Three far-right Republicans are battling to win Virginia’s June 12 primary. The prize is the right to take on Virginia’s popular junior senator, Tim Kaine, in November.
But many election observers don’t see a viable threat in the trio of candidates. Corey Stewart, the fiery at-large chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, is seen as the primary’s front runner, having led in the only public poll taken of the race.
But he’s being challenged by E.W. Jackson, a Christian minister who was the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor 2013; and by Del. Nick Freitas (R-District 30), an Army veteran.
The Republican race “hasn’t gotten a lot of attention because Tim Kaine is a heavy favorite,” said Michael Cornfield, an associate professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. “He’s got good ratings within the state and these three are fighting for scraps, frankly.
“The other reason would be that the three Republicans really don’t disagree much.”
Stewart got national attention last year when he came within 5,000 votes of upsetting Ed Gillespie, the heavy favorite, for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Once again, Stewart is running largely on his unwavering support of President Donald Trump and an anti-immigration message — he falsely asserted that Fairfax had declared itself a “sanctuary city,” according to The Washington Post.
The gang MS-13 has figured prominently in his rhetoric. “The time has come to end the scourge of illegal aliens who are preying on law-abiding United States citizens here in Fairfax County,” Stewart told a crowd in front of the Fairfax County Detention Center, according to The Post. “We are going to take Fairfax back and we are going to destroy MS-13.”
Jackson, the minister who came in second in Christopher Newport University’s February poll of the race, has a history of making incendiary statements about religious minorities.
During his campaign for lieutenant governor in 2013, he delivered a sermon at Restoration Fellowship Church in Strasburg, Va., saying non-Christians are “engaged in some sort of false religion. That’s controversial, but it’s the truth.”
Quentin Kidd, the director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., said Jackson has peddled conspiracy theories and compared Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan. In 2010, Jackson wrote that Barack Obama “clearly has Muslim sensibilities.”
“E.W. Jackson is a combination of right-wing Christian conservatism mixed with a few handfuls of conspiracy theory and a couple dashes of populism,” Kidd said.
But Kidd added that all three candidates are probably too far right to seriously challenge the well-funded and well-liked Kaine, a former Virginia governor and the 2016 Democratic candidate for vice president.
With the growth of Virginia’s Washington suburbs, the Richmond region, and Hampton Roads in the eastern part of the state, Virginia has an increasingly Democratic bent, having elected back-to-back Democratic governors and gone blue in three consecutive presidential elections.
In the Christopher Newport poll, Kaine led Stewart, Jackson and Freitas by more than 20 points.
“On the left-right spectrum, all three of these candidates are really far over to the right, and Virginia just isn’t there. It isn’t where the median voter is,” Kidd said. “The Republican base just isn’t big enough.
“Whoever the Republicans nominate has to try to appeal to someone beyond their base.”
Freitas, a social conservative with libertarian leanings, garnered national attention in March with an indignant speech on the floor of the House of Delegates following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. Instead of simply restricting access to guns, Freitas said, “an open and honest debate” about school shootings should include abortion, the welfare state and gun-free zones.
He went on to blame slavery and Jim Crow on Democrats and was invited on to the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends” the next day.
“He’s as socially conservative as anybody, he’s just less bombastic on the stump,” Kidd said.
He added that it’s a sign of both the national environment and the trends in Virginia that a more prominent, mainstream Republican didn’t try to take on Kaine.
Next week, though, the race for the right to challenge the incumbent may be all about name recognition.
“It really comes down to name recognition and Corey Stewart has made a name for himself by being a provocative voice in past races,” Cornfield says. “But you can count me among the many inside-the-beltway observers who underestimated the Trump campaign.”