Last year, Corey Stewart didn’t get to test his theory that Virginia Republicans could snap their losing streak in statewide elections with an unapologetic embrace of Trumpism. On Tuesday night, he got his shot.
Stewart won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in Tuesday’s only statewide primary, ensuring the combative chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors will lead Virginia’s GOP ticket in the 2018 midterms after promising to run a “vicious” campaign against U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Stewart, who chaired President Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign in 2016 before being fired for a rogue anti-establishment protest, narrowly defeated Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, a two-term state lawmaker and former Green Beret who was the closest thing to an establishment pick in the three-way primary. E.W. Jackson, a socially conservative minister from Chesapeake and 2013 GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, finished a distant third.
As Stewart’s hard-right supporters celebrated the victory by a culture warrior who seems to relish poking the party establishment, Republican moderates were worried Stewart's rise to prominence could cause other Republicans to sink, including a handful of GOP congressional incumbents already facing tough re-election fights in suburban districts.
During the Senate primary, Stewart has said Kaine’s youngest son should be sent to Guantanamo Bay over minor criminal charges stemming from a left-wing protest in Minnesota, called for tough crackdowns on illegal immigration, and vowed to push for a nationwide ban on the removal of Confederate statues, an extension of his Confederate-steeped run for governor last year.
A 49-year-old lawyer, Stewart was first elected to the Prince William board in 2003 and has made several previous runs for statewide office. Shocking many political observers, he narrowly lost the 2017 GOP gubernatorial primary to mainstream Republican Ed Gillespie. Stewart translated his near miss and elevated profile to a campaign for federal office, insisting in ads that he should’ve been the Republican standard-bearer in 2017.
“Virginia can choose to continue with the prosperity and the progress of America under President Trump,” Stewart said as he addressed supporters around 9:30 p.m. at a Woodbridge restaurant. “Or it can choose the past, with everything we know that has failed, and that’s Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine.”
The crowd responded with chants of “Lock her up!”
“That might just happen by the way. And Timmy too,” Stewart said. “Oh, we’re going to have a lot of fun between now and November folks.”
Freitas outperformed Stewart in the Richmond region and other suburban areas, while Stewart drew strong support in Southwest Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley and Southside Virginia. Stewart also ran up big numbers in Prince William and Loudoun County, two bellwether localities in Northern Virginia.
Kaine, who has more than $10 million banked for his re-election bid, will be difficult to beat in a Democratic-trending state where Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2009. Clinton chose Kaine, a former governor and Richmond mayor, as her vice presidential running mate in 2016.
“A cruder imitation of Donald Trump who stokes white supremacy and brags about being ‘ruthless and vicious,’ Corey Stewart would be an embarrassment for Virginia in the U.S. Senate, where he would eliminate health care for millions of Americans and slash public education funding,” the Kaine campaign said in a statement Tuesday night.
Freitas ran as a libertarian-minded conservative, offering more muted praise for Trump that didn’t prevent Stewart from branding him “Never Trump Nick.” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a favorite of the libertarian right, endorsed Freitas and campaigned with him in Northern Virginia.
In the closing days of the primary, Freitas launched an all-out assault on Stewart’s provocative style of politics, highlighting Stewart’s past associations with white supremacists and anti-Semites and urging GOP voters to “defeat the hate mongers.”
Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck stepped in to defend Stewart, saying he’d push for the resignation of any candidate who openly supported Nazis or white nationalists, but he saw no evidence that Stewart had done so.
Last April, Stewart attended a news conference in Charlottesville hosted by Jason Kessler, a key organizer of the Aug. 12 white nationalist rally that turned violent.
In a video from 2017 recently highlighted by the Freitas campaign, Stewart praised Paul Nehlen of Wisconsin, a former primary challenger to House Speaker Paul Ryan who later veered into anti-Semitism.
Stewart has said he wasn’t aware of Kessler’s views when he met with him. He has also denounced the racism on display at the Aug. 12 rally.
Speaking to reporters after the race was called, Freitas would not say whether he’d endorse Stewart.
“This is the only way I’m going to say it: I’m going to support the whole ticket,” Freitas said. “We’ve got to win in November, I understand that.”
Stewart complimented Freitas on running a tough race.
“He’s not going away,” Stewart said. “Nick Freitas has a future in this party.”
Tim Dodson and Michael O'Connor contributed to this report. Dodson reported from Warrenton and O'Connor from Woodbridge.