Corey Stewart is Ed Gillespie’s worst nightmare—a visible reminder to voters of the part of Gillespie’s Republican Party that the former GOP chairman wishes voters didn’t see.
Stewart almost beat Gillespie in Virginia’s June gubernatorial primary. Almost nobody saw it coming before Stewart, who chairs the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, came from 45 points only to fall just short of an epic upset on the strength of what turned out to be a sleeper issue—preserving Confederate monuments.
Now he’s using his narrow loss and his new platform to bedevil Gillespie, and to set the stage for a Senate run in 2018.
He has yet to endorse Gillespie, telling The Daily Beast, “I’m no longer a believer in politicians endorsing other politicians. It’s a two-edged sword. Gillespie doesn’t necessarily want to inherit all my views,” and the feeling is mutual, he says. He’ll vote for Gillespie and encourage his supporters to do the same, but he’s pretty tepid.
Stewart is from Minnesota, but he’s a son of the South now, a persona that went viral when he visited Charlottesville in February to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from a downtown park. He was mobbed by counterprotestors, and the video went viral. “It caused my Facebook page to blow up. That’s when I knew I hit a nerve.”
He thinks the effort to remove Confederate monuments resonates “not just with conservative Republicans and Caucasians, but with people across the board. Ed should capitalize on it a lot more,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. Gillespie has tried to strike a moderate tone, condemning the so-called alt-right while saying the statues “should stay right where they are and we should teach history—not erase it.”
At Stewart rallies, supporters would display the Confederate flag. “I’m not offended by it, it’s an historical symbol,” he says, adding, “I don’t fly one, I don’t own one.” What he’s opposed to, he says, is political correctness, a catchall phrase that for Stewart and his supporters justifies a range of behaviors that wouldn’t otherwise be condoned.
“Mini Trump” is how Stewart’s critics characterize him. After the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump boasted in vulgar terms about grabbing women dropped last October, Stewart organized a rally outside the Republican National Committee headquarters to protest their lack of support for the then-GOP nominee.
About a hundred women showed up to defend Trump, but party regulars weren’t happy with Stewart. He was fired as the chairman of the Trump campaign in Virginia, an unpaid position.
Hillary Clinton won Virginia last year, and Barack Obama twice before that. The governor is a Democrat, and so are both senators but the state is a lot more purple than that recent history suggests and it has a long tradition of electing a governor from the opposite party of the president. The lone exception since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, is Terry McAuliffe.
That is good news for Democrat Ralph Northam, the lieutenant governor and pediatric neurosurgeon who is running for governor, and bad news for Gillespie, who is behind in the polls.
“Gillespie is a political pro, but he’s being squeezed by Corey Stewart and Trump on one side, and on the other by voters who don’t want anything to do with Trump or Corey Stewart,” says Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “He’s got a very narrow path to victory.”
Asked if he’s pushing Gillespie to the right, Stewart said, “I’m trying to.” Gillespie has hired Jack Morgan, an associate pastor at Real Life Ministries in Wytheville, Virginia, who calls the effort to remove Confederate monuments the product of “crazy leftists, some socialists, but a whole lot of communists too.”
“Jack and I are very close,” says Stewart. “The issue for Gillespie is he doesn’t have a strong base that’s committed to him, and he has to play to the base because he doesn’t have one.
“If they—meaning very conservative Virginians—don’t show up, he can’t win,” says Stewart. “I don’t want to overplay my significance, but it would help if I got out there and encouraged people at rallies to vote... Ed has not asked for my help. If asked, I would give it.”
Stewart says his supporters are “suspicious” of Gillespie because Trump hasn’t embraced him, at least not yet. That may be as much Gillespie’s decision as Trump’s, given the tightrope Gillespie is walking. “When I’m running for Senate, I’m going to beg the president to come down here,” says Stewart. “That’s a decision Ed has to make.”
“There’s no downside (for Stewart) to the tight spot he’s putting Ed Gillespie in,” says Quentin Kidd, director of the Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport College in Virginia. “If Gillespie wins, Stewart can say it’s because he ran more to the right; if he doesn’t win, he can say he didn’t run enough to the right… I’m sure Gillespie would like Stewart to go on a real long vacation and return after November 7, and then run for the U.S. Senate.”
Stewart has set his sights on Democrat Tim Kaine’s seat in Virginia next year, a long shot considering how popular Kaine remains in the state even after joining Hillary Clinton on the Democrats’ losing presidential ticket.
If Kaine had become vice president, prominent Republicans would have stepped up to run in a special election to fill his seat. Instead, many big names are passing on a tough run against him, beginning with Carly Fiorina, who lives in Virginia and had been eyeing the seat.
Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and recalls one of his grade-school teachers saying he needed to shave his beard because he looked too much like Abraham Lincoln. That was 20 years ago, he says, and Stewart’s emergence in the state’s politics reflects the fault line between old Virginia and new Virginia.
The contrast in next year’s Senate race with Stewart on the ballot couldn’t be greater, says Ferguson, with Stewart essentially a throwback to white Virginians’ massive resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education decision integrating public schools, and Kaine, a former civil rights attorney whose father-in-law, Linwood Holton, elected governor in 1969, enrolled his three children in predominantly black schools, a hugely important symbolic step at the time.
“I think he sees this as part of a game,” political scientist Sabato says of Stewart. “I don’t think that he’s motivated to get out of bed in the morning to preserve confederate symbols. He was looking for an opening for a long shot candidacy, and he found it—and now he’s on to something.”