WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Corey Stewart stands at the end of a long driveway that leads back in time, to his 18th century plantation manor hidden in woods behind a modern housing development.
Stewart, the Republican Senate nominee from Virginia, treats the brick home like a living museum, complete with buttons from Redcoats, a Civil War soldier’s belt buckle and a room dedicated to George and Martha Washington, who were once visitors.
Both Stewart and his opponent, Sen. Tim Kaine, were born in Minnesota, which makes it all the more unusual that Stewart has styled himself as a champion of the Confederacy and its statues, and, as he puts it, “taking back our heritage.”
This has made him a popular figure with white nationalists, much to the horror of many Virginia Republicans. While Stewart has disavowed some on the extreme right, interviews with dozens of his friends, colleagues, supporters and fellow Republicans yielded a portrait of a political opportunist eager to engage the coarsest racial fringes of his party to advance his Trumpian appeal.
Some white nationalists volunteer for Stewart’s campaign, and several of his aides and advisers have used racist or anti-Muslim language, or maintained links to outspoken racists like Jason Kessler, the organizer of last year’s violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stewart has not distanced himself from those aides.
For mainstream Republicans in Virginia and nationwide, a profound political dilemma of the Trump era is whether to support the growing number of candidates like Stewart who make racially divisive remarks — particularly about immigrants — and back causes that are championed by white nationalists. President Donald Trump’s own language and policies have energized Stewart and other far-right candidates, and Trump has high approval ratings from Republicans, but it is not clear how many rank-and-file voters will embrace like-minded politicians like Stewart.
Trump has enthusiastically endorsed Stewart — tweeting in June: “Don’t underestimate Corey, a major chance of winning!"— and the candidate is comfortable defending the president’s most controversial comments. Sitting in the living room of the historic brick home he bought in 2012, Stewart praised Trump’s statement that there were “very fine people on both sides” at the Unite the Right white nationalist protests in Charlottesville in August.
“I don’t think he said anything bad there,” Stewart, 50, said during a 90-minute interview last month. “In fact I was one of the few people in the country that actually said pretty much the same thing.”
He does not accept that slavery was at the heart of the Civil War.
“We can debate about the causes of the Civil War,” he said, adding, “But the causes of it were much more complex” than only slavery.
“The question of what actually caused the Civil War is secondary to the result of the Civil War, which is that after the war was over, slavery was ended and the North and the South reconciled. And I think we need to respect that.”
He contended that the term “white supremacist” was a concoction of the left.
“This term they literally resurrected, ‘white supremacist,’ which hadn’t been used in 100 years, or whatever it was,” he said, adding that “there’s clearly a coordinated effort to — because they know the term ‘racist’ has been overused — they’ve come up with another one which is ‘white supremacist,’ an equally ridiculous term.”
“I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” Stewart said during a recent appearance. “Not one. I challenge anybody to find a single racist statement that I’ve ever made.”
In an extraordinary sign of discomfort with Stewart, some Republicans have been eager behind the scenes to provide opposition research aimed at discrediting him, with disaffected party members circulating racially inflammatory tweets and Facebook postings authored by one of Stewart’s advisers.
Shaun Kenney, former state party executive director, lamented that “the alt-right has taken over the Virginia Republican Party.” After Stewart secured the nomination in June, John C. Whitbeck Jr., the party chairman who once accused Stewart of “racist” language, resigned.
But many Republican leaders have not publicly disavowed Stewart, mindful that Trump is supporting him, and that the president has strong influence with the party base — many of whom supported Stewart in the primary.
Virginia has not elected a Republican statewide since 2009 and voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. With its strong economy and elite public university system, Virginia has become a symbol of Southern moderation and tolerance, but the far right sees an ally in Stewart who will push back against the leftward drift and demographic changes underway in the state.
For his part, Stewart said he sees virtue in being provocative.
“I think you need to be edgy,” he said.
