The three Virginia Republicans vying to square off against Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine have taken three distinct approaches to mobilizing the state’s pro-Trump Republican base ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart has billed himself as the only true pro-Trump candidate, saying people want a “Republican with balls” and launching attention-grabbing stunts such as waving toilet paper outside the state Capitol to criticize fellow Republicans.
State Delegate Nick Freitas has been more muted, saying he supports key aspects of the president’s agenda but that senators don’t sign a “loyalty oath,” and that he is the candidate who can be trusted to advocate for reducing the size and scope of government.
Chesapeake Bishop E.W. Jackson, the only black candidate in the race, said his background can pull together the broad coalition that will be needed to deliver Republicans their first statewide election win in an increasingly diverse Virginia in nearly a decade.
Polling has shown a good number of voters are still undecided, but Mr. Stewart — who nearly won the Republican nomination for governor last year over Republican nominee Ed Gillespie — has led Mr. Freitas and Mr. Jackson in terms of name identification, which could be critical in a potentially low-turnout primary contest Tuesday.
“As they showed in 2016, people are looking for a fighter — they want people to stand up and fight,” Mr. Stewart said. “They want Republicans who have balls.”
Mr. Stewart held a press conference this year outside the legislature waving toilet paper to criticize statehouse Republicans as “soft” and “flimsy” for supporting Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. He has called for the arrest of Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Ann Kincaid after she announced the county was ending an immigration enforcement partnership with the federal government.
The stunts have earned eye rolls from some elected Republicans in the state, but Mr. Stewart has unquestionably captured a loyal following among Trump supporters as well as from activists against illegal immigration who were heartened by his county’s stiff crackdown in 2007.
“President Trump needs support in his America First agenda, and Mr. Stewart will be the person that will do that,” said Maria Espinoza, the founder and director of the Remembrance Project, an advocacy group that highlights the stories of people killed by illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile Mr. Freitas, a former Green Beret, has emphasized his experience as a state delegate and says Republicans have become complacent in what they stand for: individual liberty and less government control in people’s lives.
He says he likes what he has seen so far from Mr. Trump on taxes, regulations and national defense and that he plans to support the president’s efforts in all those areas.
“But by the same token, a U.S. senator or any representative of the people — we don’t sign a loyalty oath to a chief executive,” he said. “Our oath is to the Constitution — it’s to the principles which reinforce and protect people’s constitutional and God-given rights.”
Mr. Freitas has won support from a number of Republican state legislators, outside free-market-oriented groups including Americans for Prosperity, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who joined him at a rally over the weekend in Loudoun County.
“I think he’s a great candidate — perfect example of someone who’s outspoken on liberty issue[s], Second Amendment,” Mr. Paul told The Washington Times.
Mr. Jackson has also been trying to carve out support among Mr. Trump’s base. He said the president isn’t getting enough backing from congressional Republicans and that he is the person to change that.
“I think we need to stand firmly behind him. That doesn’t mean every comment he makes or every remark he makes is going to have my support, but his policies will have my support completely and totally because everything I’ve seen so far is good for the country,” he said.
Mr. Jackson, a former foster child and Vietnam veteran who attended Harvard Law School and Harvard Divinity School, could have an opening among the evangelical base in the Republican Party and has won endorsements from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and from Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“You’ve got literally a million voters out there, probably more, minority voters who share conservative values but often don’t vote for Republicans because the Democrat Party has lied and deceived and manipulated people into thinking that Republicans hate them, Republicans are racist, Republicans don’t care about the poor and so forth,” he said.
Still, Mr. Stewart’s bomb-throwing style, his unequivocal support for Mr. Trump and his carryover name ID from last year’s gubernatorial run have him well-positioned ahead of the primary — though the would-be contest against Mr. Kaine could be another story, analysts and party strategists said.
“That’s the rub for the Republicans: What it takes to appeal to the Republican voters in the primary may actually hurt the candidate in the general election in November,” said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.
Republicans will also have to overcome a rabid anti-Trump fervor in the Democratic base — which helped propel Ralph Northam over Mr. Gillespie in the governor’s race last year and a number of Democrats in statehouse races — if they want to pick up their first win in a major statewide race since 2009.
“This is no longer a purple state,” said Republican Party strategist Ford O’Connell. “[Mr. Kaine’s] definitely sitting in the catbird seat.”
After his run for governor last year, Mr. Stewart has continued to emphasize protecting Virginia’s Confederate and historical monuments as a key part of his message but has been accused of courting white supremacist figures in the process.
Last week, a video from early 2017 surfaced in which Mr. Stewart appeared with Paul Nehlen, a past Republican primary challenger to Speaker Paul D. Ryan, and called Mr. Nehlen “one of my personal heroes.”
Since that time, Mr. Nehlen has come under fire for anti-Semitic and racially charged writings and comments online and was ultimately banned from Twitter in February after he posted a racially tinged attack on Meghan Markle, now the British Duchess of Sussex.
Mr. Freitas, who has also pressed Mr. Stewart on his connections to Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August, said he doesn’t believe his opponent is racist but has shown “horrible judgment” and that Democrats will try to paint Republicans as bigoted if Mr. Stewart is ultimately the nominee.
He said Mr. Jackson would definitely have his support if he is the nominee — but that Mr. Stewart would have some work to do.
“If Corey is willing to come out and state [in] no uncertain terms that he completely rejects some of his former associations, then I think there’s a path forward to be able to work together,” Mr. Freitas said.
Mr. Stewart pointed out that other conservative figures who had said positive things about Mr. Nehlen also distanced themselves after his offensive comments started to surface online.
“I’ve already said I want nothing to do with anybody who’s got racist views — I’ve said that a million times,” he said. “I’m not going to sit up there and start apologizing for every lunatic out there. I’m not going to do that.”
Mr. Jackson he is disappointed by the negativity and is concerned that the bitterness could last beyond Tuesday. He acknowledged that Mr. Stewart might have some issues to clean up but that either candidate would have his full-throated support if he doesn’t win.
“I believe Corey has a good heart and wants to do right by people,” he said.
Mr. Kaine, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination Tuesday in his first re-election bid, has led all three candidates by double digits in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups in public polling. He also starts the general election race with an overwhelming fundraising advantage.
As of May 23, the close of the pre-primary reporting period, Mr. Kaine had close to $10.7 million on hand, compared with $161,000 for Mr. Stewart, $147,000 for Mr. Freitas and $26,000 for Mr. Jackson.
“In the final week of the primary, the Republicans are arguing over who’s racist and who loves Trump more,” said Kaine campaign spokesman Ian Sams, saying the incumbent is focused on “making Virginia work for all.”
Mr. Kaine said he plans to highlight his accomplishments such as helping reduce veteran unemployment, pressing the Navy to commit to increase its fleet to 355 ships, securing federal recognition for American Indian tribes in Virginia and working to boost career and technical education initiatives.
He said it’s unclear whether a staunchly pro-Trump candidate would be able to win statewide in Virginia.
“We’ll see. I mean, that’s going to be their candidate — they’re all sort of competing for that space. I’m taking nothing for granted. I’m going to work very, very hard,” he said.