Virginia in the Balance

Going into last week’s primary, Virginia Republicans had three appealing candidates for the right to challenge Democrat Tim Kaine for the Senate. Few substantive differences divided them -- all are “drain-the-swamp” Trump supporters, immigration reformers, and pro-life -- but each represented a different strain of the loose conglomeration of cultures that constitutes the Republican Party of Virginia.

Viewed as a team, they complemented each other in powerful ways.

The frontrunner, and ultimate winner, was Corey Stewart, a county executive and favorite of the Tea Party grassroots. Next was Nick Freitas, a young state representative, regarded as the candidate of the GOPe and those of Libertarian bent. The third, and long-shot, was E.W. Jackson, lieutenant governor nominee in 2013, who runs "a national organization dedicated to preserving life, the traditional family and our Judeo-Christian history and values as the Foundation of our Constitution and culture."

Stewart won with 44.9% to Freitas’ 43.1%, with 12% to Jackson.

As a Virginia voter, I was irritated that I could pick only one, since all are impressive. I went for Freitas, but I felt confident that the three, working in tandem, could give Kaine a hard time, and maybe beat him.

Also, I could see a solid future for the Republican Party here, contrary to conventional “Virginia is blue” wisdom. Even if Freitas lost, his support of Stewart would position him well in the next election for governor or senate, and Jackson, who is deeply moving when he talks of his roots in the Virginia soil that his ancestors tilled as slaves, can make inroads in a minority community that should be Republican.

Then, after Stewart won, Republican reality hit.

Stewart is a rough cob in the Trump style, and his relations with the GOPe, and especially with former gubernatorial and senatorial candidate Ed Gillespie and his supporters, have been testy on both sides. In 2017, after Gillespie lost the governorship by nine points, the GOPe said that Stewart had forced Gillespie to the right and thus turned off moderates, and the Stewart forces said Gillespie was a wimp who failed to give conservatives a good reason to turn out for him.

The acid spilled over into the 2018 Senate primary. Stewart continued his insults of the GOPe. On the other side, Stewart has long been a target for the sound-bite destructive tactics of the left, which brands him a neo-confederate, a racist, and an anti-Semite. Near the close of the campaign, Freitas picked up this theme, talking of the importance of not giving the party to “the haters”.

Once the election results were in, the MSM immediately jumped on the “he’s a hater” bandwagon. The National Republican Senatorial Committee refused to endorse Stewart and said it would put no money into the race, in not just a concession but an attempt to ensure a loss, and the Koch Brothers’ subsidiary Americans for Prosperity announced its neutrality.

The problem with this “he’s a hater” stance is that the smears against Stewart are nonsense. Let’s examine them:

Neo-Confederate. Virginia is a focal point for the controversy over Civil War monuments to Confederates such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Stewart is opposed to removing the monuments, pointing out that they are a part of history, and that once one starts imposing retroactive political correctness, there is no end to it.

My Midwestern forbearers were not in Virginia during the Civil War because they were with Grant and Sherman in the West. But U.S. Grant well captured the paradox of the Confederate army when he called it: “A foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought...”

So, while I can sympathize with the destroyers, it is hardly “neo-confederate” to recognize the ambiguities of human history, honor the good and try to improve on the bad, and humbly recognize that in their place we might have done no better. As E.W. Jackson said on Facebook, “I support preserving our historical monuments because we need to teach history, not erase it.”

Anti-Semitism. In 2017, Stewart praised a Wisconsinite named Paul Nehlens, a foe of Paul Ryan. Later, Nehlens issued a series of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments, and Stewart repudiated his earlier comments, saying “that was before he went nuts.”

Racism. In February 2017, early in the controversy over the Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Stewart was at a news conference with Jason Kessler. Months later, Kessler was the organizer of rallies in Charlottesville that led to violence and, according to the media, enlisted Nazis and Klansmen. Once Kessler’s antics became known, Stewart regretted their earlier and quite tangential association. In the bigger picture, before the C’ville riots, Kessler was a leftist agitator who was tossed out of the Occupy movement for being crazy. The riots are shrouded in confusion and propaganda, and pending more investigation, no sensible person can assume they were not an Antifa provocation.

If more support than this existed for the anti-Stewart hissy-fit, the NY Times and the Washington Post would have found it. There is no there there.

The left’s tactic is a familiar one. As the estimable blogger Neoneocon said in a related context: “These pieces are not meant to actually inform; they’re meant to block any desire the listener might have to inform him/herself...  life is short... and why waste it listening to a bigot..?”

The puzzlement is why significant portions of the GOPe readily fall in with this tactic and are willing to forfeit a tough but winnable race by a candidate with whom they are (or so they claim) in substantive agreement on major issues, and at the same time do great damage to the party’s long-term prospects.

Here are some overlapping hypotheses.

One is immigration. All three candidates advocated reform, but Stewart is known as the real hawk, especially on illegals. It could be that opponents of serious reform within the Republican ranks are willing to wreck the future of the party in Virginia in order to send a message nationally.

A second hypothesis is ignorance. The Stewart haters believe the MSM and do not look beyond the leftist soundbites, or, even if they are skeptical of the smears, they assume that voters credit them, so virtue must be signaled.

Another factor is Stewart’s persona. He often sneers at the GOPe and resisting the chance to pay him back would test a saint.

Pure snobbery is also present; some GOPe people regard Tea Partiers as social inferiors with whom they do not wish to associate. FBI agent Peter Strzok’s view of Virginia Walmart patrons is not limited to Democrats.

Also important is the realpolitik of party control. Much money can be made as part of a minority that pretends to fight the regulatory state while bargaining for a share of its goodies, and a candidate who actually means the drain-the-swamp rhetoric threatens some strong economic interests.

Control at the local level is also important. Government is often the largest employer in a county and dominating it has other important economic benefits. Local barons talk of draining the swamps of Washington, but wetlands closer to home are sacrosanct. They will reject Tea Party state and national candidates who threaten their grip on local affairs.

All these explanations are probably at work, and the Senate race and the Republican future in Virginia depend on whether they can be neutralized.

In one possible timeline, enough of the GOPe would rather lose to a Democrat than win with a Corey Stewart so as to make the situation irreparable. This element will poison the well, which will also effect down-ballot races, causing Republicans to lose winnable House seats. Then each faction of the GOP will blame the others for the losses. In future elections, the GOPe may well win the nominations, but the alienated Tea Party, finding it impossible to forgive, will watch them lose with guilty pleasure. (I know many Tea Partiers, and, believe me, this is their mood.)

On the other hand, perhaps this fate is not inexorable. Human will can change it, if Stewart and Freitas can rise to their best selves, exile poor advisors, give Jackson the respect he is due, and fight to change the narrative and expose the opposition as the true party of haters. As Freitas said during a debate, “Cowardice is contagious, but so is courage.”

Stewart seems willing. He recently praised Freitas on Facebook, and he is asking Freitas and Jackson voters for their support. Freitas has not said yet anything good about Stewart, but (as of last Friday) he started saying bad things about Kaine on Facebook, and Jackson has so far been silent.

So there is hope.

James V DeLong a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former denizen of the Great DC Swamp. He now lives in the Shenandoah Valley, and sometimes shops at Walmart.

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