“Controversy is not necessarily a bad thing, because it does give you more media attention and that’s necessary, especially when your in a position like mine,” said Stewart, who is running well behind Kaine in the polls as well as fundraising. “I can’t self-finance my race. And I don’t have the support of the establishment. So I have to be my own guy.”
— ‘I Wanted More’
Even as a teenager growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, Stewart was known for his ambition.
“I had many kinds of debaters,” his high school debate coach, Jack Armstrong, said. “Corey was a street-smart debater,” he said, adding, “by the time he was a senior he was ranking with some of the best in the state.”
He came from a family of Democrats. His father was a longshoreman who could not vote because of a felony conviction, Stewart said, adding it was “probably manslaughter” stemming from a fatal car accident. The younger Stewart was the first in his family to graduate from college, initially attending St. Olaf College in Minnesota, then transferring to Georgetown University in Washington.
“I wanted more,” he said. “Nothing wrong with it, but I just wanted to see more.”
He eventually became an international trade lawyer and moved to Virginia, working at Foley & Lardner, a prominent firm. In 2006 he was elected chairman of the Prince William County Board, a county outside Washington that has become mostly minority in recent years.
In his politics, Stewart embraced expediency over ideology. He was initially anti-development, riding concerns about the pace of growth, then later allied with developers. Amid the county’s shifting demographics — its Hispanic population tripled rapidly — he picked up on immigration as a hot button. “I changed my focus to address what people were telling me their concerns were,” he said. “That’s how you get elected.”
Prince William County began questioning arrestees about their immigration status, then turning them over to federal agents.
Frank Principi, a Democrat on the board, said the county began to “detain people who did not look like us — different skin, different clothes, different language” and became known as Condado del Diablo, the devil’s county.
Many found the ease with which Stewart adopted hard-line views unsettling, starting with colleagues at work.
“Some of the partners at the firm didn’t like that very much,” Stewart said of his immigration stance, adding, “it became uncomfortable.”
He left in 2009 and began doing international trade work largely on his own. He also refashioned himself as a booster of the Confederacy, especially in his unsuccessful 2017 race for governor. He has appeared at the Old South Ball, an antebellum-dress event in Danville, Virginia, and likened his own political crusade to that of Confederate rebels.
“You’ve got this guy who is a transplant coming into Virginia trying to out-Southern folks who’ve been here for 400 years,” said Brian Schoeneman, a Fairfax Republican and former legislative candidate.
Stewart was aware of, but brushed aside, Robert E. Lee’s prophetic warning that Confederate monuments could “keep open the sores of war.”
“The monuments weren’t contentious until the left started taking them down,” Stewart said, adding that “thankfully those efforts seem to have subsided.”
He claimed that “the ones who were most vehement in terms of taking down the monuments were not African-Americans. They were white liberals.”
But Kevin Chandler, president of the state’s NAACP, called Stewart “treasonous” for his embrace of the Confederate flag.
“It symbolizes hate. It symbolizes white supremacy,” Chandler said. “And something such as that should not be displayed openly in the public.”
Over the years, Stewart became increasingly outspoken. He dismissed one Republican rival as a “cuckservative” and assailed David Hogg, the teen gun control activist, as “that punk” who has “been brainwashed.” He became an ardent defender of Alabama’s Roy Moore amid allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls. “I think they all disappeared since, didn’t they?” he said of Moore’s accusers. (They have not.)
At a board meeting this summer, one that Stewart did not attend, several speakers blamed him after Klan flyers landed on local lawns.
“This isn’t a coincidence that this happened in my neighborhood,” said Maggie Hansford, a local teacher who has decided to run for a board seat. “Our chairman can’t stop talking about the Confederate flag.”
Stewart later issued a statement condemning the Klan.
— The Company He Keeps
A “Corey Stewart for Senate” sign flanks the gravel driveway leading to George and Donna Randall’s southern Virginia home.
An avowed secessionist, George Randall is eager to explain himself, welcoming a visitor onto his porch.
“I’m a secessionist because the federal government is anti-Christian and we’re different culturally,” explained Randall, a retired heavy equipment operator whose forebears include Confederate veterans. “The government never surrendered, only the Army. We’re still under Reconstruction.”
