In late June, John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican party of Virginia since 2015, resigned his post with little explanation. The decision came just weeks after outsider politician Corey Stewart seized the GOP nomination to challenge U.S. senator Tim Kaine in November, and less than a year after the party sustained widespread state-level losses.
For the GOP in Virginia, Whitbeck’s departure was the latest in a string of troubling events that have called into question whether the state — long considered one of the most significant swing states in the country — can remain winnable for Republicans during and after the presidency of Donald Trump.
According to political experts, Virginia can be considered either the northernmost southern state or the southernmost northern state. Recent Democratic successes and shifting demographics seem to favor the latter view. The main areas of recent population growth have been Democratic areas — Northern Virginia, just outside the District of Columbia; the capital, Richmond; and Henrico County in the Richmond suburbs. Meanwhile, the population has declined in the southwest and in Hampton Roads, the former a Republican stronghold and the latter a battleground. From 2000 to 2010, Virginia’s Hispanic population, which tends to support Democrats, increased by 92 percent, with two-thirds of that growth concentrated in Northern Virginia.
One experienced Republican activist argues that “Virginia is more like a purple state with a roller-coaster pattern than it is a red state turning blue.” But Mike Murphy, a longtime GOP political consultant, says: “The state is turning blue, and the Republicans are responding to that by turning crazy. That is a cycle that will electorally wipe out the party, at least at the state level.”
Tucker Martin, a veteran political strategist with extensive experience in the state, tells National Review that there’s a disconnect between what Virginia is and what many Virginia Republicans believe it to be. “The Democrats are on home turf now, and Republicans need to branch out and create their own brand,” Martin says. “The problem is that the Trump era has made it almost impossible to do that.”
Over the last few years, these factors have converged to push Virginia from purple to blue. Even as its quickly changing demographics have favored the Left, a stripe of populist Republican politician has arisen on the right, appealing to a core of supporters who have driven the state GOP even further rightward, distancing moderate voters and, in some cases, encouraging Democratic engagement.
Not very long ago, the GOP had reason to believe that the state’s electorate was challenging but moderately favorable to it. Republican Bob McDonnell defeated Democratic opponent Creigh Deeds in the 2009 gubernatorial election by more than 17 percentage points, the largest margin of victory in recent Virginia history. In 2014, longtime GOP leader Ed Gillespie ran against popular incumbent senator Mark Warner and fell short by less than one percentage point. For GOP optimists, these races suggest the state recently was and could remain competitive.
But another election, earlier in 2014, was an under-acknowledged predictor of the state party’s travails. In Virginia’s seventh congressional district, GOP outsider Dave Brat upset House majority leader Eric Cantor in the high-turnout primary and went on to win the seat, buoyed by hard-right, anti-immigration voices. In the primary, Brat railed against Cantor’s ties to the corporate sector, as well as his support for loose immigration policy, and captured the surprise victory. It was the first such upset since the creation of the House majority-leader position in 1899, and, although Brat took the seat, it flagged a change in the GOP base that meant trouble for the party’s chances of winning statewide.
Enter Donald Trump, a political outsider much like Brat who surged onto the scene in 2015 to compete for the presidential nomination, appealing to many of the same parts of the GOP base that Brat had wooed. Though Trump’s strategy played well nationally, it wasn’t as successful in Virginia. The businessman even struggled to find a state politician willing to chair his state campaign until Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, stepped in.
Trump barely won the Virginia primary on March 1, with Florida senator Marco Rubio coming in a close second. Tellingly, Trump received only a plurality of the vote. This lack of widespread support was a sign of things to come. Virginia was the only southern state to go to Hillary Clinton, who won it by more than Barack Obama had in 2012.
Following Trump’s shocking national victory, Virginia, one of two states to hold its gubernatorial contest the year after the presidential race, entered a new election cycle. For Stewart, it was the occasion for what one source says he called his “Hail Mary pass” out of Prince William County, galvanizing Trump’s most fervent Virginia supporters in order to challenge Gillespie for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
In many ways, Stewart was more appealing to the core of Trump’s base than Trump himself had been. In fact, just before the presidential election, Stewart was fired by Trump’s Virginia campaign for demonstrating in front of RNC headquarters, warning the party against abandoning Trump after the infamous Access Hollywood tape. His 2017 gubernatorial primary campaign was permeated with similarly anti-establishment stances. His agenda focused on immigration restriction — proposing, for instance, that municipalities require individuals to prove citizenship during routine traffic stops — and he rallied “forgotten white voters,” arguing that Virginia should force all localities to leave Confederate monuments untouched.
Stewart’s far-right rhetoric occasionally slipped into outright support for white supremacists. In early 2017, he called anti-Muslim conspiracy crank Paul Nehlen (a primary challenger to House speaker Paul Ryan) one of his “personal heroes,” and his campaign paid Nehlen a fundraising commission for the use of his email list. Stewart also appeared during the primary with Jason Kessler, an organizer of last August’s neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.
