Just like the Confederacy, Corey Stewart lost in the Virginia GOP gubernatorial primary on Tuesday night.
But boy, was it close.
With nearly all precincts reporting late Tuesday night, Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was projected to win by about 1.2 percent against Stewart, a former state chairman for Donald Trump’s campaign who heavily focused his campaign on the preservation of Confederate monuments.
To say the least, the result was not expected to be so close, and it echoed the 2014 shock upset of Eric Cantor. Gillespie had led by at least 15 percentage points in all but one of the polls conducted for the primary. Funnily enough, the one exception had Stewart with a narrow lead.
When the results poured in Tuesday night, political observers in the state attributed the tight contest, in part, to low turnout. (According to Decision Desk, some 365,284 total votes were cast for the GOP primary while some 542,705 were cast in the Democratic one).
“Turnout was relatively low on the GOP side,” Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, told The Daily Beast. “I suspect a number of Republicans wished they had turned out but chose not to because the polls showed a clear advantage for Gillespie.”
“Gillespie engaged in a general-election strategy. He didn’t say much to win over the most conservative Republicans during the campaign because he didn’t want to say something in the spring he would have to defend in the general-election campaign all summer and fall,” Farnsworth added. “So a lot of them went with Stewart.”
Stewart was fired by the Trump campaign in October of last year, for, as he put it, standing up against “establishment pukes” at the Republican National Committee. He was canned after taking part in a protest outside the committee’s headquarters as part of a warning to the RNC not to abandon Trump after the Access Hollywood tape came out. At the time, Stewart staunchly defended Trump’s admitting to groping women on tape, saying he had “acted like a frat boy, as a lot of guys do.”
Stewart went on to call his opponent in the gubernatorial race a “cuckservative” during a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) session in which he also said he thought Bill Clinton was a rapist.
According to Larry Sabato, the founder and director of the Center for Politics and the publisher of “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” Tuesday’s results indicate how deeply Trump has damaged the Republican Party establishment.
“The GOP in Virginia and most places has fallen off the right cliff,” Sabato told The Daily Beast. “The chaos engendered by Trump’s win has further weakened the party establishment. Gillespie is no moderate, not even close. But to the party faithful, he looked like a moderate. Meanwhile, Stewart was mobilizing The Resistance, not the anti-Trump variety but the Trumpsters and white nationalists upset about their Confederate monuments.”
Sabato pointed to an issue that many Republicans may confront both in purple state Virginia, which went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and elsewhere: that aligning with Trump is a risky challenge for winning a general election.
“Align with Trump? Only if they’re insane, at least in Virginia,” Sabato said. “Trump is in the mid-30s here. I don’t know how they manage to keep the Trump base in line while reaching Virginia’s anti-Trump majority. Good luck with that.”
Stewart, born in Minnesota, attempted to capitalize in recent weeks on the city of Charlottesville’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park. “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter,” Stewart tweeted in April. It gained him notoriety and subsequently a group of torch-wielding protesters, including white nationalist Richard Spencer, protested the planned removal.
Sabato said he thought Stewart’s outspokenness on the issue helped him almost pull off the upset.
“I’m at the epicenter of this in Virginia, alas,” he told The Daily Beast. “Lovely Charlottesville is very liberal and votes 80 percent Democratic, but we’ve had near riots about taking down a statue of R.E. Lee, and the Ku Klux Klan is expected on July 8.”
The divisions between the more establishment Republican voters and the far right wing of the party, highlighted by this close contest in a low-turnout primary, could spell trouble ahead, according to Farnsworth.
“Stewart didn’t generally draw huge crowds to his rallies, and he was badly outspent, but his supporters were passionate,” Farnsworth told The Daily Beast. “And in a low-turnout primary, passion matters.”
“The closeness of the race is a bad sign for GOP prospects in the fall,” he added. “These big divisions between the two factions of the GOP—the more mainstream Republicans versus the Tea Party folks—are not likely to be patched over quickly in the weeks ahead.”
And now Gillespie has to face that challenge in the general election.
“In this party at this political moment, an anti-establishment firebrand pushing identity politics was bound to get some traction with a staid mainstream Republican as the foil,” Liam Donovan, a Virginia-based former GOP operative, told The Daily Beast. “Throw in a third party, a competitive Dem race, conventional wisdom of a Gillespie rout, and an increasingly ‘selective’ denominator, and you get what we saw tonight.”
He added that the high turnout on the Democratic side was indicative of the party being “fired up across the map.”
Perhaps fittingly, Nathan Gonzalez, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, characterized the fight within the Republican Party in terms Stewart might use.
“Just because Republicans control Congress and the Oval Office doesn’t mean the the civil war is over,” Gonzalez told The Daily Beast.
“There is still an ongoing fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, and President Trump’s presence only magnifies the divisions.”