Analysis: Corey Stewart’s Trump Gambit

Some readers have complained that the Muckraker hasn’t been appropriately critical of Prince William BOCS Chair, Corey Stewart. As you might expect, those complaints have reached a fever pitch in recent days, especially after Stewart’s firing yesterday by the Trump campaign. It’s a fair criticism, and in responding we’re going to take the opportunity to debut a new feature. While we will continue with our traditional coverage, we’re now adding periodic analytical articles on relevant local topics. Today we start the latter with what we have entitled, “Corey Stewart’s Trump Gambit.”


To begin, let’s address the complaint that we don’t appropriately criticize Chairman Stewart.

As we have said since our founding, the Muckraker is not primarily a policy blog. Instead, our main objective is to expose the hypocrisy, dishonesty and intimidation tactics that have come to dominate too much of Prince William County’s politics over the last decade. It’s for this reason that so much of our coverage has concerned the cabal that prominently involves Pete Candland, Mac Haddow, Jeanine Lawson, Reece Collins, Rich Anderson, and Ruth Anderson. Each of these individuals has substantively built their local political careers on assassinating the character of their opponents through the dissemination of misleading and often completely fabricated information.

Delegate Rich Anderson, as our readers know, set the modern standard for such tactics in Prince William County when he narrowly secured his first election victory by sending out mailers and running TV ads insinuating that his opponent, Delegate Paul Nichols, had been arrested for drunk driving. Nichols, it turns out, was not driving in the incident at issue. In fact, he was not even riding in the vehicle that was pulled over by police. Despite perpetrating this fraud on the voters, Rich Anderson never publicly apologized. He instead aligned himself with some of the county’s most vehement birthers and then proceeded to have his district gerrymandered so that his elected position would be unassailable.

New lows were then achieved in Prince William with the arrival on the scene of Pete Candland and Mac Haddow. Eventually teaming up with Reece Collins (tellingly Rich Anderson’s former campaign manager and later consultant to both Jeanine Lawson and Ruth Anderson), the Candland-Haddow cabal has consistently engaged in unbridled character assassination against opponents and potential opponents to Pete Candland and to those elected officials and candidates Candland and Haddow effectively control. Their tactics have not just included peddling birtherism-like conspiracy theories and spreading false and misleading information on the Candland-Haddow cabal house organ, the Sheriff of Nottingham blog. They’ve actually gone so far as to forge and disseminate fraudulent documents.

What does all this have to do with Corey Stewart? Well, if our focus is on hypocrisy, dishonesty and intimidation, we’re forced to acknowledge that when it comes to Prince William County, the pre-Trump Stewart for the most part has not employed such tactics. At the Muckraker, we disagree significantly on many issues with Chairman Stewart, but he simply does not model the behavior exemplified by the likes of Candland, Haddow, Lawson, Collins, and the Andersons.

There are those who would make a compelling argument that Stewart has indeed employed the intimidating, bullying characteristics of the Haddow-Candland cabal in the statements he has made over the years regarding Hispanic immigrants, the air-cover his statements provided to some racists during the 2007 illegal immigration debate, and his unfortunate comments of late in support of Donald Trump. But as a candidate, Stewart has not exhibited such traits when dealing with his political opponents.

He has stretched the truth at times, some would even say lied, about his opponents’ records (most point to the examples of the inaccurate information he disseminated at the last minute about his first primary opponent Mike May, and much later his general election opponent Sharon Pandak, concerning developer contributions), but he has never stooped to the levels of Candland, Lawson, or the Andersons. In fact, until as Trump Virginia campaign chair he issued some rather bizarre comments about Hillary Clinton’s and Ralph Northam’s responsibility for the deaths of police officers (comments disavowed by the Trump campaign), he has generally eschewed personal attacks, focusing almost exclusively, albeit aggressively, on issue differences with his opponents.

As for hypocrisy and dishonesty, one may dislike Stewart’s positions and even Stewart himself, but as politicians go he is about as open a book as you can get. He changes positions frequently (many would say opportunistically), acknowledges it, and owns it. Again, unlike Candland, Lawson, and the Andersons, he doesn’t profess piety and then engage in false, scorched-earth tactics to defame the character of his opponents. Nor does he employ twisted logic, intellectual contortions, and distracting personal attacks to try to fool voters into believing his changed positions are in fact not changes at all. Nor does he use avatars like Mac Haddow or Reece Collins to do his dirty work. Opportunistic? Yes. Hypocritical? Dishonest? No.

So how do we evaluate Stewart’s Trump gambit, particularly in light of his firing by the Trump campaign?

