Virginia’s GOP Has Lost It

Jamelle Bouie, Slate, June 14, 2017

Corey Stewart

Corey Stewart

Tuesday, Virginia Democrats nominated for governor Ralph Northam, the sitting lieutenant governor, over Tom Perriello, a former congressman and self-described “pragmatic populist.” Both ran vigorous progressive campaigns, but Northam—with his strong ties to the state party and deep relationships with Democratic lawmakers—prevailed, winning by 11 percentage points.

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With that in mind, Virginia Republicans also chose a candidate for governor: former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, who nearly toppled Mark Warner in the state’s 2014 Senate race. But Gillespie—the favorite in the race, expected to score an easy victory—barely crossed the finish line ahead of his opponent, squeaking by with just over 4,000 votes to spare.

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The candidate who nearly toppled Gillespie, in a near-upset that would have upended the gubernatorial race, is Corey Stewart, the Minnesota-born conservative whose slogan—“Take Back Virginia”—captured the core of his campaign. He was running as a voice for Trumpism, railing against “illegal immigration,” condemning “transgender bathrooms,” slamming Gillespie as a “cuckservative,” and centering his campaign on an aggressive defense of the state’s Confederate monuments and memorials. Holding rallies at sites like the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Stewart marched with neo-Confederates and leaned on Confederate iconography. He was running a campaign for an older, whiter Virginia, one that seeks to wrest the state away from its growing majority of immigrants, black Americans, and liberal college-educated whites. And he doesn’t intend to reconcile himself to Gillespie’s win. “This fight will continue, and I’ll continue to fight as long as you’ll fight with me,” said Stewart in the wake of his defeat. “There’s one word you’ll never hear from me, and that’s ‘unity.’”

No one thought Stewart had a chance. He lacked resources, trailed Gillespie by double-digits in public polling, and was out of step with a Virginia Republican establishment.

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But there were signs. Stewart may alienate the more affluent and professional voters who back establishment-friendly candidates like Gillespie—and who delivered enough votes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to give him a victory—but he’s simpatico with the great majority of Virginia Republicans who approve of Trump.

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Factor in the larger political landscape—from the explicit embrace of white racial resentment to the rise of performative outrage (also known as trolling) as a mode of conservative politics—and Corey Stewart’s surprise showing is much easier to understand. A vessel for xenophobia, political extremism, and white reaction, Stewart sits at the intersection of trends in both the Virginia GOP and the country writ large. His near-win, capturing 42.5 percent of the primary vote to Gillespie’s 43.7 percent, shows the extent to which Trumpism still appeals to large parts of the Republican electorate, even when Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot.

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