The Trump Protégé Shaking Up Virginia’s Governor’s Race
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this helps determine whether Trump built a movement — or just a moment.
By Nick Fouriezos
Corey Stewart holds a Defund Planned Parenthood sign under one arm, his other wrapped around the shoulder of his newest fanboy — a baby-faced student with a camo hat and an on-point selfie game. After the two snap a pic, the kid turns to his idol and says, “In a liberal college, everyone thinks I’m racist, because I don’t believe in illegal immigration.” And Stewart, a strong-jawed, sleek-haired 48-year-old with a tattersall tweed jacket, cowboy boots and a Minnesota-bred straightness, responds bluntly: “Never back down to that. The left will always drop the race card. They will never stop. But people see through it.”
The Republican chairman of Prince William County, just 25 miles south of Washington, D.C., rarely strays far from a spotlight that often threatens to scald him. “I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” says Stewart, who is running as a candidate for Virginia governor. “I’ve always spoken very directly to people.”
At the March for Life in late January, Stewart delivered a speech along Constitution Avenue, simultaneously programming with Vice President Mike Pence’s speech a football field away on the National Mall. Earlier, Stewart launched a missive at his rival for the Republican nomination, calling former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie “a career D.C. insider” and “Abortion Ed,” accusing him of supporting late-term abortions. The Gillespie campaign says that’s wrong, and the characterization was criticized by many pro-life Virginians, with Del. David LaRock, who sponsored a state bill seeking to ban abortion after 20 weeks, calling it “patently false.” After the Charlottesville City Council decided to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Stewart called the decision “historical vandalism.” And previously, Stewart led other publicity-grabbing camera-turners, from giving away an AR-15 to donors over Christmas — “even though I’m sure it’s certain to send the liberal media into a frenzy,” as Stewart put it at the time — to heading a protest outside the Republican National Committee’s headquarters that led to him being fired as co-state director for the Trump campaign just weeks before the election. (More on that move in a moment.)
For all this and more, Stewart has no apologies. That’s exactly what his supporters, including many Trump-inspired Independents, love about him. “A lot of my values align with his. He’s a populist, to me, and that’s going to sell,” says Rose Storaska, a former Trump volunteer now stumping for Stewart. So far, Stewart lags behind Gillespie by more than double digits in all polls, which is somewhat to be expected for a candidate with low name recognition from a regional office. But he’s already snatched endorsements from state grassroots leaders such as pro-life activist and author Terry Beatley, as well as talent from the campaigns of unconventional Republicans. Plus, he’s swiped the digital director behind the presidential campaigns of Rand Paul and Trump (Vincent Harris) on top of Ted Cruz’s Iowa deputy director (Spence Rogers) as his campaign manager. And as Stewart’s race picks up leading to the primary in June, he will become an important test of whether Trumpism can trickle down to statewide victories.
“If you’re here illegally, you have a lot to worry about, because I’m going to deport you.”
Stewart boasts a commanding, if decidedly small-time, conservative résumé. Since taking over in 2006, he’s led the county to become the state’s leading locality in job growth (third best in the nation), saved local residents $205 million by reducing taxes and upgraded the county to AAA bond rating status. As a former Foley & Lardner export control counsel, Stewart started his own international trade practice, a perspective he thinks he can bring to help Virginia with “fair trading agreements.” While those fiscal stats are important, it’s a long-held, tough-tact on immigration stance that he’s most known for. “They are suppressing wages for working-class people,” says Stewart, whose father was a Minnesota longshoreman. Under Stewart’s leadership, his campaign site boasts that the county has turned over approximately 8,000 “criminal illegal immigrants” to federal enforcement officers, “leading to a 48.7 percent drop in violent crime.” “I’m very proud of that, because it saves lives,” Stewart says.
That explicit link between Stewart’s immigration crackdown and crime reduction has been disputed nationally by groups such as the American Immigration Council, which has published reports suggesting that high rates of immigration actually are associated with lower rates of violent crime. And after ordering county police in 2007 to check immigration status on anyone that had “probable cause” to be here illegally, Stewart had to water down his policy amid public backlash. Now, police only check after arrest, and must do so with everyone regardless of ethnicity. “At the end of the day, that was a good change,” Stewart says now, even though he originally opposed it.
When asked about his decision making on such policies, Stewart says it “comes from the gut.” Despite his intransigent stances, he’s proven a sturdy campaigner in a blue district, having won four times as the only countywide elected Republican in northern Virginia, including his county, which backed Hillary Clinton by 21 points. If Stewart can get elected there, he can get elected anywhere in the more hospitable red swaths of Virginia, or so his pitch goes.
But Gillespie’s team sees Stewart as more gadfly than true rival, declining to mention him by name. And liberals embrace an attack that Stewart isn’t moderate enough to survive a statewide test: “That tone, that message, is going to be repudiated hands down,” says Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party. Republican state officers set up a potential roadblock of their own, choosing to hold a statewide primary in June, rather than the previously scheduled convention of party activists. The latter typically aids insurgent conservative picks like Stewart, but it could help him if the same nontraditional voters who backed Trump head to the polls.
— Corey Stewart (@CoreyStewartVA) February 5, 2017
That’s still far from certain. While Stewart tried to claim the Trump mantle, rolling out dozens of endorsements from Trump’s former state officers, some of the president’s supporters feel alienated by him. Critics point to Stewart being fired by Trump’s team after he held a protest outside the RNC in October following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes — an event national media used to highlight the Trump campaign’s dysfunction. “When you go rogue, there are consequences,” says Ray Reynolds, a Martinsville-based avid Trump supporter and campaign-trail photographer who blames Stewart for Trump’s loss in Virginia. For his part, Stewart says he was fulfilling his promise to stick to his guns. “I was fired from the campaign not because I was disloyal to Trump, but because I stood up for him too strenuously,” he says, adding his protest pushed the national party to unite behind its nominee.
Passing the White House on his way to meet with a conservative political action committee, Stewart thinks about its unlikely new tenant — and knows he wouldn’t be here without what transpired in November. “It raised my profile quite a bit,” Stewart says, and he promises to follow through on much of Trump’s promise if elected governor. “If you’re here illegally, you have a lot to worry about, because I’m going to deport you,” Stewart says. But for legal residents? “You have a lot to look forward to, because I’m going to get this economy going.”