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Virginia GOPers worry Senate nominee Corey Stewart could drag down House members

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

The morning after Corey Stewart’s victory in the Republican U.S. Senate primary in Virginia, former party officials assessed how the candidate might affect House races in November. They didn’t like what they saw.

Republicans hold seven of the commonwealth’s 11 seats.  Stewart’s win is believed to endanger at least three of them – Barbara Comstock in northern Virginia, Dave Brat in and around Richmond and Denver Riggleman in a large district in southwest Virginia that includes Charlottesville. Two others who might be affected are Rob Wittman, who represents Fredericksburg down through the Northern Neck, and Scott Taylor from Virginia Beach.

Senatorial hopeful Corey Stewart at a news conference at the Virginia Capitol in February. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Stewart, who was congratulated on his victory by President Trump, is considered toxic among swing voters and certain to energize Democrats. He made a defense of the Confederate flag a centerpiece of his 2017 campaign for governor, and his victory in the Senate primary was cheered by groups like the Virginia Flaggers, a group that pays to erect massive Confederate flags close to major highways in the commonwealth.

“HUGE Victory tonight for Corey Stewart and Virginia’s heritage and culture. The citizens of the Commonwealth sent a strong message … leave our monuments and memorials alone!” the group said on its Facebook page.

Comstock’s seat in the 10th District has long been considered a prime target for Democrats. A field of six quality candidates competed in the Democratic primary, with state Sen. Jennifer Wexton prevailing in part thanks to her name ID advantage. And 54,000 Democrats voted in the Democratic primary, compared with 46,000 in a two-candidate Republican primary, which Comstock easily won.

But Shaun Kenney, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, was more alarmed about Brat’s seat in the Seventh District, which he won in a huge primary upset four years ago over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

“Dave Brat is done by the numbers. By math, he’s done,” Kenney told Yahoo News.

John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said of Kenney’s prediction: “That is an absurdity and it’s just totally false.”

Brat will face Democratic nominee Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer who served eight years in counterterrorism and is running on a theme of unifying Americans during a time of discord. “The enemy isn’t a political party. It’s the forces trying to turn us against one another,” Spanberger said in a campaign ad.

Kenney pointed to Spanberger’s vote total of 33,199 and compared it with Brat’s total in the 2014 Republican primary, when he defeated Cantor. Brat received 36,105 votes in that election.

“There should not be that much Democratic support for that candidate, and Spanberger blew it out of the water,” Kenney said.

A spokeswoman for Brat’s campaign has not responded to a request for comment.

Kenney said he believes that many Republicans will stay home this year because of Stewart.

“No one is getting off the couch for a white nationalist,” Kenney said of Stewart.

Kenney’s sentiments were echoed by Virginia’s former Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who served from 2006 to 2014.

“I am extremely disappointed that a candidate like Corey Stewart could win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. This is clearly not the Republican Party I once knew, loved and proudly served. Every time I think things can’t get worse they do, and there is no end in sight,” Bolling wrote on Twitter.

Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., arrives for the House Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill on June 6. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Stewart received fewer votes in Tuesday night’s primary, 136,544 in all, than he did in the Republican primary for governor last year, which he lost to Ed Gillespie. Stewart gained 155,466 votes in that contest.

Democrat Tim Kaine’s lead over Stewart in early polling has ranged from 11 points to 24 points. And Stewart’s playbook so far has been to chase publicity by campaigning in an inflammatory way. He did that immediately on Tuesday night after winning the primary by joking that Kaine should be jailed alongside former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Kaine was Clinton’s running mate in 2016.

Comstock, Kenney said, has managed to distance herself from Trump effectively. But if a series of Stewart stunts come to dominate Virginia politics for the next five months, it will be difficult for Comstock to separate herself from that, he said.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Tuesday night on Twitter that “if the race goes as expected — IF — and Kaine wins handily, the undertow for the GOP could produce 2 or 3 gains for Ds in House seats.

“That’s a real one-state contribution to the +23 seats (net) Dems need nationally,” he said.

Editors’ note: An earlier version of this story did not make clear that the officials being quoted were former party officials.

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