Donald Trump and Corey A. Stewart had never met before the front-runner for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination held a rally in Manassas early this month. But people who know the longtime chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors say it makes perfect sense that Trump tapped him this week to chair his Virginia campaign.
Like Trump, Stewart is a blunt and outspoken Republican advocate of cracking down on illegal immigration. A local law he championed that allows county police to check the immigration status of anyone they arrest made him a pariah to liberal Democrats and advocacy groups, especially after Virginia officials approved a statewide law with the same provisions a year later.
Stewart — who last month was elected to a third term — has been unapologetic.
“There’s some obvious similarities between the two,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball newsletter. “The overall hard-line position on illegal immigration — that definitely jibes.”
Stewart’s county is a presidential bellwether for Virginia, an increasingly purple state that is considered a must-win for whoever will next occupy the White House. It is home to a growing number of Latinos and Muslims who are rallying against Trump, as well as a sizable number of white middle-class voters, a demographic that has been drawn to the billionaire developer’s pledge to fix the economy and “make America great again.”
What remains to be seen is whether Stewart can shepherd the enthusiasm that was on display for Trump at the Manassas rally into a victory in the March 1 Republican presidential primary, and — if Trump wins the nomination — a general-election defeat of the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Clinton is building her own strong network of support in the state, led by her close friend, Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Trump, an anti-establishment candidate who is leading the polls but has yet to secure an endorsement from a major Republican leader, has little in Virginia in terms of a campaign organization and ground game.
Stewart said the fact that he’s a well-known board chairman in one of the state’s largest counties gives Trump a boost in a crowded Republican field. Stewart’s role could also help his own statewide profile as he considers a run for governor in 2017. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013.
“I think what my position brings is some additional credibility, that there are elected officials who say they are supporting him, who think he can win, even in a place like Northern Virginia,” Stewart said. “His message is really resonating here.”
At the rally on Dec. 2, supporters cheered loudly, waved signs and jumped up and down as Trump derided his opponents as weak or unfit and promised to build a 1,000-mile-long wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“He’s a real leader who says what he means,” said D.B. Bailey, a Gainesville resident.
Stewart said he was taken aback by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd at the rally at the Prince William County Fairgrounds. “I haven’t seen that much excitement for a Republican candidate ever, not in my political lifetime at least,” Stewart said. “Since Ronald Reagan, there really hasn’t been a candidate that has generated the amount of enthusiasm that Donald Trump has generated.”
One reason, analysts say, is that voters in Prince William are concerned about some of the same issues that have propelled Trump to the top of national polls. Federal sequestration cuts hit the county hard in recent years, hurting federal government workers, contractors and other residents.
Although unemployment in the county has steadily declined since 2010 (the current rate is 4.2 percent), the median household income has stayed below $100,000, U.S. Census Bureau estimates show — considerably less than in neighboring Loudoun and Fairfax counties. The number of residents collecting food stamps has increased by 41 percent since 2010.
Prince William is also home to demographic changes that have unsettled longtime, mostly white residents who say they are worried about terrorism and other violent crime. Latinos make up about 21 percent of the county’s 430,000 residents, and Muslims are approaching 7 percent of the population.
Trump has referred to undocumented Latino immigrants as “rapists” and “killers,” and he proposes a temporary ban on all Muslim immigrants entering the United States.
“Trump is relating to people like a New York cabdriver,” said Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William), who said he is undecided on whom he’ll support in the primary. “He’s just talking at a very basic level, and it connects with a bunch of people.”
But the county’s changing landscape could also work against Trump and Stewart — or so Democrats hope.
Harry W. Wiggins, chairman of the Prince William Democrats and a longtime critic of Stewart, called the men two “peas in a pod” and described Stewart’s approach to illegal immigration as “the Trump plan of 2007.”
“Just like Trump, he plays on people’s fear,” Wiggins said.
Rafi Ahmed, who oversees government affairs for the Muslim Association of Virginia, said Stewart’s alignment with Trump may damage what has been a good working relationship between the county board chair and area Muslims.
Stewart says he disagrees with Trump’s idea for a ban against Muslims and hopes to bridge relations between that community and the developer. But Ahmed said Stewart’s effort to help Trump become president “is very troublesome for many Muslim community members.”
“There is an atmosphere of fear among community members, and this exacerbates their fears,” Ahmed said. “People don’t know what to expect.”
Luis Aguilar, an activist in Prince William with the Casa in Action advocacy group for immigrants, said the pairing of Trump and Stewart will bring new energy to his organization’s efforts to increase the Latino vote on behalf of Democratic candidates.
Another advocacy group, People for the American Way, used Trump in political ads to rally support for Prince William Democrat Jeremy McPike, who beat Republican Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II in a hard-fought state Senate race.
“Having them both in the same sentence?” Aguilar said of Stewart and Trump. “The community knows who they are and what they stand for, which is completely against all of our values.”