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Stewart wins GOP nod for US Senate; Democrat Wexton will take on Comstock

| Tuesday, June 12, 2018, 10:06 p.m.
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2018 file photo, Virginia GOP senatorial hopeful, Corey Stewart, gestures during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Stewart, a conservative provocateur and supporter of President Donald Trump won Virginia's Republican primary Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in the U.S. Senate race, and he has promised to run a 'vicious' campaign against incumbent Tim Kaine. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2018 file photo, Virginia GOP senatorial hopeful, Corey Stewart, gestures during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Stewart, a conservative provocateur and supporter of President Donald Trump won Virginia's Republican primary Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in the U.S. Senate race, and he has promised to run a 'vicious' campaign against incumbent Tim Kaine. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
FILE - In this April 2, 2018 file photo, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., gestures during a campaign kickoff rally in Richmond, Va. Kaine will defens his seat against Corey Stewart in the fall election.(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
FILE - In this April 2, 2018 file photo, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., gestures during a campaign kickoff rally in Richmond, Va. Kaine will defens his seat against Corey Stewart in the fall election.(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Virginia Republicans turned bright red Tuesday, selecting the more-Trump-than-Trump Corey Stewart as their nominee to challenge Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine for U.S. Senate as primary elections played out in congressional districts across the state.

The matchup ensures Virginia will keep relitigating the 2016 presidential race in this fall's election, with Stewart running in outrageous Trump-like fashion against Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton's running mate in her doomed bid for the presidency.

Republican voters preferred Stewart, who has promised a "vicious" campaign, over a more mainstream option in Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, a former Green Beret who had support from the party establishment.

Freitas posted a surprisingly strong challenge, with the lead tipping back and forth until the final precincts reported at nearly 9 p.m. and populous Fairfax County put Stewart over the top. Stewart prevailed with about 45 percent of the vote to about 43 percent for Freitas.

Stewart's presence atop the ticket will cast a shadow over all Virginia congressional races this year. He's sure to excite the most fervant parts of the Republican base, especially in rural areas, but his identification with Donald Trump also is likely to inspire Democratic voters to come out against him.

At Stewart's election night party at The Electric Palm Restaurant, overlooking the Occoquan River in Woodbridge, supporters erupted in cheers when he was projected the winner.

The crowd chanted "Corey, Corey! as the loudspeaker blared "Sweet Home Alabama".

"It's definitely a positive for Virginia," said Jan Hall, who drove to the party from Midlothian. "I've been a supporter of Trump all along and Corey is on his side. I'm so glad Virginia is staying red."

In one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton beat out a field of five other Democrats in the 10th District to take on U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican incumbent seen as vulnerable in the Democratic quest to take back control of the House of Representatives.

Democrats also appeared to choose Elaine Luria to take on Rep. Scott Taylor in the 2nd District in Hampton Roads and Abigail A. Spanberger to challenge Rep. Dave Brat in the 7th District outside Richmond. In a year when women candidates are running in record numbers, that means Democrats will run three women to challenge vulnerable Republican incumbents in Virginia.

"I just feel like rallying that blue wave, getting as much grassroots base type support" as possible, said Democratic voter Jeanine Callahan, 59, from Oakhill. Trump's victory spurred her to get involved in politics, she said. "I think we need to match the sentiment that he was able to rally."

Any Republican faces an uphill climb statewide in Virginia, the only Southern state that didn't go for Trump two years ago. Kaine is a popular former governor with strong support in the suburbs and among African-American voters.

Voter turnout Tuesday was generally low despite most of the state enjoying mild spring weather. Some in the Washington region may have been distracted by the Capitals' mid-day Stanley Cup parade, but it didn't stop Democrats from showing up at the polls in greater number than Republicans in many locations.

Early absentee-voting numbers suggested the Republican Senate primary attracted less enthusiasm than last year's primary for governor. The number of voters who have already cast absentee ballots was down about 10 percent compared with the same point in 2017, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project.

