What to Watch For: Corey Stewart and Virginia Republicans

Photo from Monthly Review Online

Last week, Corey Stewart won the Republican nomination to run against Senator Tim Kaine for US Senate this November.  This means that the de facto leader of the Virginia Republican Party is a white supremacist from Minnesota. We know he’s a white supremacist because he thinks monuments to men who committed treason against the United States in defense of slavery belong in the public square.  The guy made his bones harassing people of color and trying to cleanse Prince William County of immigrants.

Corey Stewart likes to pal around with people like Paul Nehlen and Jason Kessler.  Nehlen is an anti-Semite who jokes on Twitter about killing political opponents.  Kessler organized the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville last August.  A rally attendee and Kessler supporter killed Heather Heyerwith his car.  Two Virginia State Troopers, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian, Virginia, and Trooper-Pilot Berke M. M. Bates, 40, of Quinton, Virginia, died when their observation helicopter crashed on their way to assist authorities on the ground.  Kessler plans a sequel, by the way.  Wonder if Stewart will attend.

Stewart’s less-than-subtle nods to racists and white supremacists will make him yet another turnout machine for Democrats – along with Trump, gun violence, attacks on health care, separating immigrant parents and children, and shifting America’s alliances away from the network of democracies in favor of closer relations with autocratic states.  Making Corey Stewart the face of the Republican Party in Virginia will infect down-ballot races for Congress and probably improves Democrats’ chances to flip red districts in the Commonwealth.

What does this mean for the Republicans in the Commonwealth?  Stewart has already attached his brand to the RPVA, and his run for a Senate seat as a state-level Donald Trump begs a question: will institutional Republicans in Virginia line up behind him as Mitch McConnel and Paul Ryan have?  How often will Barbara Comstock and Dave Brat campaign with him?  Stewart’s win created a conundrum for conservatives with respect to optics versus policy.  The political right in the US has happily dog-whistled race for decades, but Trump and Stewart say the quiet parts out loud and that makes Conservatism look bad.  But Trump effectively changed no conservative policy goals, so the GOP backs him up.  And since he won, some politicians will copy this strategy.  The trouble is that after two years of open race-baiting, most Americans now know what they’re getting and don’t much like it.

This includes some conservatives.  Writers at Bearing Drift and The Bull Elephant agree that Stewart’s nomination reflects an acceptance by the Virginia GOP base of a white nationalism that will hurt their chances down ballotMatt Waltoncomplains that Stewart lied about whether Democrats hold responsibility for the breakup of immigrant families under Trump.  Norman Leahy calls Stewart “a rebel flag-draped bridge too far” and argues that Dave Brat’s “…biggest problem is how he can separate his campaign from that of Trump’s mini-me, Corey A. Stewart.”

Stewart answers the rhetoric of minority grievance and resentment with the rhetoric of white grievance and resentment,” writes James Bacon, noting that “I’m an educated suburbanite, and Stewart isn’t appealing to people like me.” On primary election night Steven Brodie Tucker wrote, “The Republican Party of Virginia is the party of White-Identity Politics.”

These guys apparently don’t like having a white supremacist nominee as the face of the GOP.  But it’s not clear what actual Stewart policy proposals they reject.  I suspect they agree in principle that the US should severely restrict immigration.  I can find no examples of these guys objecting to the kind of voter suppression laws and racial gerrymandering that Stewart would vote for.  They would support religious freedom laws that permit discrimination where treating everyone the same would violate a claimed religious belief.  They back misogynistic restrictions on a woman’s right to reproductive health care.  I doubt they would object to more liberal gun laws like concealed carry reciprocity. They would happily support higher government debt in order to further shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the poor. And of course they would, like Stewart, enthusiastically back the kind of judges who would uphold these laws.

And this reflects the larger problem with the GOP writ large: they don’t mind Trump saying the quiet parts out loud with regard to race and look the other way when he fills his pockets with taxpayer money as long as they get the tax cuts, deregulation, voter suppression, and judges they want. They plug their ears when Trump riles up the base with false tales of MS-13 because it gets out the vote for politicians who will suppress votes, deregulate corporations, cut taxes, and ignore gun violence.

I’ve met Corey Stewart in person and heard him speak at a Mechanicsville Tea Party meeting a couple of months ago.  This was an intimate setting, with only about a dozen people in the room.  He delivered a fairly standard-issue conservative stump speech – climate change can’t be real because it’s cold outside today, gun-free zones invite gun violence, Democrats just want to expand government for the sake of expanding government.  He also claimed that “there’s a lot of things out there people don’t know about Tim Kaine.” We didn’t hear much about confederate monuments, so perhaps he’s learned to moderate his message.

I expect Kaine will wrap up Stewart with Trump and Nehlen and Kessler in Confederate battle flags to both motivate Democratic activists and keep that bad taste in the mouths of institutional Republicans in the Commonwealth.  Stewart will win the Tea Party and Trump voters, but it will be interesting to see whether or not principled conservatives have the backbone to distance themselves with control of the Senate – and with it control over judicial appointments – in play.  If he can only get a dozen Tea Partiers to show up when he speaks, he’ll need their help.

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