Interviews with Randall and his twin brother Gregory helped explain Stewart’s appeal to his die-hard supporters.
“I liked Corey because he’s a Trump supporter,” said Gregory Randall, who plays Stonewall Jackson in Civil War re-enactments, in an interview at his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “He’s for low taxes, he’s a big second amendment rights guy, he’s against MS-13 and all these illegal people coming here that are committing crimes.”
George Randall and his wife Donna have helped organize “meet and greets” for Stewart. The 60-year-old brothers have been seen frequently with him and are known to provide volunteer security for Stewart at public events, a task they both confirmed, though Stewart denied it, saying “that was one of those crazy rumors.”
Both brothers took part in the Unite the Right rally and also belong to the League of the South, a Southern nationalist organization that honors John Wilkes Booth “for his service to the South” and seeks to secure “a future for white children.”
Gregory Randall was asked about anti-Semitic chanting that took place at the rally.
“The only thing that I think I heard somebody say was that ‘Jews will not replace us,'” said Randall. “Wow, is that killing somebody?”
“Come on, it’s a chant,” he added. “The left chants stupid stuff all the time.”
Such associations have dogged Stewart. He called a Wisconsin Congressional candidate, Paul Nehlen, “one of my personal heroes,” long after Nehlen suggested American Muslims should be deported. Anti-Semitic rants finally prompted Stewart to disavow Nehlen.
“There’s a guy that everybody supported before we all found out that he was a lunatic,” Stewart said. “And many people said very kind things about him, even President Trump and Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham.”
But there are other ties. Stewart’s press secretary also worked on Nehlen’s campaign. Through a political action committee, so has his media adviser, Rick Shaftan, who is himself known for racially disparaging postings on social media. In an email, Shaftan called questions about his past remarks on race “absurd.”
Stewart’s associations with Kessler, the Charlottesville rally organizer, and Kessler’s ties to a Stewart aide, Brian Landrum, have raised the most serious questions.
In February 2017, during his governor’s race, Stewart appeared at a news conference with Kessler to oppose the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a Robert E. Lee statue from a park.
By then, Kessler’s website included views associated with the alt-right, a racist, far-right movement. During the news conference, Stewart said he had “nothing to do with that,” but accompanied Kessler to deliver a court petition. Kessler also participated in a Charlottesville rally in support of the Lee statue sponsored by Stewart, and was alongside him at another event, where Stewart says Kessler “just happened to show up.”
Stewart backed away from Kessler before Unite the Right in August. But afterward, in a Facebook video, he questioned why left-wing protesters should not share equal blame.
One of Stewart’s paid county staff members — Landrum — has maintained ties with Kessler, according to court documents. Landrum recently took part in a Facebook chat with about 20 people, including violent racists, planning a second Unite the Right rally later this month.
Landrum, who also worked in Stewart’s campaigns, commented only once on the chat, on May 17, with smiley emojis and profanity.
In a July deposition in a dispute with the city over a proposed rally this month in Charlottesville, Kessler described Landrum as a friend. “Have you had discussions with him in the last couple months?” Kessler was asked. “Yes,” he answered.
Stewart declined to comment, referring questions to Landrum, who did not return messages seeking comment. An attempt to reach him at his Woodbridge, Virginia, apartment resulted in a police complaint that a reporter for The New York Times entered his dwelling unlawfully, an allegation The Times has denied.
Stewart brushed off questions about the company he keeps, and returned repeatedly in the interview to his love of his adopted state’s heritage, and his admiration for the president.
“All these attacks, on all this Kessler stuff and everything else like that, most people are just, they don’t believe it,” he said. “They are so used to the left calling Trump and other conservatives as racists and bigots.”
“I’m not going to back down from my controversial positions,” he added. “If I were to do that my base would be gone. And so my strategy is just, continue to speak the truth, even if it is controversial.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Danny Hakim and Stephanie Saul © 2018 The New York Times