"There is no Republican Party," said former House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, at a recent policy conference in Michigan. "There's a Trump Party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere."
On Tuesday, Virginians will find out how accurate Boehner's statement is here. The GOP Senate primary has boiled down to a contest between Nick Freitas, a hardcore conservative and former Army Ranger, and Corey Stewart, a braggadocious blowhard so intemperate the Trump campaign fired him. (A third candidate, E.W. Jackson, also is running.)
Freitas served two tours in Iraq with one of the most elite fighting units the world has ever seen. On issue after issue, he takes a resoundingly conservative position. In early March, he infuriated Democrats when he gave a speech (since viewed more than 11 million times) objecting to their linking gun rights with Nazism and racial segregation. If Democrats really want an "open and honest debate" about guns, he said, then they should "start with a certain degree of mutual respect."
Respect is something of a Freitas theme. Last week, he tore into Stewart for his "dog-whistling of White supremacists, anti-Semites, and racists." He denounced Stewart for cozying up to figures such as Jason Kessler, organizer of the Unite the Right rally that turned into a deadly riot in Charlottesville last August. "It is well past time we defeat the hate mongers," Freitas wrote.
Stewart recently told John McCormack of The Weekly Standard, "I didn't know who [Kessler] was when I met with him. And I only met with him twice. At that point I realized, this guy is bad news." Stewart undersells himself there.
As the Charlottesville Daily Progress reported last February, Stewart stood by Kessler's side at an event, restricted "to only [Kessler's] supporters and local news reporters," in which Kessler, "whom many label a 'white nationalist,' held a news conference" about his efforts to have a black city councilman kicked out of office for offensive tweets.
Afterward, Kessler "marched to the courthouse with about 20 supporters, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart." That's not exactly bumping into the guy at a cocktail reception. Stewart has since said he regrets attending the event.
But he recently also had to disavow another open bigot, Paul Nehlen, whom he once called his personal hero. "That was before he went nuts and started spewing a bunch of stupid stuff," Stewart says now.
Yet when The Weekly Standard's McCormack asked the Stewart campaign about Nehlen, it would say only this: "Sadly it's unsurprising to see the establishment Republicans continue to play the race card against President Trump's most vocal supporters."
After Freitas' broadside last week, the campaign said Freitas was using the "leftist tactics of silencing conservative speech using claims of bigotry." If you can follow the bouncing ball, it appears that Stewart is (a) against bigotry, and (b) against other Republicans being against bigotry.
Freitas has taken Stewart to task before. After some Stewart supporters made fun of Freitas' name ("Sounds more like a item from Taco Bells dollar menu then a Senate candidate," said one), Freitas confronted Stewart about it during a debate: "My daughter came over to me one day and asked, 'Daddy, what is wrong with our last name?'" Stewart responded by suggesting Freitas was too thin-skinned, and later referred to him as "Cryin' Nick." Haw, haw.
Questioning other people's manhood is part of Stewart's shtick. During the recent General Assembly session, he showed up at the state Capitol with a roll of toilet paper. Republicans who supported Medicaid expansion were "flaccid" and guilty of "cowardice," he said: "These are toilet paper Republicans. Just as soft, just as weak, just as pathetic, just as flimsy. Put a little bit of pressure on them and they crumble." Was the use of "flaccid" a sexual reference? "I'm suggesting I feel sorry for their wives," Stewart said.
This is the empty bombast of the circus wrestler — the equivalent of the hollow patriotism of Donald Trump, who holds pro-America rallies but can't remember the words to "God Bless America," who "loves" the Constitution so much he wants to protect its nonexistent Article XII, who cannot abide the smallest slight against the military, but who took five draft deferments to avoid joining it.
"I was Trump before Trump was Trump," Stewart says of that walking blooper reel. Indeed. On Tuesday we will find out whether John Boehner was right — or whether there is any hope left that the Republican Party can be redeemed.