A Trump-Stewart Republican Party?

What do we make of Corey Stewart’s nomination as Republican candidate to run against Tim Kaine for the U.S. Senate seat? Does Stewart’s narrow victory portend a reshaping of the Republican Party of Virginia along more populist, Trumpian lines?

I think a fundamental political realignment could be occurring, but the outcome hinges on events yet to unfold. A lot will depend on what happens to President Trump. If his administration collapses in scandal, as it very well could, so does the populist movement within the Virginia GOP. If, on the other hand, Trump is vindicated in the “Russia collusion” concoction, if the machinations of the Deep State are revealed for all to see (see the release today of the OIG report), and if the economy continues to boom, many people will forgive his character flaws and rhetorical abominations, and Trumpism could very well take lasting root in the party of Lincoln, McKinley and Reagan.

The prospect of a realignment also depends upon how successful Stewart will be in what he promises to be a “vicious campaign” against Kaine, who, whatever one thinks of his politics and his off-putting performance during 2016’s vice presidential debate, is widely regarded as a likable person and the antithesis of vicious. It was one thing for Trump to run a nasty campaign against Hillary Clinton, who had more baggage than Kim Kardashian on a trip to Cannes, and quite another to run one against Mr. Clean. I further question whether Virginia voters, after two years of watching the politics of personal destruction in Washington, D.C., have an appetite for more of the same closer to home, so I am skeptical that Stewart’s pledged scorched-earth campaign will resonate. Indeed, I expect that it will fail spectacularly, in which case Stewart will be repudiated and the GOP could become safe once again for moderates and libertarians.

But my opinion may not count for much. I’m an educated suburbanite, and Stewart isn’t appealing to people like me. He’s hoping to mobilize the forgotten men and women of the white working class and middle class — those who feel alienated from elitist culture and the structures of power.

There may have been enough such voters to capture a GOP nomination, but are there enough to win a statewide U.S. Senate campaign? Stewart won only 45% of the Republican vote in a relatively low turnout primary. If he can unite the party, he has a remote chance of winning the election. If he can’t, he has zero chance. He drew disproportionate strength from the predominantly white localities west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, moderate support in Northern Virginia and the southern Piedmont industrial quadrangle (Roanoke, Lynchburg, Danville, Martinsville), but little anywhere else.

Here’s his problem. While nearly all Republicans and many independents recoil from the Democratic Party’s identity politics, they are divided about how to respond. Stewart answers the rhetoric of minority grievance and resentment with the rhetoric of white grievance and resentment. In a demographically diverse state like Virginia, that’s a losing proposition. Nick Freitas and E.W. Jackson, Stewart’s primary opponents, staked out more inclusive positions of opportunity for all. That’s a fundamental philosophical dividing line.

In the current political environment, I see three big buckets of voters — (1) those who hew to the Democratic tribe emphasizing grievances based on color, gender and sexual orientation, (2) those who hew to the Trump-Republican tribe emphasizing white working/middle-class grievances, and (3) those who eschew tribal identities altogether and see people as individuals with cross-cutting identities and priorities. The third group, I would suggest, overlaps significantly with a voting bloc I have referred to in the past as “natural libertarians” with a tolerant live-and-let-live philosophy — and that includes many Republicans who didn’t vote for Stewart.

The logical home of the natural libertarians, I would suggest, is within the Libertarian Party — if only the LP could broaden its appeal beyond its core base of intellectual purists by finding a large demographic constituency. In case you missed it, the LP has fielded a U.S. Senate candidate, Matt Waters. With a platform that includes ending the federal income tax, however, it’s hard to imagine voters taking him seriously.

Cover photo credit: Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP)