GOP fears primary fight will ruin Va. Senate chances

GOP fears primary fight will ruin Va. Senate chances

Virginia Republicans lack a consensus frontrunner to take on Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSherrod Brown says he's 'not actively considering' running for president The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — GOP again has momentum on Kavanaugh rollercoaster Poll: Kaine leads GOP challenger by 19 points in Va. Senate race MORE (D-Va.), setting the stage for a brutal primary where the top contenders are likely to run hard to the right.

Republicans fear that the campaigns of two controversial figures — minister E.W. Jackson and frontrunner Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors — will wind up alienating moderates and squandering any long hopes Republicans had of winning in a state that's increasingly trending blue. 

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And even if state Delegate Nick Freitas is able to catch fire, most Republicans and analysts don’t think he’ll have a real shot against Kaine, either. 

“I don’t think there is anybody,” one veteran Virginia Republican strategist told The Hill when asked whether the party can mount a serious challenge to Kaine. “You can’t control the dynamics afoot, and these guys at the race don’t even have close to the fundraising prowess or the ability at that level to deal with someone as effective as Tim Kaine.”

Stewart is the favorite in the GOP primary, after leading the field in the only public poll of the race, released in February. But the vast majority of voters in the poll were undecided, and all three candidates in the Christopher Newport University poll trailed Kaine by more than 20 points. 

Stewart raised his profile in the state after a surprisingly strong 2017 gubernatorial primary where he fell just short of former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie by roughly 1 percentage point. That tough primary divided the state party, but Stewart showed  he could appeal to the grass-roots Republican voters who turn out in GOP primaries.

Stewart made defending of Confederate statues a central piece of his campaign, wading into the highly charged debate by holding rallies outside of Charlottesville’s City Hall, where a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stood. 

That statue later became the site of the August far-right “Unite the Right” rally, where white supremacist groups joined to march in defense of the statues. One female counterprotestor was killed when a car was driven into a crowd, with a man connected to a white supremacist group charged in the case. 

Stewart drew criticism during the gubernatorial primary for charged rhetoric that included calling Gillespie, the establishment GOP pick, a “cuckservative.”

Gillespie went on to lose the governor’s race by nearly 9 points, and the GOP came within a coin-flip of losing its majority in the state House of Delegates.

Those 2017 defeats weigh heavily on the Senate primary. Republicans are shell-shocked by a blowout that was driven in part, according to exit polls, by President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE’s low approval ratings.

“Northam over-performed because Virginia is not that big a fan of Donald Trump and Northern Virginia was fired up,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who has worked in Virginia, referring to the D.C.-area suburbs that tend to power Democratic wins in the state. “Virginia is no longer a purple state, it’s a blue state, and your candidate has to come up with an issue that resonates with southern Virginia and Northern Virginia.”

But Stewart sees the race differently. 

He told The Hill that Gillespie’s loss proved that Republicans couldn’t win Virginia with a “standard Republican.” Instead, he said, Virginia needs a candidate with a Trump-style “edge” like Trump. 

Stewart said he isn’t interested in unifying the party around him after the brutal 2017 primary.

“You’ve got to be edgy, you've got to take risks. That, of course, attracts media attention. One thing I understand that I don’t think my Republican opponents get: the need to be controversial in order to attract media attention,” he said.

“I’m a very aggressive campaigner, and I take no prisoners. I’m a ruthless, aggressive campaigner and that’s how I will run my race against Kaine,” he said.

Stewart pointed to his success winning elections in Northern Virginia’s Prince William County as proof that he has a strong base. And while he distanced himself from white nationalists like Richard Spencer, who marched in Charlottesville, Stewart defended his decision to dive into the statue controversy as a way to mobilize Trump supporters. 

“I want nothing to do with the likes of Richard Spencer. However, I think that it would be a mistake to avoid controversial issues,” he said. “You need to stand up strong on preserving history, stand up strong on illegal immigration. And by doing that, that’s how you get your base out.”

But Stewart is taking some primary fire of his own from Jackson, who kicked off his campaign announcement by accusing Stewart of having “dealings” with the Muslim Brotherhood, according to The Washington Post. 

Jackson’s 2013 lieutenant governor campaign was dogged by controversial comments about gay and transgender people, but he’s since sought to distance himself from those comments.

Freitas, the state delegate, made a speech recently opposing gun control that’s gone viral on the right. As of Thursday, it had more than 16 million views on Facebook.

Republicans described Freitas as a long-shot candidate with an intriguing profile. Freitas is a former Army Special Forces sergeant who served in Iraq, and he has the backing of Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulA Senator Gary Johnson could be good not just for Libertarians, but for the Senate too Conservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Senate approves 4B spending bill MORE (R-Ky.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeEx-college classmate accuses Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Reexamining presidential power over national monuments MORE (R-Utah).

“Freitas is a dark horse. If he catches lightning in a bottle — he’s different, he’s new, he’s fresh. There just might be enough people tiring of Corey Stewart,” said John Fredericks, a conservative Virginia radio host who served with Stewart as co-chairmen of Trump’s Virginia effort. “In order for Freitas to close the gap, Freitas is going to have to go on offense. When he attacks Corey, if he attacks him with an arrow, Corey is going to fire back with a bazooka.”

The Jackson and Freitas campaigns did not respond to a request for comment. 

Republicans and analysts reached by The Hill framed the race as virtually unwinnable for any of the candidates. Kaine has a massive fundraising advantage after ending 2017 with $9.2 million in the bank, compared to Stewart’s $175,000 and Jackson’s $14,600. Freitas will file his first fundraising report next week.

And outside Republicans groups have mostly stayed out of the race, while five other Senate races have already drawn more than $1 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Kaine’s favorability has been strong — the Christopher Newport University poll found him with a 53 percent favorable rating, compared to only 35 percent unfavorable. More than 8 in 10 voters didn’t have an opinion on Freitas or Jackson, while Stewart sported a 13 percent favorable rating and a 20 percent unfavorable rating.

With Kaine seen as such a heavy favorite, some Republicans are sounding the alarm about how a poor showing in the top-of-the-ticket Senate race could threaten down-ballot candidates. Virginia GOP Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockDems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage Millionaires group endorses Dem House candidates opposed to GOP tax law Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls MORE is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican members this year, while Reps. Scott TaylorScott William TaylorVirginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence Virginia judge rules candidate's name must be removed from ballot due to fraud Pentagon, GOP breathe sign of relief after Trump cancels parade MORE and Dave Brat could also face trouble.

“A weak Republican candidate can take all three down,” Fredericks said.