Leading up to the primary on June 12th, I asked activists who they thought would win the Republican U.S. Senate primary in Virginia. As is the case in many elections, most people stated that their preferred candidate would win. Stewart people assumed Corey Stewart would be victorious while Freitas people thought likewise about Nick Freitas. Although I supported and ended up casting my vote for Delegate Freitas, I stated that I thought Stewart would win.
Why? Well, as stated above, it wasn’t because I wanted Mr. Stewart to be the Republican nominee. At this point, Corey Stewart has almost reached the status of a perennial candidate. He briefly ran for U.S. Senate in 2011-12, finished third for the Lt. Gov nomination in 2013, and came close to winning the Republican nomination for Virginia Governor in 2017. However, if you look back the last time that Corey Stewart ran for statewide office, in 2017, he narrowly lost the Republican nomination to Ed Gillespie. Gillespie won 43.74% and Stewart got 42.5%. If he had gotten blown out last year, it is unlikely that anyone would have taken him seriously in 2018. As an example, consider E.W. Jackson, who was the Republican candidate for Lt. Governor in 2013. He ended up losing the general election by over 10 points thus making it far less likely that the Republican Party would ever give him another statewide nomination. Stewart, conversely, was close in his last attempt.
Then there is the issue of fundraising. As of May 23rd, the Freitas campaign had raised $502,784. By comparison, the Stewart campaign had raised $841,112. Money isn’t everything, but it certainly helps.
Next is the matter of name ID. Although none of the three candidates were terribly well-known across the state, presumably Stewart was bolstered by his previous runs. Chances are that activists who had supported Stewart in 2017 would likely do so again. Therefore, he already had an established base to build from. Although he traveled the state during the election cycle, Freitas was a less well-known name without a cadre of longtime supporters scattered across the various corners of Virginia.
Another aspect concerned endorsements and the ideology each candidate represented. While Corey Stewart represents Trump populism, Freitas is part of the liberty/small government movement, and Jackson has the religious right. Although President Trump isn’t particularly popular with Virginians as a whole, he does seem to command a loyal and active following among a sizable segment of Virginia Republican voters. Oddly, unlike just about every other year, there wasn’t a candidate from the establishment wing of the Republican Party. Several months ago, I was told that Representative Barbara Comstock would be entering the race but that never happened. As such, many in the Republican establishment endorsed Nick Freitas. At face value, you might think that the establishment combined with the liberty-wing would be enough for a winning coalition in the primary. After all, the establishment more or less propelled Ed Gillespie to the Republican nomination in 2017 single-handedly. Liberty-minded folks may have cast a vote for Gillespie, but I doubt many were excited about it.
However, upon further reflection, it is likely that many in the establishment weren’t all that enthusiastic about Freitas, but it was rather a lesser of three evils type of scenario for them. In 2013, Jackson demonstrated that it would be nearly impossible for him to win statewide and some of his comments derided as bigoted or closed-minded could hurt the GOP in other races. As for Stewart, his ties to the alt-right with to the Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville, his previous false or misleading statements about Ed Gillespie in 2017, the fact that he represented the same Trump faction that lost Virginia in 2017, and that he was likely seen as an uncontrollable force resulted in some of them viewing his nomination as an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party of Virginia. Given some of Freitas’ outstanding bills in the General Assembly which would curb the power of the party bosses, my assumption was that the establishment ended up supporting Freitas out of perceived necessity, not desire, and thus I assumed that their level of support would be far lower than it would be for someone like Gillespie.
The night before the primary, I stopped by my local polling place in Harrisonburg to see which campaigns had placed signs at the precinct. Although signs don’t win elections, they are one way to gauge levels of campaign activism. When I arrived, I found Brent Finnegan, the 2017 Democratic candidate for the 26th House district placing signs for Jennifer Lewis. There were also signs for Peter Volosin, but none for any of the Republican Senatorial candidates. However, when I went to cast my vote for Nick Freitas around noon the next day, several of his signs had appeared in the interim.
Once polls closed at 7, I sat in front of my computer, watching the results on both the VPAP and NY Times websites. To my surprise, Freitas took an early lead…but could it last? Were my predictions wrong? At one point, E.W. Jackson jumped out in front with a commanding lead due to results from Virginia Beach. However, upon closer inspection, I discovered that one precinct had erroneously given Jackson several tens of thousands of extra votes, likely the result of a few misplaced additional zeros in his totals. When it was corrected, Jackson did not come close to leading for the rest of the night. As results continued to come in, the difference between Freitas and Stewart began to tighten. At around 85% of the vote reporting, Freitas was still leading. But I thought it prudent to check where the bulk of the outstanding votes were left to report. Most were either in Prince William County (where Stewart is the chairman of the board of supervisors) or Fairfax County directly to the north. Although Freitas was still leading, I realized at that point that Stewart had almost certainly won the election once all the votes were in.
During the evening, I wondered if either the Stewart or Freitas camps would deride E.W. Jackson as a spoiler, declaring that his candidacy cost them victory. If he weren’t in the race, I assumed that a majority of his votes would have gone to Stewart, but without seeing the exit polls, it is difficult to say with any measure of certainty. Jackson won about 12% of the vote. If asked, I would have recommended that Jackson not run as I believe it would only hurt his future prospects of holding elected office (if any). Nevertheless, I believe he had every right to run (just like anyone else) no matter how slim his chances happened to be and that it is unfair to call him a spoiler.
In November, Virginia will likely have three candidates on the ballot, Republican Corey Stewart, Democrat Tim Kaine, and Libertarian Matt Waters. At this point, I would assume that Kaine will best Stewart by at least 10 points. However, regardless of my predictions, I recommend to you, dear reader, to research all three of your choices and vote for the one who best embodies your values. I know I will.