Cold rain fell on a sopping Corey Stewart as he recently stood outside FBI headquarters and tried to link Sen. Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat, to “a brewing scandal the likes of which we haven’t seen since Watergate.”
Stewart, who is seeking the Republican nomination for Senate, called the news conference to roll out a theory about nefarious doings involving Kaine, the FBI and Hillary Clinton. His audience consisted of a conservative blogger, a Democratic tracker and a Washington Post reporter.
And that’s the problem facing Virginia Republicans. They haven’t won a statewide election since 2009, and the candidates seeking the Senate nomination this year are incendiary, inexperienced or unknown.
In addition to Stewart, the bombastic Prince William Board of County Supervisors chairman and President Trump loyalist who almost won the 2017 GOP nomination for governor, the field includes outspoken evangelical preacher E.W. Jackson, two-term state lawmaker Nicholas J. “Nick” Freitas and political newcomer Ivan Raiklin.
With three months until the June primary, two-thirds of Republican voters have not settled on a candidate, according to a poll released Monday by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
Bert Mizusawa, a retired major general in the U.S. Army Reserve and foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, who made his run official Monday, didn’t announce in time to be part of the poll.
The survey found that Stewart is the front-runner, but with just 16 percent of the vote.
Political figures with bigger profiles, such as Carly Fiorina, the former GOP presidential candidate who also ran for a Senate seat in California, considered running but took a pass. At one point, former governor Jim Gilmore — who couldn’t get elected as a delegate to his party’s national convention the same year he was a presidential candidate — thought about running but bowed out.
No one else on the GOP bench in Virginia is willing to run.
“I’m not shocked there are not more candidates interested in running statewide,” said David Foster, a former Arlington School Board member who sits on the state party’s internal governing board.
“Clearly, running in a primary against Corey is not going to be a highly refined affair nor very cheap,” he said, referring to Stewart’s nasty primary battle last year with Ed Gillespie over the GOP nomination for governor. “If you win it, you go up against an incumbent Democratic senator in a state where the president is not very popular.”
A voter revolt against Trump, particularly in the populous suburbs, took its toll on the party in November’s state elections. The GOP saw its once-solid majority in the House of Delegates nearly evaporate. Republicans lost all three statewide races, with Gillespie suffering a nine-point shellacking atop the ticket.
“The reality of it is, in Virginia, until Trump is gone, it’s going to be very hard for any statewide Republican,” said Tucker Martin, who was Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s spokesman and a strategist for Gillespie.
In addition to the anti-Trump climate, Republicans are struggling with steadily changing demographics that favor Democrats, particularly in vote-rich Northern Virginia, and a limited talent pipeline.
“That’s not to say they can’t win statewide,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, who noted that Virginians historically elect a governor from the opposite party of the president. “If Hillary Clinton was president, I could have seen Ed Gillespie becoming governor.”
Majority-nonwhite Prince William, where Stewart is chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, is a prime example of a once-Republican suburb that became competitive and then voted for President Barack Obama, Skelley said. Trump fared worse there than fellow Republicans Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Mitt Romney.
“The Republican brand just does not sell there,” he said, adding that Stewart was reelected supervisor in 2015, a low-turnout election.
The Center for Politics, where Skelley works, moved the Senate race from “likely Democratic” to “safe Democratic,” largely on the strength of Kaine’s fundraising. By the end of last year, he had more than $9 million in cash, compared with Stewart, who had $175,000.
Virginia GOP Chairman John Whitbeck is well aware of the challenges for his party, but says some things are beyond his control, like what happens across the river.
Washington disproportionately influences politics in Virginia, where many residents depend on the federal government for their livelihood. The party might sway some voters, but for many, he said, “the national climate is what it is.”
Whitbeck is focused on the grass roots, the base of the party who volunteer their time and money to elect Republicans.
“I’d rather hear from 100 grass-roots activists than a poll that was based on 100 random samples,” he said.
He is also adding staff and holding closed-door summits all over the state to let activists vent their frustration with 2017 and offer suggestions for this year and beyond.
“After last year was such a shocker, we have a long way to go to truly know how to win statewide again,” he said.
He tells statewide hopefuls to follow the lead of Republican Reps. Barbara Comstock and Scott W. Taylor, who Whitbeck said have worked hard to build relationships with minority communities in their Virginia districts.
“That’s the most important thing they can do for the future of the party,” he said. “We’re just not going to win elections if we don’t.”
The party’s current conundrum reminds Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, of the 1980s, when Democrats swept three straight statewide races and Republicans seemingly had no bench.
Then came a junior legislator, George Allen, who rose to governor out of nowhere and was considered presidential material before lobbing the racial slur “macaca” at a volunteer for his opponent, Democrat James Webb.
“It looks bad right now,” Rozell said, “but we don’t know who might rise to lead and possibly transform the party.”
Stewart has promised to run a “vicious” campaign against Kaine, as he did last year when he gave away an military-style rifle, pledged to “hunt down” undocumented immigrants and protested in front of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, which later became the site of a violent demonstration of white nationalists that left one person dead.
When Kaine’s youngest son, Woody, was fined for resisting arrest after disrupting a Trump rally in Minnesota, Stewart tweeted: “The U.S. should keep #Guantanamo open just for #Antifa. First in line: @timkaine’s son, #Antifakaine.”
In the wake of February’s Parkland school shooting, Stewart has launched “Shoot and Greet” events at gun ranges, including one where he likened gun control to castration.
Jackson, meanwhile, is best known for disparaging gay people in caustic terms, despite recent efforts to rebrand himself as a kindhearted evangelical.
When Jackson suggested Stewart was connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Islamic group, former Republican lieutenant governor Bill Bolling tweeted, “You just can’t make this stuff up. I’m so glad to be out of politics. It’s turned into the theater of the absurd.”
Republican consultant Chris LaCivita tweeted: “Man this is going to be fun to watch. Dumb and dumber primary.”
Some GOP donors are bypassing the statewide contests and instead focusing on 2019, when all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up, said Bolling, who was twice elected statewide.
“If it’s someone like Corey Stewart or E.W. Jackson,” he said, “donors will disappear completely. If it’s a more mainstream nominee, some of them could get involved, but it’s going to be tough.”
The Virginia business community wants to maintain the GOP majority in the legislature, relying on the party to squash bills that raise taxes, expand workers’ benefits and raise the minimum wage.
“I think 2017 was a real wake-up call for those donors because they realized if Republican majorities in the House of Delegates could deteriorate that rapidly, the same thing could happen at the federal level in 2018 or the state level in 2019,” Bolling said.
Freitas, a state delegate from Culpeper with a libertarian streak, could provide a soft landing spot for Republicans wary of being linked to Stewart.
During this legislative session, he has spoken out against universal background checks and praised Trump’s State of the Union speech, but with a soft touch. In floor remarks that both angered and puzzled Democrats last week, Freitas told the Virginia House that “the abortion industry” shares blame for mass shootings because many of the gunmen come from broken homes.
Freitas has gotten endorsements from McDonnell; as well as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and his father, former congressman Ron Paul; and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Kaine would beat Stewart, Jackson and Freitas by at least 23 points if the election were held now, the Wason Center poll found.
The last Republican to win statewide was McDonnell, who laid the groundwork as a state delegate for 13 years before getting elected attorney general. As he campaigned for governor, he delivered a clear economic message to a party united in its anger for newly elected President Barack Obama.
“First and foremost, you need a quality candidate with a compelling message,” said Phil Cox, who ran McDonnell’s campaign for governor.
Still, climate matters, he said. “You can have that in a terrible political environment and not win. At minimum, you don’t want to be running into a steep head wind.”