On April 24, as cities from New Orleans to Charlottesville were considering tearing down statues of Confederate heroes, a long-shot Republican candidate for Virginia governor penned his umpteenth tweet defending the honor of Dixie: “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter.”
The tweet went viral. For Corey Stewart, whose political profile is high inside Prince William County, where he is chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, but considerably lower among the state’s Republican voters, this burst of notoriety would seem to have been helpful.
The only problem was that the attention was almost entirely negative. Stewart’s ratio of unfavorable replies to favorable retweets and favorites was horrendous: more than 3-1. At least four national political reporters noted that Stewart, was in fact, born in Duluth, Minnesota, making him much more of a Yankee than a son of the South. R&B singer John Legend, with 9.22 million followers, rebuked him with a simple question: “Really, nothing?”
But what others saw as a PR disaster, was from Stewart’s perspective an unqualified success. This explains why over the three months of the campaign, Stewart, 48, has tweeted numerous times about issues that would appear to concern only the most entrenched neo-Confederate. He has relentlessly criticized the city of Charlottesville for its plan to tear down a statue of General Robert E. Lee in one of the city’s major parks, and rename parks named after Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
“No Robert E. Lee monument should come down. That man is a hero & an honorable man. It is shameful what they are doing with these monuments,” he wrote in one Twitter missive, following up a few hours later: “After they tear down Lee & Beauregard, they are coming for Washington & Jefferson.” He added the hashtag #HistoricalVandalism.
When he hasn’t lamented the shoddy treatment of Southern heritage, he has compared the politicians who support removing statues to ISIS, the murderous Islamic extremists who have destroyed historic artifacts and religious sites throughout Syria. Or suggesting that George Soros “needs to be tried for sedition, stripped of his citizenship or deported.” Or labeling his main opponent a “cuckservative,” the disdainful epithet of choice among the alt-right.
In short, Corey Stewart, who was Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign chairman (more on that later), has made a calculated decision to copy the playbook that worked for Trump in large parts of the country. Though he lacks Trump’s money and universal name identification, two things Stewart’s leading opponent Ed Gillespie has a leg up on, Stewart thinks he can make up for it with outrageousness. This bold gambit is not something Stewart is ashamed of discussing. In fact he’s proud to be one of the first candidates for a prominent public office to imitate the divisive strategy that Trump employed to such surprising and successful effect.
“This is a breakthrough,” Stewart said a few days after his tweet about Confederate monuments went viral. “This is what we’ve been waiting for the whole time. Gillespie’s got $3 million. He can buy his own media attention. I’ve got to earn it.”
So the question is: Will the first explicit and unabashed attempt to clone the most criticized aspects of Trump’s 2016 campaign actually work?
“I don’t know,” Stewart said of his statue crusade. “It could cost me the election or it could win it for me.”
One week after the notorious tweet, Stewart was in the auditorium of Warrenton Middle School, where the Fauquier County Republican Party was holding a forum with all of the statewide Republican candidates ahead of the June 13 primary. But Stewart’s main rival, Gillespie, was nowhere to be found. He had opted out of all forums and debates in the final two months of the primary. So it was just Stewart and state Senator Frank Wagner, the third candidate in the primary, answering questions from the editor of the Fauquier Times (weekly circ. 9,400) for the benefit of roughly 100 Republican party regulars. With the exception of some post-collegiate staffers and scattered children, no one in the audience appears to be in Twitter’s target demographic.
Stewart and Wagner dealt with questions that could be asked at almost any gubernatorial forum anywhere in the country: land easements (a hot issue in an exurban county that’s seen rapid growth in recent years), support for community colleges and vocational high schools, Medicaid funding and the legalization of marijuana. Confederate statutes didn’t come up, but Stewart was able to deliver a signature stemwinder on the dangers of illegal immigration.
At times, Stewart sounded like a standard issue conservative primary challenger to an establishment candidate in a GOP primary. Off Twitter and at the forum, he has attacked Gillespie as insufficiently pro-life (Gillespie supports some exceptions to a total ban on abortion), weak on his opposition Obamacare (he once suggested something resembling the individual mandate) and not staunch enough on illegal immigration (he supported the Gang of 8 bill in 2014).
