He gives his political rivals derogatory nicknames like “Establishment Ed.” He uses the slogan, “Make Virginia Great Again.” He speaks at length about what he sees as the dangers posed by undocumented immigrants. And he despises political correctness so much that he railed against it in a Facebook Live video in which he sips coffee from a Confederate flag mug while sitting in his carefully restored 18th century tobacco plantation that once housed slaves.
Meet Corey Stewart, the firebrand Virginia politician who is not so subtly imitating U.S. President Donald Trump, both in substance and style, as he wages a long-shot bid to capture the Republican Party nomination for governor in the southeastern state of Virginia.
“I’m not trying to copy [Trump] wholesale, don’t get me wrong,” insists the 48-year-old Stewart, who served as Trump’s Virginia campaign chairman for part of the 2016 election. “But I did learn some things from him, like the importance of being edgy and controversial.”
There’s no question Stewart possesses Trump’s chutzpah. But that may only get him so far. According to the latest polls, Stewart is running well behind his more mainstream and better funded rival, Ed Gillespie, a seasoned veteran of Virginia politics.
Right wing vs. moderate
The race is a microcosm of the wider battle between right-wing insurgent forces inspired by Trump and the more moderate, establishment wing of the Republican Party. It could also serve as a model for other Republicans considering mirroring Trump in their own campaigns.
The strategy is risky, partly because it’s untested. No one knows for sure if mimicking Trump can help win elections at a local or state level because until now no one has tried.
Watch: Mimicking Trump, Governor Candidate Tries to Make ‘Virginia Great Again’
Stewart is at a disadvantage for multiple reasons. Unlike Trump, he doesn’t have a preexisting celebrity brand. He doesn’t have billions of dollars at his disposal. And he doesn’t have a nationwide media circus or multi-staged primary election process to ramp up excitement about his candidacy.
But perhaps Stewart’s most immediate obstacle is his primary opponent. Gillespie is not only a mainstay of Virginia politics, he’s also well-connected in the national party, having served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and an adviser to former President George W. Bush.
It’s those connections that led Stewart to label Gillespie “Establishment Ed,” in the style of Trump, who during the 2016 election gave nicknames to his political opponents, such as “Crooked Hillary” Clinton, “Little Marco” Rubio, or “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz.
“Establishment Ed … has never had a strong stand on any controversial issue,” Stewart said at a recent rally in Richmond. “If people want the same thing, he’s your nominee.”
Support, cash lacking
But as the June primary approaches, Gillespie appears to be pulling away from Stewart. A poll this week showed Gillespie has the support of 38 percent of Republican-leaning voters, while Stewart captured 11 percent. Stewart also lags behind in fundraising. At the latest reporting deadline in January, Gillespie had nearly five times more cash on hand than Stewart, according to campaign finance reports.
But what the underdog Stewart lacks in resources, he makes up in bravado. He once gave away an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in a Christmas raffle he said was meant to raise awareness for gun rights (the contest also helped him raise at least $10,000 for his campaign). He organizes protests against the removal of Confederate symbols that many see as offensive reminders of a racist past, but that he views as an important part of Virginia’s “cultural heritage.”
Like Trump, Stewart regularly portrays undocumented immigrants as rapists and gang members, and flirts with the alt-right, a conservative movement that includes a mix of white nationalism and economic populism. (Last week Stewart drew the condemnation of state party officials when he referred to Gillespie as a “cuckservative,” an alt-right epithet used to describe weak-willed politicians perceived to have abandoned conservative principles.)
At times, Stewart’s behavior has been too much for even Trump. In October, Stewart was fired from Trump’s campaign after he helped organize a protest outside RNC headquarters, where he complained that mainstream party officials were trying to “sabotage” Trump’s presidential chances.
Stewart defends his approach, saying he has no choice but to create controversies to help gain headlines.
“When you’re out-financed, because Gillespie’s got more money than anybody by far, you have to depend upon more earned media attention,” he says.
Perhaps predictably, Gillespie has responded by playing the part of the confident front-runner, unwilling to engage with Stewart’s attacks and instead focusing on his own detailed policy proposals.
But Gillespie’s strategy also carries risk. In his apparent attempt to keep a low profile, he is often inaccessible. Instead of holding large public events, Gillespie seems to prefer smaller meetings, often with donors, and unlike Stewart, does not usually promote his campaign gatherings online.
VOA tried for two months to arrange an interview with Gillespie. When we finally caught up with him at a recent straw poll, he demurred when asked what he thinks of being labeled “Establishment Ed.”
“People know me. They know my policies. They know I’ll be an effective governor for us and that I know how to get things done,” Gillespie said before rushing out the door, complaining that the questions were going to make him late for his next meeting.
It’s a strong contrast to the more approachable Stewart, who often hangs around long after campaign events to chat with journalists and potential voters. Many, especially those in the more conservative, rural parts of the state, are impressed.
“Corey is a lot like Trump,” says Brandon Howard from Hopewell, Virginia, who carried an AR-15 and wears a “Make American Great Again” Trump baseball hat at a Stewart rally in Richmond. “Corey is not your everyday candidate, just like Trump wasn’t.”
But not everyone’s on board, including many in the more liberal northern part of the state, near Washington.
Stewart’s behavior “reeks of desperation,” in the view of Trevor Francis, a Gillespie supporter from Arlington. “I think Corey Stewart understands that his back is up against the wall.”
John Schaefer, another Northern Virginia resident, is also turned off by Stewart’s negative campaigning.
“It’s the old Reagan principle,” he says. “You don’t attack other Republicans.”
Without at least gaining some votes in Northern Virginia, where nearly one-third of the state’s residents live, it’s almost impossible to win a statewide contest.
The problem for Stewart is that Trump is incredibly unpopular there. In Northern Virginia’s four most populous counties, Trump received less than half the votes of Clinton, which helps explain why he lost the entire state by more than 5 percentage points.
But could Republicans succeed in using Trump as a model elsewhere, perhaps in states where the president is more popular? Don’t count on it, says Daniel Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond.
That’s in part because although Trump won an upset victory in the national Electoral College vote, he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots, and his approval ratings are now at historic lows for a new president.
“There’s just not a big force of public momentum behind Trump at this point,” Palazzolo says.
Does that mean the more traditional, moderate conservatism embraced by Gillespie will win out over Trump’s and Stewart’s in-your-face, politically incorrect brand of politics? It’s not clear, and after this November’s election results, many political scientists are reluctant to even hazard a guess.
But, as Palazzolo points out, a campaign strategy based on offending people will always be risky. And that’s before you even consider the most basic problem: It’s really hard to copy a politician who is unlike any other on earth.
“Here’s the problem,” he says. “There really is only one Donald Trump.”