Corey Stewart’s Republican nomination for U.S. Senate from Virginia has prompted an identity crisis within the state GOP, with some donors and activists saying they are so turned off that they are willing to vote for his Democratic opponent, Sen. Tim Kaine.
Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, catapulted to the U.S. Senate nomination — and nearly won the gubernatorial primary last year — by celebrating guns and Confederate statues, lambasting illegal immigrants, and associating with white nationalist Jason Kessler and Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin candidate barred from Twitter because of anti-Semitic and racist posts. (He later disavowed the views of both Kessler and Nehlen).
His perch on top of the ticket has roiled Republican circles inside the state. On Saturday, the head of the Virginia Republican Party resigned his post. John Whitbeck was vague about his reasons. “Other political opportunities have arisen for me that I am thinking about pursuing,” he told members of the party’s governing board at a meeting in Richmond.
Two other party leaders have resigned, but neither will say why. Kevin Gentry, the vice president for special projects and development at Koch Cos., left his position on the executive committee of the party’s governing board, and Davis C. Rennolds stepped down as chair of the Richmond GOP.
The Washington Post talked to more than 50 Virginia Republicans about the Senate race and found that Stewart’s Trumpian antics thrill supporters but turn off traditional donors and outside groups.
Bobbie Kilberg, a Northern Virginia fundraiser and veteran of three Republican presidential administrations, said she will not open her checkbook — or home — to Stewart.
“I run fundraisers at my home for a broad range of Republicans,” said Kilberg, who heads the Northern Virginia Technology Council. “I don’t have to agree on everything with the people I support . . . but they need to be people with whom I believe I can work, who are reasonable and rational and have a respect for others.”
Kilberg said Stewart’s name at the top of the ticket motivates her to work harder for Rep. Barbara Comstock, Rep. Scott Taylor of Virginia Beach and other House Republicans.
“We’re very worried that Corey’s going to imperil them,” Kilberg said. While she and her husband always give the maximum allowed under federal rules to Comstock and were already planning a fundraiser for her, “we are going to redouble our efforts to make that fundraiser a spectacular success,” she said.
Kaine — with his long Virginia history as a former governor and lieutenant governor, flush campaign account and national profile — was favored to win in November even before the GOP nominee was chosen.
But Stewart is likely to put the seat further out of reach for Republicans, extending a losing streak for a party that has not won statewide since 2009.
The trend line is startling for Virginia, where Republicans held one of its two U.S. Senate seats for 30 years and the other for a dozen years before they lost their grip.
There’s already evidence that Republican voters are opting out of the Senate contest. In the primary in the 10th Congressional District, represented by Comstock, about 2,000 fewer voters — 4 percent — cast ballots in the Senate race than in the congressional race.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity both said they would not put any resources into the Senate race, and the Republican National Committee is focused elsewhere. “Virginia is not high on the list at this point,” said Garren Shipley of the RNC.
Stewart’s elevation has some lifelong Republicans questioning their political identity.
“I am extremely disappointed that a candidate like Corey Stewart could win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate,” former Republican lieutenant governor Bill Bolling tweeted on the night of Stewart’s primary win. “This is clearly not the Republican Party I once knew, loved and proudly served. Every time I think things can’t get worse they do, and there is no end in sight.”
Rory Stolzenberg, who began identifying with the GOP as a fourth-grader and had a seat on the state party’s governing board in his early 20s, plans to vote for Kaine.
“When the debate is between bad policies and fundamentally un-American policies that betray the democratic ideals that this country was founded on, it’s not even a choice anymore,” said Stolzenberg, 26, a Charlottesville entrepreneur. “I question whether I’m still a Republican, but I think it’s important that we don’t surrender the party to people like that.”
Richard Fox, 28, resigned as a regional chair of the Albemarle County GOP committee days after Stewart won the election and said he would vote for Kaine or Libertarian Matt Waters.
Fox grew up visiting Civil War battlefields and said Stewart, a Minnesota native, promotes a distorted version of Southern heritage. He was offended by Stewart’s refusal to categorically disavow white supremacists who endorsed him.
“Abraham Lincoln would be rolling over in his grave if he knew that’s what the Republican Party has come to,” Fox said.
Tanner Hirschfeld, 19, a University of Virginia student who was youth director for one of Stewart’s primary opponents, Del. Nick Freitas, is considering leaving his Senate ballot blank.
He was one of several Republicans interviewed for this story who said Stewart could still win them over by clearly denouncing hate groups with which he has associated.
“It’s going to take a lot of convincing and apologies and condemnations and clear statements,” Hirschfeld said. “Because it’s not acceptable to play footsie with the alt-right. There’s nothing right about them.”
Stewart says he doesn’t need to win over any fellow Republicans.
He said that, like Trump, he plans to run on a platform of restoring manufacturing jobs, a message that has little appeal for establishment Republicans he called “snobbish.”
