FISHERSVILLE — As Corey Stewart strolled through the Showmasters Gun Show at Augusta Expo on Saturday, it was clear most people didn’t recognize the Republican going up against U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in the fall election.
“Must be some politician,” one vendor was overhead saying after he saw a reporter snapping photos of Stewart chatting with two men at the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party Patriots’ booth.
A moment later, though, a man next to the vendor piped up and said, “Wait a second. I think that’s Corey Stewart.”
“Really?” the vendor said, suddenly interested in the 50-year-old candidate, who admittedly looked a bit out of place in a houndstooth blazer, white dress shirt and neatly pressed jeans.
Soon, both men had sidled up to the GOP nominee for Senate, anxious to talk to Stewart and get their picture taken with him.
While many Virginians still might not recognize Stewart right away, name recognition is no longer much of a challenge for the longtime chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.
His unexpected victory in the Republican primary for Senate earlier this year certainly helped, as did his near-upset of Ed Gillespie in last year’s gubernatorial primary.
But Stewart is perhaps best known for his fiery — and controversial — comments on everything from race and the Confederate monuments, to immigrants and his many critics.
Many Republicans see Stewart as an embarrassment to the party, an attention-seeking publicity hound who shoots from the hip with disparaging statements that accomplish little and do nothing to advance civil political discourse. What’s more, his critics point out, Stewart is hardly the man of the South he often makes himself out to be. They note that Stewart was actually born and raised in Minnesota. That fact made him the target of ridicule last year when he said that “n othing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter.”
But supporters say it’s those Republicans — not Stewart — who are the real embarrassment, the candidate and his supporters say. Mainstream politicians, regardless of party, have conned the American people, promised them the world and given them nothing in return, he says. All the while, Stewart adds, they sit up in Washington “living high on the hog.”
That independent streak — along with his politically charged rhetoric — has won him legions of dedicated supporters, especially among young and middle-aged white men who feel their voice has been lost amid the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter and the changing demographics of a nation where Latinos make up an increasing percentage of the population.
Stewart says he’s for all Virginians and doesn’t think his views contradict that. But he won’t apologize for his most controversial statements or his admittedly brusque style that eschews political correctness.
“People won’t admit it, but the fact is, they find it refreshing when someone speaks their mind,” he said in an interview with The News Virginian at the gun show on Saturday. “They’re tired of politicians parsing every word and trying so hard not to offend anyone.”
But isn’t it possible to take his supercharged rhetoric too far?
“Well maybe, but we’re nowhere even close to that yet,” he said. “Look, this is why people responded to President Trump. He spoke his mind. People like it when someone tells it like it is.”
It’s no secret that Stewart has all but styled his campaigns for governor, and now Senate, after the current commander in chief’s upstart campaign of 2016. Trump has been a kind of hero of Stewart’s and while the White House has at times tried to hold Stewart at arm’s length, he has the president’s support in the race for Senate.
Stewart’s critics inside and outside the Republican Party say he has little chance against Kaine, the incumbent Democrat who has racked up a massive war chest and has double-digit leads in most major polls.
But Stewart claimed on Saturday that a recent poll by Cygnal-Poolhouse of likely voters — not simply registered voters — has the race much closer. Cygnal is an independent polling agency with a "B" grade from fivethirtyeight.com. Poolhouse is an ad agency that appears to work primarily for Republican candidates, a point Democratic strategists say calls the poll's legitimacy into question. The wording of the poll questions could not be independently confirmed.
Stewart, though, says the poll was properly conducted with no "push-polling," or leading questions, involved.
“I think people are going to be surprised,” he said of the race's outcome, noting how the 2016 presidential race was shaping up to be a runaway for Democrat Hillary Clinton until election night. “This is a race I intend to win.”
As Stewart makes his way back into the exposition hall following the interview, he chats with visitors to the gun show and takes photos with supporters, many of whom may not have recognized him earlier — but are eager to show their support to the man they hope will be a U.S. senator this time next year.