Recently, Stewart disavowed both Nehlen and Kessler, saying he had been unaware of their extremism. Shaun Kenney, former executive director of the state party, calls this claim nonsense, saying “everyone in Charlottesville knew what Jason Kessler was and knew what he represented.” Nearly every source with personal knowledge of Stewart believes he’s an opportunist, a man who will flirt with white supremacists for political profit despite not agreeing with their beliefs. In a move seemingly contradictory to his stance on the monuments, for example, he supported the 2016 renaming of Mills E. Godwin Middle School, which had honored a governor resistant to school integration — a change Stewart likely wouldn’t have favored if he had white-supremacist sympathies.
Winning is “the only principle guiding Corey Stewart,” says David Ramadan, former Republican representative to the house of delegates for Virginia’s 87th district, which includes Prince William County. “For him,” he adds, “the only way to win was to jump on the Trump train when nobody wanted to jump on the Trump train.”
Stewart’s opportunism didn’t propel him to victory over Gillespie in the primary, but he lost by just 1.2 percentage points, a much closer result than expected. Observers say Stewart’s low numbers in the run-up to the primary convinced Gillespie’s campaign to save resources and emphasize party unity, accidentally tamping down his own turnout. Even so, no one in the party appeared to be concerned.
That didn’t last. In November, Gillespie lost to sitting lieutenant governor Ralph Northam by nearly nine percentage points. Democratic candidates took 15 seats in the house of delegates, where Republicans had held a 66–34 advantage. One delegate race was deemed a tie, and a random drawing allotted the seat to the Republican, allowing the GOP to retain a 51–49 majority — literally dependent on the luck of the draw. The biggest story was turnout among Democrats, who voted at unprecedented, presidential-election levels: One analysis estimated that turnout among under-30-year-olds in Virginia was 34 percent, nearly twice its 17 percent in the 2009 gubernatorial race. Nearly seven out of ten of those voters cast their ballots for Northam.
“Trump has made it a social value among those Democratic-leaning, younger voters to be against Trump and to demonstrate it by voting,” Murphy explains. “Trump has solved the problem the Democrats have faced for decades, which is how to get their younger, unengaged voters to show up and pull the ‘D’ lever.”
So far, the GOP leadership has done little to react. After Stewart claimed the Senate nomination, state-party chairman John Whitbeck issued a “call for unity,” glossing over Stewart’s entanglements with white supremacists — including how, in November 2017, Stewart had accepted Nehlen’s endorsement for the Senate and offered his own endorsement in return, even after Nehlen had publicly promoted white nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Now, Whitbeck’s sudden departure leaves the state party’s future highly precarious. One source close to Whitbeck says he told people privately that he’d resign if Stewart won the primary. Regardless, the state party appears to be without a coherent strategy for handling the Trump phenomenon and Stewart’s subsequent rise.
At the national level, National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Cory Gardner has said that the committee doesn’t plan to endorse Stewart and will focus on Florida, North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana — in other words, winnable races. President Trump, for his part, has already tweeted his congratulations to Stewart on his primary victory and suggested he has a real chance to unseat Kaine.
Meanwhile, experts predict that Republicans can’t expect to win Virginia with only the segments of the electorate that Trump won. Stewart’s general-election campaign will be the test. While populist rhetoric undoubtedly appeals to enough of the base to hand primary elections to Trump and Stewart, Virginia is slipping away from the GOP: The Cook Political Report just moved Brat’s reelection campaign in the seventh district from “leans Republican” to “toss-up.” “The trend over the last 20 years has been that, as the Republican party pushes more to the right, Virginia has shifted to the left, and it’s created a chasm,” Martin explains. “Trump has broadened that chasm. Corey Stewart makes it a little wider. As a party, we need to look at ways to close that divide.”
To accomplish this, some strategists suggest Virginia Republicans might learn from the GOP in Maryland and Massachusetts, two largely Democratic states where the GOP has moderated its policy goals, managed its image to be more appealing to centrist and center–left voters, and retained high popularity after winning gubernatorial elections. Then again, both states have electorates reliably bluer than Virginia, and such a model would require significant alteration to account for both the conservative and populist elements of Virginia’s existing GOP base.
But something has to give. Kenney sees the situation even more starkly: “No one’s going to get off the couch for the party of white nationalism. At some point, it stops being ‘Never Trump,’ and it stops being ‘Never Corey,’ and it starts being ‘Never Republican.’”
Some Republicans might believe the pendulum will inevitably swing back to their side. But it may be that the populist style that catapulted Trump to the White House is not a winning formula in the state. So long as they remain the party of Corey Stewart, Virginia Republicans are likely to stand on the outside looking in.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been corrected since its original posting.