RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Republicans have nominated a polarizing candidate known for taking personal potshots at his opponents and agitating aggressively for the preservation of Confederate monuments — a pick that ultimately could have a ripple effect on which party controls Congress after the November midterm elections.
Virginia Republicans are quietly worried — and Democrats openly hopeful — that the fallout could reach to a handful of competitive House districts.
Corey Stewart will top the Republican ticket this fall with his unapologetically aggressive approach on everything from immigration to how he deals with opponents.
He's mocked fellow Republicans' looks and sex drives and said he would let the state's Confederate monuments come down only "over my dead body." He likes to boast that he was "Trump before Trump was Trump."
It was enough for a narrow win Tuesday in the Republican primary, and a congratulatory tweet from President Donald Trump. But Stewart, long shunned by the GOP establishment in Virginia, begins the general election campaign as a decided underdog against Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrats' 2016 vice presidential nominee who's running for his second Senate term.
Democrats sought immediately to capitalize, with the state party in Virginia publicly asking House Republicans candidates if they think Stewart is a racist and whether they will campaign with him.
GOP Rep. Scott Taylor, who represents a potential swing district in Hampton Roads, responded quickly. "Let's see you jokers bring your weak identity politics campaign trying to make it about race," Taylor wrote on Twitter. "Not gonna happen."
Stewart sent out his own tweet, in which he declared, "Starting right now, we're going to kick the CRAP out of @timkaine every day until November 6th."
The dynamics are uncomfortable enough that national Republicans have been mum about how much support — if any — they'll extend to Stewart. "We have a big map ... and I don't see Virginia in it," Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of Senate Republicans' national campaign operation, told CNN.
Republicans are also urging GOP House candidates to make sure they aren't closely identified with Stewart.
"There's going to have to be in some districts some people making some distinctions between their positions and Corey Stewart's," Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Republican congressman from Virginia's conservative southwest, said Wednesday on the John Fredericks' Radio Show. "As you well know, he's got some stylistic issues that may come up."
Griffith isn't among national Democrats' targets, but that list does include four of his GOP colleagues around Virginia. One of them — Barbara Comstock — represents the swing suburbs and exurbs of Washington, D.C., in a district that opted for Hillary Clinton by 10 percentage points over Trump two years ago. Trump won the other three districts, including Taylor's, but by close enough margins that leave many political observers saying they're in play this November.
Democrats need to pick up at least 23 new seats nationally to regain control of the House, and, while Comstock has long been considered among the most vulnerable, losing any GOP districts beyond increasingly Democratic northern Virginia would be a blow to Republicans nationally.
Some Republicans in Washington are putting on a good face.
"Our candidates are compelling enough that their supporters will turn out to elect and re-elect them to Congress," said Jesse Hunt, spokesman at the House GOP's national campaign office.
The president himself was enthusiastic about his former state campaign chairman: "Don't underestimate Corey, a major chance of winning!" Trump tweeted.
But Trump alone can't carry Republicans in Virginia, a perennial battleground state where growing urban and suburban populations that tend to be more liberal have made it difficult for Republicans to compete statewide.
Trump lost by more than 5 percentage points among an electorate that hasn't tapped a Republican for statewide office since 2009, most recently handing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam a nine-point win last fall over Ed Gillespie, an establishment Republican who had barely defeated Stewart in a primary.
The question is how the demographic shifts and Stewart's atypical profile play in districts that still lean to the GOP, but not as overwhelmingly as they once did.
And while the importance of the top of the ticket is debatable in politics, campaign veterans of all stripes agree that coordination and enthusiasm across multiple campaigns in a given state helps maximize voter turnout.
Republicans and Democrats agree that Kaine will be able to project momentum while raising money to finance field offices that will benefit other Democrats.
If Stewart's nomination threatens that kind of cohesiveness in Virginia, it would at least put increased pressure on the Republican National Committee's field operation in Virginia, in place since the 2016 presidential campaign, and the paid staffers of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC affiliated with Speaker Paul Ryan.
That could leave Taylor, Comstock and other Republican candidates to fend for themselves.
Barrow reported from Atlanta.
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