“His plan is, frankly, that he will win the nomination and then he will never again require our attention or support,” Stewart said in his opening statement at the forum. “He will run as far from the conservative label as he can.”
But Stewart added his own pro-Confederate and Trumpian flourish. He said his two-word nickname for Gillespie, “Establishment Ed,” owes a direct debt to Trump’s nicknames for his primary opponents: “Lyin’ Ted,” “Lil’ Marco.”
Stewart’s roots as a Trump clone go back to his service as the top government official in a fast-growing, now majority-minority county in Northern Virginia. In the mid-2000s, he unleashed a crackdown on illegal immigration that earned him a reputation as a crusader among conservatives and as racist demagogue among Democrats and the area’s media. The Washington Post’s editorial board, back in 2007, labeled him a “grandstander and an opportunist who would bring tumult down on the county” and said he had made Prince William “Virginia’s Capital of Intolerance.” Stewart brags that crime in Prince William has fallen dramatically under his tenure, which he attributes to checking the immigration status of everyone county police arrest. His new crusade—saving statues of Confederate veterans—is earning him new allies and enemies. But if you listen to him, it’s all part of the plan. One that he says isn’t new for him.
“I was similar to Trump well before I joined his campaign,” Stewart said. “I’ve always been very bold, some would say brash. I’ve always said very edgy, controversial statements. And it’s part of the campaign strategy to attract media attention. I’ve done that forever.”
Henry Wiggins, the chair of the Democratic Party in Prince William County, has a different take.
“I don’t believe Corey is a racist,” he says. “But he’ll do anything to get a vote.”
Stewart’s strategy to gain attention (and desperately campaign cash) would seem to be make perfect sense, except for one thing: It didn’t work for Trump. At least not in Virginia.
The state is not the Old South any longer—just 62 percent non-Hispanic white. Its traditional political event, Shad Planking, has dropped the Confederate flags and rebranded itself as the Shad Planking and Grapes and Grains Festival, bringing Virginia wine to match the traditional whiskey. Neither Democratic gubernatorial candidate attended, nor did Gillespie. A Stewart supporter flew a plane carrying the Confederate flag over the event, prompting some of Stewart’s county allies to drop their endorsements.
Second, Trump didn’t win Virginia. Stewart was Trump’s state campaign chairman until he was fired for protesting outside the Republican National Committee when it appeared national Republicans might drop Trump following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes where the president discussed committing sexual assault. He blames a lack of investment in the state for the loss.
“Virginia could have been won. But Tim Kaine was on the ticket and we were outspent 7-to-1,” Stewart says over a hard cider and a burger without the bun—he had asked for a gluten-free menu—at an Irish pub following the forum.
The polls disagree. In the GOP primary, a Quinnipiac University poll shows Stewart trailing Gillespie, 28 percent to 12 percent. A majority voters are undecided, and Stewart notes he’s doing much better among voters who call themselves “very conservative” and identify as Evangelical. In polls of possible general election matchups, however, both Democratic candidates—former Representative Tom Perriello and Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam—are leading Stewart by double digits.
This cuts against another key part of his appeal—that Stewart has unlocked the secret to winning in the state’s blue-tinted regions. While Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, Governor Terry McAuliffe, President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have swept Prince William, Stewart has won four countywide elections there even as he’s unleashed a crackdown on immigration that “caused almost every Latino person in the county to flee,” Wiggins acknowledged.
Stewart argues he won Prince William County because he was willing to show up at “events where people have never seen a Republican,” including African-American churches and mosques in Democratic parts of the county and win votes there. (Democrats have a different story: countywide elections in Prince William take place in off-off-years like 2015, when turnout is even lower than in midterms.)
“All I have to do is show that I’m not an ogre,” Stewart says.
But his newfound schtick is turning off key allies there. Glendell Hill, the county’s African-American sheriff, told the Washington Post he dropped his endorsement of Stewart because of “all that Confederate stuff.” Four of his fellow county board members also endorsed Gillespie following the flag stunt at Shad Planking.
“They’re afraid that I’ve gone so far to the right that association with me will be bad for their own political careers,” Stewart says by way of explanation.
