Republicans haven't won statewide in Virginia since 2009. Tuesday's Senate primary shows why

Republicans haven't won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, and GOP leaders have all but written off their chanc...

Posted: Jun 10, 2018 6:05 AM
Updated: Jun 10, 2018 6:05 AM

Republicans haven't won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, and GOP leaders have all but written off their chances of changing that trend in this year's Senate race.

The state's Republicans will select their Senate candidate in Tuesday's primary.

The best-known candidate, Corey Stewart, built his brand on defending Confederate icons. Another contender is a minister who called gay people "perverted" and "very sick people" and warned that yoga leads to Satan. And a third, who has emerged as the establishment preference, is most closely aligned with Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee.

None, national and state Republicans admit, are likely to give Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine a serious race in November's midterm elections.

Party leaders point to Ed Gillespie's losses in the 2014 Senate race and the 2017 governor's race as primary reasons that stronger candidates didn't enter the Senate race.

"It's just a blue wave, and I think that scared some people off," said John Whitbeck, the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. "On paper, Tim Kaine has an incredible amount of money. You've got to have a lot of courage to take him on."

There's also the reality that allowed Democrat Ralph Northam to cruise to a 9 percentage point victory over Gillespie in the governor's race last fall: Northern Virginia's suburbs are rapidly growing and diversifying, and increasingly follow the trends of the national political landscape.

"I definitely think that we have to accept the fact that the state's changed dramatically demographically," Whitbeck said. "The issues have to be right. We need to be focused on the fiscal issues that we've always been known for."

The problem for the GOP is that none of the contenders in Tuesday's primary appear to meet those requirements.

Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, narrowly lost the GOP gubernatorial nomination last year to Ed Gillespie but is seen by national party leaders and strategists as an embarrassment after Stewart tied his political identity to icons of the Confederacy.

Also in the race is E.W. Jackson, a Chesapeake minister known for his conservative and controversial social views who was the party's failed 2013 nominee for lieutenant governor.

And outside Republican groups have rallied around Nick Freitas, a little-known 38-year-old state delegate who hasn't raised enough money for his own television ads.

The Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity endorsed Freitas last week, and the Rand Paul-aligned super PAC America's Liberty PAC spent $225,000 on a TV ad buy for Freitas.

In the last week of the primary, Freitas also showed a new willingness to attack Stewart, making reference to his ties to Paul Nehlen, an anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim House candidate in Wisconsin, and his links to criticism of "both sides" in the wake of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi gathering and the killing of a counter-protester.

"If we are to continue our party's legacy, we must reject Corey Stewart's dog-whistling of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and racists," Freitas said in an email to supporters, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Though the outcome of the primary will get attention -- and the winner could prove a headache for the party nationally and statewide for the rest of the year -- Virginia Republicans are now wrestling with the bigger problem of how they can return to competitiveness in what was until recently a swing state.

Virginia has effectively become "two one-party states," voting like New Jersey in the northern suburbs and Alabama throughout its more rural regions, and the GOP has failed to adjust to meet that new reality, said former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"They keep running Alabama candidates and Alabama campaigns, and they've just quit communicating with the northern Virginia suburbs," Davis said.

The state's increasingly diverse population and influx of suburbanites are factors, Davis said, but the party's previously reliable business-aligned base has also eroded. And donors from that world "are AWOL. They don't see any utility now," he said.

"The Republican base has migrated from the country club to the country," he said. "The problem with that is, your country club areas are the growing areas. But there's very little tolerance within the party for people who don't appeal to the country base."

Whitbeck agreed that Virginia Republicans now take on several different shapes, and said the key to the party's return to competitiveness will be finding candidates who can assemble new coalitions.

"You no longer can run a statewide race -- you almost have to run five statewide campaigns," Whitbeck said.

"There are so many different regions and what works -- you've got to figure out the coalition," he said. "My staff and I were just talking about this the other day: What's the coalition to win statewide?"

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