We believe Stewart thinks carefully about his political positions, and did so in deciding to join the Trump camp. Over the years Stewart has adroitly navigated Prince William County politics, skillfully choosing when to embrace and when to shed the no-tax constituency, the no-growth constituency, the anti-illegal immigration zealots, developers, and other groups. No politician in Prince William County over the last decade has more effectively read a local mood, created a local mood, or appropriated a national one for local political ends. At every critical juncture when Stewart has lost a constituency he has cultivated another constituency to take its place.

People, of course, have been highly critical of Stewart’s repeated, and what they often consider casual adoption and abandonment of these constituencies, but their ire is at least partly misplaced. It should more appropriately rest on those who are so easily and repeatedly bought and sold at such a small price. Indeed, we think there is likely nothing casual at all about Stewart’s policy gyrations. The simple truth is that Stewart has demonstrated that he knows a majority of Prince William voters perhaps better than they know themselves. He knows that he can offset supporting a tax increase or a development in the Rural Crescent by criticizing illegal immigrants in a youth facility, opposing a cell tower here and there, supporting a sports field or a swimming pool or house of worship for another group, or by opposing a power line over which he has no real control. “Fool me twice,” as the saying goes, “shame on me.”

Stewart’s skill at navigating Prince William County politics has been difficult to replicate at the state level, but despite his recent firing by the Trump campaign – in fact maybe even more so because of it – he may now be on the verge of successfully making the transition.

In his 2013 run for Lt. Governor Stewart was at a significant disadvantage, despite what he and others might have thought at the time. Republican state conventions with a crowded field are difficult to win (to the extent they are not dominated by some outside factor) without one or more particular skills or pre-existing conditions. Among these is substantial pre-existing name recognition, incredible oratorical skills, or the financial resources to buy votes. This last is not a joke. Conventions involve registration fees, busing or flying people to the convention site, securing rooms for supporters to meet, etc, etc. Stewart was not dominant in any of these categories, so he faced an uphill struggle, particularly with a divided Prince William County delegation (other Prince William County area officials were also running).

He also faced a hostile party convention leadership. Let’s not forget that it was convention leaders, according to Stewart supporters, who falsely announced that Stewart was throwing his support to Pete Snyder and refused to correct it when Stewart informed them of the error. This led an understandably angry Stewart to march around the convention site, his arms raised with E.W. Jackson, who thanks in part to Stewart’s support, then secured the Republican nomination for Lt. Governor. This in turn contributed to the Republican statewide ticket’s disastrous shutout in the 2013 election – a shutout, incidentally, that was anything but disastrous for Stewart. A substantial number of potential Stewart rivals for Governor were cleared out by the statewide loss (no one could have anticipated that Ed Gillespie would come close to unseating Mark Warner in 2014 and in doing so catapult himself to the top of gubernatorial pre-race favorites for 2017).

When Donald Trump entered the Republican Party’s presidential primaries, Stewart seems to have anticipated a chance to overcome the obstacles of a future convention, or the corresponding obstacles of a future primary. It’s impossible to know whether or not Stewart ever thought that Trump could actually win the presidency. But who knows? Maybe he was and is a true believer.

A much more likely explanation, however, is that Stewart examined the challenges he would face in a gubernatorial run and reached a number of important conclusions. Of course, a Trump win could help him immensely. But so too could a Trump loss.

Stewart won reelection as Chairman in 2015 while exhibiting a much softer demeanor on illegal immigration than he had in the past. It was a change in demeanor for which he was widely praised. Witnessing the visceral appeal that Trump generated early on by elevating the issue, however, Stewart quickly reverted to his old rhetoric after winning reelection in 2015, to the consternation of those who had inexplicably ignored their decade of experience with Stewart and his own consistently honest and open acknowledgement of his willingness to change his views opportunistically.

Stewart also probably concluded that he could have the Trump Virginia field largely to himself because other elected Virginia Republicans were almost certainly going to play it safe and line up behind more traditional, experienced Republican candidates for President. That’s exactly what happened.

Stewart may also have concluded that even if Trump lost, he would still reward Stewart’s loyalty with substantial funding for Stewart’s gubernatorial race. If Stewart ever believed that, we suspect he is now skeptical. There is nothing we have learned about Trump over the past year that inspires confidence that Trump would put his own financial resources into someone else after Trump himself has failed.

But money may not be as important as it once was for Stewart’s chances, for now Stewart may have positioned himself perfectly in the event of a Trump loss. Despite an unprecedented 1/3 of sitting Republican Senators withdrawing their support of Trump, despite senior Republican leaders and former Republican nominees and presidents saying they will not vote for Trump, despite the Trump campaign itself firing Stewart, Stewart is remaining loyal to Trump. While he might have miscalculated by protesting the RNC instead of targeting someone specific like Paul Ryan, he may also have known exactly what he was doing. According to at least one press report, Trump Virginia co-chair John Fredericks claimed Stewart was directed not to participate in the protest, and suggested that Stewart did it to further his own political ambitions. He may have accomplished just that. By remaining intensely loyal to Trump in the face of the RNC he is likely a hero to Trump supporters, but having been fired by the campaign he will now bear no substantive responsibility for a Trump loss in Virginia.