Stewart often uses support for Trump as a stand-in for conservatism. He often goes after Gillespie for not supporting Trump more staunchly and for criticizing the then-GOP presidential nominee after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes.
“He didn’t show up at a single Trump rally. Not one,” Stewart said during the last GOP debate Gillespie attended.
And when he’s listing off the people who criticized his monuments tweet, Stewart lists two “establishment conservatives”: Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and RedState founder Erick Erickson, a longtime bane of Washington Republicans.
“A lot of these Never-Trumpers have totally lost credibility with conservatives,” he says.
Stewart argues his position against taking down the statues isn’t strictly about southern heritage, but about standing up to political correctness. “I don’t see it as an issue of the Confederacy, certainly not about the Confederate flag. It’s an issue of political correctness gone crazy, when the liberals are taking down historic monuments.” He notes two Charlottesville city council members have suggested taking down a statue of Thomas Jefferson because he was a slave owner. “My issue is: Where does it end?”
He knows Confederate monuments won’t win him the election. “You’ve got to remember, this is what’s covered by the press,” he says. “There are many issues that are more important: Taxes, transportation. But this is what’s hot.” (He notes he doesn’t “blame” the press for covering these stories. After all, he acknowledges that media furor is a key part of his campaign strategy. But he has also tweeted: “When news outlets write stories about Reddit AMAs & Tweets made by candidates you know they are #FakeNews & hurting for content.”)
“When you stand your ground, and you are attacked by liberals and attacked by the press, that is going to earn you the respect of voters,” he says.
Stewart is steadfast in his belief he can turn the attention he generates by defending what he views as his adopted state’s heritage into GOP primary votes. “A lot of people just assume Ed (Gillespie) is a conservative,” he said. “The key for me is to reveal that he’s an establishment guy.” And he can’t do that without free media attention or money to buy television ads. Stewart had just over $400,000 cash in his campaign account as of the end of March, less than a sixth of Gillespie’s war chest.
Stewart, of course, is far from the only Trump supporter with controversial opinions on race, immigration or the Civil War. He’s not even the only one to run for office this year: conservative activist Sherri Few tried to generate buzz with her own Confederate flag-themed attacks in a special South Carolina congressional race. She won fewer than 2,000 votes.
So how does Stewart really feel about his compatriots in the cause to crack down on illegal immigration and save Confederate statues? That’s complicated. His wife is an immigrant from Sweden; they met while Stewart was living in Japan, teaching English. He insists voters in Prince William demanded an immigration crackdown, and claims not a single instance of racial profiling resulted from his work in the county. He claims he doesn’t love his reputation as a crusader against illegal immigration.
“A lot of people equate that with being a racist,” he says. “And I’m not.”
At the same time, Stewart has flirted with elements of the alt-right. He gave an interview to conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, and was once introduced at a rally to save the Lee statue in front of man holding a Pepe the Frog sign. The man who introduced him, Isaac Smith, is a 20-year-old activist who founded a group calling for “America First policies.” Among those proposed policies? That “most immigrants come from Western nations.”
But on Saturday, even Stewart stayed away from a protest led by Richard Spencer, a self-proclaimed white supremacist and leader of the alt-right. Dozens of tiki torch-wielding protesters marched through Charlottesville and surrounded the statue of General Lee, chanting: “You will not replace us.”
The other candidates in the race rushed to condemn the protest. Perriello, a Charlottesville native, started a Twitter fight with Spencer: “Get your white supremacist hate out of my hometown.” Northam called it the “last gasp of a disgusting ideology.” Gillespie said the protest “does not reflect the thoughtfulness and tolerance I see in my fellow Virginians.”
Stewart was silent. Or at least he was until a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter noted the silence. “Only a jerk would talk politics on Mother’s Day. Go be with your family. Talk tomorrow,” Stewart responded in a Tweet.
On Monday, there were signs that Stewart might be about to answer his own question about whether his strategy of outrage has succeeded. A local television station was reporting he might drop out of the race. Stewart, always accessible, didn’t pick up the phone Monday afternoon. Instead he responded with a text: “Will make my statement tonight at 7p.m. on Facebook Live.”