This weekend, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting the removal of the city’s monument to Robert E. Lee spun out of control, ultimately resulting in three deaths and dozens of injuries. The violence stunned the nation, but Virginia voters aren’t strangers to the debate around Confederate monuments.
Earlier this year, the very same statue of Lee became a campaign issue in the Republican primary for governor — and it nearly won candidate Corey Stewart the nomination.
“It really is the issue in many ways that defined the campaign,” Stewart said in an interview.
Stewart, the chair of the Price William County Board of Supervisors and a former co-chair of President Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign, was considered a long-shot candidate compared to frontrunner Ed Gillespie. After the Charlottesville City Council voted in February to remove the statue of Lee and rename the Confederate general’s namesake park Emancipation Park, Stewart started talking about monuments, a lot.
On April 24, Stewart, a native Minnesotan, tweeted, “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter.”
Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don't matter.— Corey Stewart (@CoreyStewartVA) April 25, 2017
That was back when people still considered Stewart a dark horse. A few months later, he nearly beat Gillespie in a surprise finish. Just 4,500 votes, or 1.2 percent, separated the two candidates when all was said and done.
It was stunning, especially since Stewart was the first candidate in modern Virginia politics to run a campaign openly embracing Confederate monuments and symbols.
“In Southern politics at different times, there’s been a wink and a nod,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But Corey Stewart is openly calling for these symbols to be preserved or glorified. That seems different.”
Stewart — and political observers in Virginia — believes the issue is what nearly propelled him across the finish line of the Republican primary.
It’s not likely to go away soon, as Stewart has already announced a 2018 bid for US Senate against incumbent Democrat Tim Kaine. He said he plans to make Confederate monuments a big issue in that race too.
“There’s a fear of this issue by many Republicans,” he said. “They feel that if they don’t go along, they’re going to be labeled as white supremacists or a hate group.”
A campaign around the Confederacy
When Stewart first entered the Virginia governor’s race, he initially fashioned himself after Trump, focusing on an economic message to appeal to working-class voters. Then the Charlottesville vote happened, and Stewart abruptly pivoted.
“Everyone who observes politics in Virginia looked twice and said, ‘Is he really overtly going here?’” remembered Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. “The basis of his support was economic. The energy that led to the primary was on the back of the emotions surrounding the Confederate monuments.”
In the past, many Republican politicians have tiptoed around the issue of the monuments. The two candidates in the general election for governor, Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam, have both said the issue should be decided on a local level.
Stewart, on the other hand, proudly stood beside Confederate flags at his campaign events and held his own Charlottesville rally to advocate keeping the Lee monument. One of the people who spoke before the rally was Jason Kessler, an organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville this weekend that turned deadly.
When white nationalist leader Richard Spencer and his followers descended on the Lee statue in May bearing tiki torches and chanting, “You will not replace us,” Stewart was the only candidate running for governor who did not denounce them. He reserved criticism for Charlottesville City Council member Wes Bellamy, who is African American and voted to remove the statue. Stewart has publicly criticized Bellamy for past comments he made on social media, including gay slurs and misogynistic comments about white women.
Stewart condemned this weekend’s violence, and said the reason he did not condemn Spencer’s white nationalist rally in May was because it didn’t turn violent.
“I’ve always condemned violence, but these groups, KKK and neo-Nazis, these are despicable groups that have nothing to do with conservative groups or the Republican movement,” Stewart said. “I detest those groups, of course I condemn them, but what I’m not going to do is say everybody who went down there to preserve these monuments is a far-right extremist.”
Stewart maintains that there was violence on both sides, and said he also condemns violence from counterprotesters.
“For the most part, this push to remove Confederate monuments has been pushed by white liberals,” he said. “Almost all, I mean, 90 to 95 percent of them, are white liberals. You don’t see a lot of African Americans pushing for the removal of monuments.”
As chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, Stewart noted he has a racially diverse group of constituents. He said he plans to court the African-American vote in his Senate bid. When asked if he’s talked to any of his black constituents about his pro-Confederate monument position, Stewart paused.
“Um ... it’s not really an issue in my county,” he said. “We don’t really have many Confederate monuments in my county.”
Stewart’s political base
Confederate statues becoming a statewide political issue may not be surprising in the Deep South, but the fact that this was playing out in solidly purple Virginia took University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock by surprise.
“Virginia has made more of a transition than most Southern states away from the lost cause mentality,” he said. “The fact that [Stewart] could do that well probably does not bode well for the Republican Party in Virginia.”
Stewart netted 155,000 voters in the Republican primary, with much of his support coming from the western side of the state. If you look at a map of Virginia precincts in the primary, there’s a clear line delineating Stewart voters in the west and Gillespie voters in the east.
That’s due in part to a stark racial, economic, and cultural divide between the regions, Kidd said. Eastern Virginia tends to be more diverse, wealthier, and more educated. Western Virginia tends to be whiter, older, and poorer — coal jobs and manufacturing jobs have largely left the area. The agriculture business is healthy, but many of those jobs go to migrant workers.
“In many ways, Virginia is two states right now,” Kidd said. Drive down the state’s Highway 15, he added, and “you literally drive from what I would characterize as suburban New Jersey to the Deep South. That’s Virginia, and our politics reflect that in many ways.”
The problem for Gillespie in the governor’s race is that he needs to capture a large margin of Stewart’s 155,000 voters to win. Some speculated that necessity resulted in Gillespie’s tepid initial condemnation of this weekend’s violence in Charlottesville.
In the Senate race, meanwhile, Stewart has no Republican challenger yet. While Skelley, Kidd, and Bullock caution there’s a long way before the 2018 race, they say Stewart’s views on Confederate monuments could make it difficult for a more moderate Republican to challenge him, especially with his energized base.
“It may force them to answer questions they don’t want to answer,” Skelley said. “Having openly tried to court the same voting group, that’s a challenge for individuals in the GOP who don’t want to fight on that ground.”
But Stewart still faces an uphill battle. Virginia was the only Southern state Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and it boasts a substantial slate of Democratic politicians. That was also evidenced by turnout for the Democratic primary for governor, in which about 180,000 more people voted compared with in the Republican contest.
Stewart’s embrace of Confederate monuments led to a near upset in Republican primary for governor. But it may not translate well to a general election constituency.
“He clearly tapped into a deep-seated and important vein of feelings and emotions among what I would characterize as a very small slice of the electorate,” Kidd said. “I think Stewart begins as an underdog.”
But if no Republicans challenge Stewart in the Senate primary, the two Virginias will be on full display in the 2018 campaign.
Update: This post has been updated to reflect that Stewart criticized Charlottesville City Councilman Wes Bellamy and demanded his removal from office due to past tweets of Bellamy’s that included homophobic slurs, anti-white comments and misogynistic rhetoric.