesale change in an economy where no job seems safe — where, as he puts it, “automation is going to make globalization look like child’s play.”
Trump and Sanders voters were right to complain that politicians have ignored lives in which career paths have withered and work no longer guarantees security, Perriello said. But he said that last year’s election presented a false choice between the emotions of populism and the rationalism of policy.
“Humanity draws on both mythos and logos as sources of truth,” Perriello said, referring to the two strands of ancient Greek thought — a world explained through belief, myth and titanic clashes of supernatural figures vs. one based on logic and pragmatic reason. “Unfortunately, we’ve become a country where one party is just mythos and the other is just logos. All of us respond to both of those traditions. Obama was at his most transformative when he didn’t just have his Mr. Spock side, but his prophetic side.”
If Perriello presents himself as a blend of fiery populist and policy wonk, Stewart is the proud, unadulterated bomb thrower. He rejects the notion that Virginia politics is different from the national scene.
“This Virginia gentleman thing is a bunch of baloney,” Stewart said. “It’s BS. They may act on the surface a little more genteel, but Virginians like fighters. I’m an in-your-face, no-holds-barred, ruthless fighter. There are parallels between Perriello and me; we’re both trying to tear down the established order.”
Everywhere he goes, Stewart proudly repeats his mantra: “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.”
But he said in an interview that if he wins the primary, he will pivot to a different message in the fall. “As soon as this primary is over, I’m going right back to the community to say, ‘I know you don’t like what I say about Southern heritage or that I supported Trump, but there’s a lot of other stuff we agree on’,” he said. “Clearly, my focus will change after the primary and be about jobs and the economy. I will probably never say the word ‘Republican’ in the fall campaign.”
Stewart says that his Trumpian rhetoric about the Confederate flag and illegal immigrants will not stop him from winning votes, even in majority-minority counties such as his own base in Prince William.
Stewart first won widespread notice in 2007, when, after his county’s Hispanic population tripled in six years, his Board of County Supervisors told county police to check the immigration status of anyone they stopped for traffic or other violations.
This year, Stewart is again making immigration a focus, even though he did not make it a big issue in the intervening years. “The issue ebbs and flows,” he said. “Now it’s flowing again.”
Still, Stewart said adopting a campaign persona that so closely parallels Trump’s is risky. “If Trump doesn’t deliver on jobs and immigration by November,” he said, “I’m going to have a lot of trouble.”