“Look, the party’s changing; we are becoming a more blue-collar party,” Stewart said. “There’s a lot more blue-collar workers out there than the so-called elites.”
Stewart, the son of a longshoreman, is an international trade attorney who lives on an 18th-century plantation furnished with antiques bought at auction.
He said his reputation for tolerating or even sympathizing with white nationalists is unfounded.
“People who know me know I’m not a racist,” he said. “I’m certainly not a white supremacist.”
Many of the party’s most active Republicans won’t support someone other than Stewart because, under party rules, they would forfeit their positions on the GOP’s governing board or on local committees.
“Ronald Reagan stated never to talk bad about another Republican — period,” state Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) said when asked about Stewart. He did say he plans to campaign extra hard for other Republicans who might be tarred by the association.
After backing Freitas in the Senate primary, Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax) said he would support Stewart — but he avoided mentioning him by name.
“I support the Republican ticket,” he said three times. “And I especially support Barbara Comstock.”
In a speech to the Fairfax GOP last week, former state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, methodically described Republican chances of flipping Democratic seats in states Trump won. He barely mentioned Virginia, the only Southern state carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“We always focus where we live, on our state. We’ve got to vote for Corey and our congressional candidates,” he said, drawing applause from about half the room.
As he left the meeting, Cuccinelli declined to answer questions about Stewart. “I just said I’m voting for him,” he said, and walked out the door.
Lukewarm support from Republicans in positions of power is a badge of honor for Stewart, who won the Senate nomination without endorsements from any elected officials.
Tensions within the state Republican Party didn’t start with Stewart.
Fractures emerged when Cuccinelli outmaneuvered more mild-mannered Bolling for the 2013 gubernatorial nomination. Barack Obama was president and Cuccinelli narrowly lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, breaking Virginia’s longtime habit of picking a governor from the party not in the White House.
“We lost the governorship when we should have won it, and it’s just been spiraling down,” said former Republican congressman Tom Davis.
Fissures opened anew the next year when Dave Brat, a little-known professor with a tea party following, toppled then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, with help from Breitbart News. Divides between Cantor and his supporters, and Brat and the tea partyers still resonate four years later.
Stewart’s backers note that he won election to the Prince William County board four times and said that will help him beat Kaine.
“It’s going to be an uphill fight, but we’ve got a chance to win that seat because of Corey’s name recognition and being from one of those counties in the northern corner,” said Wesley Edwards, a 74-year-old former textile executive who retired to the Eastern Shore and sits on the party’s governing board.
“I’m tired of losing,” said Edwards, who feels disenfranchised by liberal-leaning Northern Virginia, which is populous enough to swing statewide elections.
He plans to work extra hard for Stewart, who has stayed at his home while on the campaign trail. He already has a stack of Stewart signs that he’s accumulated over the years, using tape to cover up “lieutenant governor” and “governor” as the office Stewart has sought has changed.
Chad Green, a 48-year-old lawyer, York County supervisor and member of the state’s governing board, said he believes Republicans will coalesce around Stewart.
“This is a different political time than in years past, and I think Corey Stewart reflects that,” Green said. “We’re in the Trump era, and one of the things I really like about Corey is, he seems very honest, you know where he stands, and he has local government experience.”
But David Wasserman, a House analyst at Cook Political Report, said Stewart’s message doesn’t sell in what he termed “the new Virginia,” where Trump lost by 5 percentage points.
“The new Virginia is diverse and professional, and they see an economy that’s working for them,” Wasserman said. “They don’t agree with the Trump Republican wing’s dark portrayal of immigration. They don’t have much use for Confederate monuments.”
Some Republicans who reject Stewart say his nomination does not turn them off the Republican brand. Todd Stottlemyer, former chairman of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, has donated $200,000 to Virginia candidates over the past 10 years, mostly to Republicans. He is backing Kaine this year, but will continue to support other Republicans such Cox, the House speaker, who worked with Gov. Ralph Northam (D) this year on Medicaid expansion and criminal justice reform.
“I just want people who want to work together,” he said.
On the night Stewart won the primary, Bill Kristol, the pundit and Weekly Standard editor at large who lives in Fairfax, briefly researched Virginia’s election rules regarding write-in candidates. He plans to write in Mona Charen, a conservative columnist who caused an uproar at the Conservative Political Action Conference by criticizing Trump.
But at the Fairfax GOP meeting last week, Ronald Wilcox, an organizer with the Northern Virginia tea party, was upbeat. He wore a button he made that said “Elect Stewart-Comstock 2018,” meant to be a sign that the committee is “all in.”
A flier advertised a “Meet the Ticket” event featuring Stewart and possibly Comstock.
But she did not attend; her office said she had a scheduling conflict.
Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Corey Stewart disavowed his connections to white nationalist Jason Kessler and Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin candidate barred from Twitter because of anti-Semitic and racist posts.