At a public celebration last summer, Corey Stewart, Prince William County's top Republican, praised his county's diversity and welcomed the renaming of a middle school once christened for a prominent segregationist.Five months later, in the throes of his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor of Virginia, Stewart joined a group railing against the planned removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park in downtown Charlottesville."We've got to defend our culture, we've got to defend our heritage," Stewart barked before supporters that included men holding Confederate flags, according to a video on his Twitter page.With a ravenous appetite for rhetorical bombast, Stewart is campaigning as an unapologetic disciple of President Trump, echoing the president's populist diatribes against the Republican establishment, undocumented immigrants, political correctness and the media.Yet in purple Virginia, the only Southern state that Trump lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton, Stewart is struggling to captivate voters. Three months before the June 13 primary, polls show him in single digits, far behind front-runner Ed Gillespie, a former lobbyist and adviser to President George W. Bush, in a field that also includes state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach).
Stewart, in a telephone interview, expressed no concern about disagreements with allies, saying they are a routine fact of his combative political life. He offered a broad rebuke of those who criticized him at the supervisors' meeting as "the same old liberal whack jobs who have been protesting me for 10 years."Stewart's credentials as a self-styled voice of Trumpism may seem dubious, since the president's own campaign dismissed him as its Virginia co-chairman in October. Stewart had ignored the campaign's order to refrain from protesting the national Republican Party's treatment of Trump."He got fired for not following directions," said John Fredericks, Trump's Virginia co-chairman. "He may own the Trump style but he doesn't own the Trump brand. The Trump people don't like him."Told about Fredericks's remarks, Stewart said, "I hate that guy," and contended that he was fired "because I was too loyal." He remains devoted to Trump, he said, and is confident that he can ride the anti-establishment spirit the president unleashed to the governor's mansion."In-your-face conservatism," Stewart said, describing Trumpian politics. "I'm the anti-establishment candidate who's going to burn the s---house down."
During a rally for the statue in mid-February, counter demonstrators shouted Stewart down. He cited the altercation with what he described as "radical left-wing agitators" in subsequent fundraising pleas.While he was at the rally, Stewart met the leaders of a fledgling right-wing group known as Unity and Security for America, who asked him to return the following week for a news conference. He accepted the invitation.The group, which has fewer than a dozen members, supports immigration laws "that require that most immigrants come from Western countries," according to its website. Jason Kessler, the leader of the group, tweeted in November that Trump is "the savior of Western Civilization" and that "his acts of bravery have inspired a movement that will outlive us all.""Corey Stewart showed up when we needed him," said Isaac Smith, a spokesman for the group. "He stood by us."
Last August, Stewart spoke at the renaming ceremony for the Mills E. Godwin Middle School, a Woodbridge building originally named in honor of a former governor who, as a state lawmaker in the 1950s, led the "massive resistance" movement against school integration. The county's board of education renamed Godwin for an African American philanthropist, George Hampton."It's been a long, long, long time in coming, that's for sure," Stewart told the audience at the ceremony. "A lot of things have changed in Prince William County since 1970, and let me tell you something. Those changes have been good."He described Prince William as "the most progressive, futurist county in the United States."Recalling the moment, Willie Deutsch, a conservative school board member, said it suggested that Stewart "is more focused on winning over audiences he is speaking to than sticking with a core set of principles.""At times he may be hard right, at other times he may be more of a pragmatic conservative," Deutsch said. "He reinvents himself to create the version of himself he thinks he needs to be to move to the next level."Stewart waved off that depiction, saying that his views on immigration and diversity have remained consistent. He said he had opposed removing Godwin's name from the school despite his remarks at the ceremony."I wasn't going to rain on the parade," he said.