Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Minutes after Corey A. Stewart won Virginia’s Republican primary for this year’s U.S. Senate contest, fellow Republican Bill Bolling, twice elected lieutenant governor in an era in which Republicans were able to win statewide office, lamented on Twitter : “I am extremely disappointed that a candidate like Corey Stewart could win the Republican nomination. 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.”
Just hours after Stewart won the Republican nomination, in a signal that should worry the Virginia GOP, two major sources of campaign funds — the Koch brothers-founded political action committee Americans for Prosperity and the National Republican Senatorial Committee — said they would not contribute to Stewart’s campaign.
Republican political strategist and former Virginia congressman Tom Davis told the New York Times that, for down-ticket Republican candidates this year, being asked whether they support Stewart is “a killer” issue among educated voters.
The combative Stewart has cultivated a reputation for slash-and-burn campaigning. He gleefully says he will mount a “vicious” campaign to unseat incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine (D). “We’re going to have a lot of fun between now and November,” Stewart told his supporters on the night of the Republican primary.
President Trump, whom Stewart idolizes, chimed in, calling Kaine “a total stiff.”
Stewart unapologetically cozied up to leaders of last summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Stewart is the candidate who most professional politicians and campaign professionals argue simply cannot win a statewide general election in Virginia, especially against a popular incumbent with more than $10 million in the bank for the fall campaign.
But Stewart is the candidate whom grass-roots Virginia Republicans chose in the June 12 primary.
His primary victory was remarkable but not really surprising. Culture warriors have been on the ascendancy in the Virginia GOP for years. They’re now calling the shots, and old-line establishment Republicans such as Bolling and Davis are largely sidelined.
But the transformation story began in the last century.
Southern white voters who abandoned the Democratic Party in droves after President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s eventually found a home in the GOP.
Republican leaders in Virginia and across much of the nation openly appealed to whites who were skeptical about advancing rights for minorities, gays and immigrants, and who opposed feminism and social safety net programs.
In the 1990s, the pro-business, budget-conscious Virginia GOP establishment built a winning coalition of Main Street conservatives who were able to mobilize a reliable cadre of culture warrior voters with “dog whistle” law-and-order ad campaigns that warned of parolees, drug gangs and immigrants.
Landslide GOP gubernatorial victories in 1993 and 1997 emboldened those who believed that a hard turn to the right was a winning formula in Virginia. Ultimately, the narrowing of its electoral appeal weakened the party in state elections but left a committed core of archconservatives directing its path forward.
So, while Stewart and his role model Trump will continue to receive attention for their brazen nativism and outlandish behaviors, it’s worth remembering they’re not really leading the Republican Party anywhere many present-day Republican voters don’t want to go.
Stewart and Trump are not so much the cause of the transformation of the GOP as they are a reflection of a long-brewing metamorphosis.
Recent general election results suggest strongly that Stewart’s brand of politics won’t sell in modern-day Virginia outside the hardcore GOP. Republicans, after all, haven’t won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009. The vote-rich suburbs are educated, diverse and appalled by Stewart.
And Virginia voted Democratic in the 2016 presidential election and overwhelmingly in state elections in 2017.
But Kaine’s people should not be too confident. Sometimes, candidates widely believed to be too extreme to win a general election have a way of surprising everyone. Just ask Hillary Clinton.