Confederate nostalgia nearly wins in Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial primary

Corey Stewart has aligned himself with white supremacists, made anti-Semitic remarks, and defended Virginia’s slave-owning “heritage.”

Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia, Corey Stewart, gestures at a campaign kickoff rally at a resturaunt in Occoquan, Va., Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia, Corey Stewart, gestures at a campaign kickoff rally at a resturaunt in Occoquan, Va., Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart gave Virginia’s Republican establishment a scare on Tuesday night.

Stewart, a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, made an unexpectedly strong showing in the GOP’s gubernatorial primary, narrowly losing to rival and frontrunner Ed Gillespie, a party insider who once led polls by double digits. The frontrunner squeaked by with a victory margin of only a few thousand votes — just over one percentage point. (Virginia pays for a recount if candidates come within .5 percent of one another.)

After achieving 43.72 percent of the vote to Stewart’s 42.53 percent (another candidate, Frank Wagner, achieved 13.74 percent), Gillespie thanked supporters and donors as he turned his attention towards Virginia’s general gubernatorial election. “We have won the nomination tonight,” Gillespie said, thanking “all those across the Commonwealth who have worked so hard to get us to this point.”

Stewart, however, declined to give a true concession speech Tuesday night, instead saying the race was “too close to call” and vowing to “continue it forward into 2018” while also making jabs at the media.

“Even all of you in the press I love you…but you’re just wrong,” Stewart told a room full of supporters and reporters as results rolled in. “Because you all said that it couldn’t be done, you all said that someone who supported our president, someone who supported President Trump…could never win.”

Stewart went on to say he supported the “revolution” Trump had hailed, assert that “establishment Republicans and establishment Democrats are one and the same,” and refuse to embrace unity or endorse his opponent.

During the campaign, Stewart made national headlines thanks to his heated opposition to removing Confederate monuments in Virginia. A native of Minnesota, he repeatedly defended the Confederate flag and Virginia’s slave-owning “heritage” on the campaign trail.

“It’s the state of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. That is our heritage. It is what makes us Virginia,” he said in April. Of the Confederate flag, he said, “That flag is not about racism, folks, it’s not about hatred, it’s not about slavery. It’s about our heritage. It’s time that we stop running away from our heritage.”

He later tweeted, “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter.”

In addition to throwing his weight behind Trump, Stewart aligned himself with the “alt-right” movement while campaigning, labeling Gillespie a “cuckservative” — a term singling out conservatives who are read by white nationalists as supporting efforts counter to the aims of white supremacy.

In May, Stewart also came under fire after he blamed progressives for anti-Semitism during a gubernatorial debate at a synagogue in Northern Virginia.

“Today most of the anti-Semitic bigotry is not coming from the right. It’s coming from the left. We have to face it,” Stewart said. He then singled out Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and a frequent target of racist and Islamophobic smears.

“What about Keith Ellison from Minnesota?” Stewart asked, attempting to link Ellison to anti-Semitism. “What about Trump?” audience members at Temple Rodef Shalom yelled back.

Stewart’s strong primary showing is a good sign for Trump supporters, but a bad sign for the GOP establishment. As the Washington Post noted in 2016, Stewart’s racially-tinged remarks and politics have been known to Virginia voters for over a decade. But Trump’s victory has allowed for campaigns like Stewart’s to make it on to a mainstream stage — and to perform well.

Prior to running for governor, Stewart served as Virginia state co-chairman for Trump’s presidential campaign. (He was fired from the position after participating in a protest outside of the Republican National Commitee’s headquarters.) As Stewart once boasted, “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.”

With Stewart defeated, Gillespie will go on to campaign against Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, who cinched the Democratic party’s nomination. Notham’s victory dealt a blow to Tom Perriello, a former congressman backed by Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Virginia’s gubernatorial election is set for November 7.