Virginia Republicans have chosen a primary as the means of nominating their statewide candidates in 2017. A primary removes the kind of convention shenanigans that Stewart supporters argued were used against him in 2013. It also opens the voting to a far larger Republican audience than does a convention, and it does so in a post-presidential year where the nominee of the party not in the White House has typically been successful in the general election (McAuliffe’s victory over Cuccinelli was, Republicans hope, an aberration).

This is particularly important for Stewart because he may have rightly divined that one of the most outlandish things Donald Trump has said may in fact be true, or at least true enough for Stewart’s needs. As almost everyone who pays attention to politics probably knows, Trump famously commented on his own popularity and the loyalty of his supporters by saying, to paraphrase, that he could stand in the middle of the street and shoot someone and not lose voters.

If recent events are an indication, that classic bit of Trump bombast may be true about a sufficient number of Trump supporters to carry Stewart to victory in a Republican gubernatorial primary. How?

There are currently three other traditional Republicans running for Governor: Ed Gillespie, the former chair of the RNC; Rob Whittman, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives; and Frank Wagner, a Virginia State Senator. If all three stay in the race to the end . . . sound familiar?

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the intensely local Corey Stewart (loyal enough to risk his own position with the Trump campaign in order to support Trump before the RNC – at least that would be the pitch to Trump supporters) wins all of the “would vote for Trump if he shot someone in the middle of the street” Virginia Republicans, while the other three candidates split the rest of the Republican vote.

Stewart’s steadfast loyalty to Trump must in part be a bet on that first group being large enough, cohesive enough, and bitter and angry enough months into a Hillary Clinton presidency (remember the emergence of the Tea Party just when President Obama was taking office) to vote for the loyal Stewart in 2017. If Trump’s poll numbers in Virginia continue to deteriorate, as early as the evening of November 8 Stewart may have a pretty good idea of just how big that group is.

Don’t count Corey Stewart out.

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7 comments on “Analysis: Corey Stewart’s Trump Gambit

  1. -

    Makes sense to me. I was wondering where was the content at?

  2. -

    Welcome back!

    I would like to suggest that your analysis is not that much of a departure. Our local politics gives you plenty of muck to rake even when the focus is on explanation rather than investigation.

    Mr. Stewart is a vivid example of that!

  3. -

    Excellent analysis, Mr. Raker.

  4. -

    This is good analysis. I also wonder a little bit if Corey Stewart wasn’t concerned about the alt-right movement taking over the Trump campaign. It is not an exaggeration to say that the alt-right movement is the modern American intellectual equivalent of the German brownshirts that previewed the rise of the Nazi movement. They’re anti-government, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic among other things. Steve Bannon, who is an architect of that movement, is by the admission of his own people a sinister, dark actor who thinks Fox News is way too liberal and when he was brought on to Trump’s campaign all informed Republicans shuddered. Bannon strokes Trump’s ego to get him to do just what Bannon wants. It’s a scary stir up the mob approach that had to make even Stewart nervous.

  5. -

    Muckraker,

    I agree with you that Corey Stewart has done everything that you say, but that isn’t why he wins elections in Prince William County. Your analysis plays into the false narrative he likes to spread that he wins because he visits people’s churches, etc. Corey Stewart wins election in Prince William County solely because he runs in the absolutely lowest turnout years when there are 30 races going on. The older, white conservative base always votes in these elections while the participation of most other groups drops dramatically. If local elections were held in a presidential year Corey Stewart would lose to any Democratic candidate on the ballot (and Republicans would lose the Occoquan and Potomac BOCS seats). That’s the basic truth of local electoral politics in Prince William County. That takes nothing away from Stewart’s skill, but that skill is what wins him the Republican nomination. Once he, or any Republican, wins that they win the general election. That’s why local Republicans will always oppose moving local elections to a higher-turnout year.

  6. -

    I don’t know if Stewart was concerned about it or not, but there is a strong anti-Semitic strain in the Bannon alt-right crowd now in control of Trump’s campaign. They believe that Jews control the financial system in the U.S. So far the campaign has masked this a bit by attacking immigrants and Muslims.

  7. -

    I have no problem with Corey Stewart. He has done great things for Prince William County and I support him. The economy changes and his opinions change with it. I don’t see that as a negative, I see that as forward thinking. I may not agree with everything he says but I respect his professionalism and dedication…he has to sit next to that screeching whining drama queen from Gainesville…he should get an award for that alone!

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