FREDERICKSBURG, Va.—“They’ve been calling me a racist for 10 years,” Corey Stewart sighs, as if the commonness of the accusation were proof it couldn’t possibly be true. “They have! And it’s like, it doesn’t even faze me. I know the truth. They’re just used to it.”
Stewart, a Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, sits across the table from me at a Greek diner where he has just impressed a roomful of right-wing voters with his message of populist provocation. His signs say, “Take Back Virginia,” a slogan intended to echo Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
A beefy man in a dark-blue suit, Stewart chaired Trump’s Virginia campaign last year—until, that is, he was fired in October for staging a protest against the “establishment pukes” at the Republican National Committee in D.C., whom he accused of sabotaging Trump’s campaign. In Tuesday’s primary, Stewart is regarded as the underdog. But to hear him tell it, it is Trump’s brand of politics that is on the ballot.
“This is the question: Did the Donald Trump revolution stop in 2016?” Stewart asked the group gathered in the diner. “Or did it continue in the commonwealth of Virginia? Because if it works here, it will work everywhere else.”
The primary pits Stewart and another Republican candidate against Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman and partner in one of DC’s biggest lobbying firms—you might call him the personification of the Beltway “swamp” Trump has vowed to drain. Stewart, a county board chairman in the exurban Prince William County, has three major themes: his embrace of Trump; his decade-long crackdown on illegal immigration; and his opposition to the removal of Confederate monuments, which has made him an ally of white supremacists and the alt-right.
In Fredericksburg, where the Confederate army led by Robert E. Lee won a bloody Civil War battle in 1862, Stewart got hearty cheers for his opposition to “this politically correct madness of sanitizing history.” He described it as a leftist crusade that would not stop until it had deleted the Founding Fathers themselves from the national memory.
It has been seven months since Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency, and American politics remains unsettled and contested terrain in the wake of his victory. The jury is still out on what it meant—did Trump fundamentally scramble the old alignments and render the old way of doing politics obsolete? Or was his triumph a one-off, a fluke, an exception? No one is more invested in puzzling out the answers than politicians, whose careers depend on their ability to adapt to this strange new environment.
Virginia, one of two states to hold odd-year elections, will shed some of the first light on those questions. Trump has exerted a gravitational pull on both sides of the race. The close and hotly contested Democratic primary is being watched as a proxy for the battle for the soul of the modern left, with a progressive former congressman, Tom Perriello, mounting an insurgent challenge to the establishment-backed lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam.
On the Republican side, Gillespie is seen as the overwhelming front-runner. A Washington Post poll last month put him 20 points ahead of Stewart, 38 percent to 18 percent, with a third candidate pulling 15 percent and a quarter of likely primary voters still undecided. To Stewart, nominating Gillespie would be a disaster for the GOP, which last won the governorship in 2009.
“It is a losing strategy,” he told me. “It’s the party going back to business as usual. And it’s so boring! These establishment candidates, they’ve been saying the same things since the 1980s.” Trump, he said, gave the party a new road map for winning white working-class voters. “If we go back to nominating hoity-toity, non-controversial establishment candidates like Ed, we lose all those people.”
I had many interesting conversations about the Civil War with the attendees at Stewart’s event, most of them older white people, many of them transplants from other states who had worked for federal or local government. Stewart himself is originally from Minnesota, a fact that has earned him quite a bit ridicule, particularly when he tweeted, in April, “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don't matter.”
He told me he feels all the more strongly about Virginia’s history as a “Virginian by choice,” and insisted his campaign is an appeal to the historical sensibility of all races—not, as it might seem, a naked embodiment of the worst liberal stereotypes about the GOP’s reliance on white identity politics.
The Civil War, Stewart told me, was fought “in part” over slavery, but was “more an issue of state’s rights”; Robert E. Lee was “a historic figure who after the war was over worked to reunify the country.” (My colleague Adam Serwer recently thoroughly examined such claims about Lee’s historical legacy.) But the larger point, he said, was “this movement to destroy sculpture, public art, to sanitize history—I think that most people, regardless of their race, find that disturbing.”
Trump has not taken sides in the contest, though Stewart has released a list of endorsements from Trump campaign veterans, some of whom are working on his campaign. Gillespie, for his part, has staked his campaign on an opposing theory of the case, betting that what Virginia Republicans want is an antidote to Trump: practical, conventional, inoffensive, and most of all electable, in a state that bucked the GOP wave and went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Fueled by job growth in the D.C. suburbs, Virginia has undergone a rapid demographic and political transformation in recent years. More than half of the state’s residents are now non-native; the population is heavily college-educated, with large numbers of immigrants and African Americans. In the Post poll last month, 59 percent of Virginians disapproved of Trump, 52 percent of them strongly. Trump narrowly won the Virginia GOP primary last year, with 35 percent of the vote, and still has the approval of 77 percent of Virginia Republicans. (The former FBI director James Comey lives in Virginia and has been a registered Republican, but did not vote in 2016.)
The new face of Virginia was evident when I followed Gillespie to a county festival in Northern Virginia on Sunday. As I waited for the candidate at the Fairfax County Republican Party’s booth, a group of dark-skinned women in headscarves and long robes approached, gladly accepting paper fans bearing the name of a candidate for county supervisor handed out by a volunteer in a white Make America Great Again hat. Another volunteer, a retiree named Tom Altmeyer, told me he’d been pals with Gillespie since Altmeyer’s days as a lobbyist for the mining industry.
Gillespie strode down the sun-drenched fairway in a striped shirt with rolled-up sleeves, sunglasses perched atop his side-parted gray hair. A tall man in khaki shorts and suede loafers eagerly shook his hand, telling him he was eager to cast his vote for Gillespie as a newly naturalized American citizen from South Africa.
“I’m confident that our message is resonating everywhere—people like the specific policies I’ve put forward to get Virginia growing again,” Gillespie told me, as screams emanated from a roller coaster behind us. His message is focused on economic issues, which he says are more important to voters here than the polarizing cultural issues Stewart emphasizes. To the charge that he has distanced himself from the president, Gillespie replies, “I voted for President Trump. I want President Trump to succeed in creating jobs and making us more safe as a nation. But the governorship is about state politics.”
Stopping by the booth of a local Baptist church, Gillespie fell into conversation with two church volunteers who wanted to know his stance on abortion. (He opposes it, with some exceptions, and has been endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee.) They had, they said, been receiving lots of confusing robo-calls talking about issues like sanctuary cities and transgender bathrooms—were those coming from his campaign?
Gillespie laughed. “No, no, no,” he said. “That’s the other guy.”