Primary campaigns can be testy, messy affairs. But few, if any, begin with one candidate accusing his opponent of having dealings with the Muslim Brotherhood and that opponent responding by saying his accuser was “off his meds.”
Such was the beginning of what promises to be an outrageous GOP Senate primary in Virginia, one that Republicans worry will further harm their national brand. Earlier this month, the party experienced as much in Alabama, with the remarkable loss of Senate candidate Roy Moore. Virginia is hardly a similarly Republican-leaning state. And none of the candidates running for the nomination there have quite the same amount of baggage as Moore, who was accused of sexually preying on teenagers.
Then again, few would describe them as non-extreme.
This past week, E.W. Jackson, a conservative pastor with a history of controversial remarks announced that he would be challenging Corey Stewart, former gubernatorial candidate and Trump acolyte, for the Republican primary which is roughly six months away. Jackson, previously the GOP’s 2013 nominee for lieutenant governor, has said in the past that people who want to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns indicate that they are possessed by “multiple demons” and that gay and lesbian citizens are “frankly very sick people psychologically, mentally and emotionally,” a comment for which he has recently expressed regret. He has also said that former President Barack Obama “clearly has Muslim sensibilities”—implying, of course, that that was a bad thing—and that Planned Parenthood “has been far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was.”
Stewart, meanwhile, is closely aligned with Donald Trump’s former top strategist, Steve Bannon, and helped shape a campaign on the preservation of Confederate monuments in Virginia, despite hailing from Minnesota. In 2017, he launched an insurgent gubernatorial bid and almost won the nomination during which he referred to his opponent as a “cuckservative.” Stewart was fired from the Trump campaign for, as he put it, standing up against “establishment pukes” at the Republican National Committee when the Access Hollywood tape came out. Most recently, during his brief stint supporting Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, Stewart revived unfounded claims made by Trump that Obama’s birth certificate is fraudulent.
The two are vying for the right to square off (in all likelihood) against Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who will be running for re-election with high approval ratings and in a state where Democrats won sweeping victories just a month ago. Political observers say they wouldn’t be surprised if the national Republican Party avoided the contest altogether.
“Republicans now have a struggle just to keep their majority” in the Virginia statehouse, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “They’re going to have to focus whatever money they have on probably half of the 10 Democrats [in the U.S. Senate] who come from states that Trump carried. They can’t be lavishing $20 million on a long shot race in Virginia.
“They wasted so much money on [Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed] Gillespie to get blown out of the water and lose everything,” he added.
Hoping to avoid this outcome, both local and national Republicans are frantically trying to recruit or prop up any other breathing human to run as an alternative to Jackson and Stewart. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, reportedly met recently with former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore to cajole him into a run. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), meanwhile are in touch with state Delegate Nick Freitas, who is also seeking the nomination.
Neither Gilmore nor Freitas responded to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
The pitch to a more establishment candidate isn’t all that hard. There is a path for victory in the Republican primary if the two most fringe candidates divide their base and essentially cancel each other out.
John Fredericks, a conservative radio host out of Hampton Roads, Virginia, noted that Corey Stewart remains the “clear favorite” owing to his recent, surprising, gubernatorial run. But he observed, “E.W. Jackson is really his worst nightmare that he could go up against. He’s going to be very difficult for Stewart to attack. Jacskon’s entry into the race strips away the evangelical base that would have probably went with Corey Stewart.”
Fredericks predicted that the odds of beating Kaine are about 15 percent for any Republican who makes it through the primary process. He also argued that elected officials would all but avoid Jackson or Stewart so as to ensure that they don’t further endanger down-ticket congressional Republicans who face their own tough campaigns statewide next year—specifically Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), whose district straddles northern portions of the state that are trending Democratic.
“I think the Republicans in Virginia are on their way to losing yet another statewide race,” Fredericks predicted. “That would be 11 in a row. Now you become the Cleveland Browns of politics. They’ve got to find a methodology to win a race statewide.”
Republicans in the commonwealth are deeply aware of the demographic trends which make a statewide win such a tough challenge for the GOP. And putting up any candidates with limited appeal who align themselves with the deeply unpopular Trump administration is essentially a death wish.
“I think Virginia is blue as long as Trump is around,” J. Tucker Martin, a Republican communications consultant in Richmond told The Daily Beast. “I think we’re a purple state without Trump. Until he goes, this environment is just too tough.”
But still, what the party is trying to avoid is another loss from a candidate like Moore who will serve as a weight around their necks in 2018.
“Either Stewart or Jackson would be perfect for national Democrats to use to show the Roy Moore face of the Republican party,” Sabato told The Daily Beast.
The hope for Republicans is that a more respectable candidate with electoral successes would enter the race, at the very least to help save face in a challenging midterm environment. But that is a task easier said than done.
“How many people honestly want to jump in that pool,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of people who are going to say I need to get my hair cut or mow the lawn that year.”