Virginia is seen as a key to Democratic hopes for reclaiming a majority in the U.S. House this year, along with a handful of other states such as California and Pennsylvania.

"I feel stronger now than I have in a long time, in terms of trying to counter what this administration has done," said Paul Bouey, a 64-year-old public health adviser from McLean who voted in the Democratic primary.

Democrats made big gains in Virginia elections last year, wiping out a two-to-one Republican advantage in the House of Delegates. Those gains led the closely divided Virginia legislature to finally vote to expand Medicaid this year under the Affordable Care Act, something the Republican majorities in the General Assembly had resisted for four straight years.

One issue that resisted cross-party compromise, though, was guns - and that topic seemed high on the minds of voters at polling places around the state Tuesday.

"We need to make common sense ⅛gun control⅜ legislation," said Deborah Mangano, 55, a voter in Prince William. "We need to get people in who believe the same way and aren't backed by the N.R.A."

Perhaps the only topic that seemed more polarizing among voters interviewed Tuesday was Trump, who has low overall approval in Virginia but inspires fierce loyalty among a subset of state Republicans.

Virginia Republicans have struggled with the Trump factor, which was blamed last year for GOP nominee Ed Gillespie's 9-point loss in the governor's race. Republican turnout was low - so low that Gillespie nearly lost the nomination to Stewart, who rallied the pro-Trump base.

Other big-name Republicans stayed out of this year's U.S. Senate race, and party leaders fretted over the likelihood that Stewart would get the nomination. But Republicans haven't won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, and after last year's drubbing, there was little appetite to take on Kaine in the current environment.

Kaine is heavily favored to win and has more than $10.5 million cash on hand. None of the three Republicans chasing the nomination cracked $1 million; Stewart raised the most, with about $841,000. While Stewart most closely resembles Trump in his bombastic style, all three GOP candidates supported the president.

Freitas, a second-term lawmaker and former Green Beret, is far less well known but drew national attention earlier this year for a fiery speech that linked school shootings to the "abortion industry."

The speech motivated voter Greg Barnekoff, 33,to vote for Freitas in Prince William County. "A friend on Facebook posted the video again, and I was like: 'Oh, that's right. I want to vote for that guy,'" Barnekoff said.

Freitas got endorsements from the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, the NRA, Mitch McDonnell, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and his father, former congressman Ron Paul; and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. America's Liberty PAC, a Rand Paul aligned PAC, spent $225,000 on a TV buy for Freitas last week.

Tuesday night, after the race was called, Freitas appeared before supporters at McMahon's Pub in Warrenton. He said the race was not about him but about the future of "liberty-minded" candidates. He urged the crowd to support Republicans in the fall and named other candidates but did not mention Stewart.

The third Republican candidate, E. W. Jackson, is a Harvard law school graduate and minister from Chesapeake who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2012 and then ran a failing bid as the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2013.

This race is the third - and most successful - statewide bid for Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. In addition to challenging Ed Gillespie for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last year, he also sought the lieutenant governor nomination in 2013.

Stewart gained a statewide following after his strong showing in last year's governor's race, but also attracted notoriety after associating with white supremacists.

"I liked his values keeping the United States the way it should be, keeping it strong, being a supporter of Trump," said Vonda Brown, a retired electrical engineer from Oakhill.

Brown said she appreciates Stewart's outlook on illegal immigration: "You have to stop the flow," she said.

Christen MacMillan, a 49-year-old Ashburn resident, voted for Stewart because she likes his "no nonsense" attitude, which she said reminds her of Trump and is a departure from typical politics.

But for others, that Trump-like approach is reason enough to vote against any Republican.

Some voters expressed disgust with Stewart's Trumpian antics, which in the past year included celebration of Confederate flags and statues, campaign stops at firing ranges, and holding up a roll of toilet paper outside the state Capitol to rail against what he called "flaccid" Republicans who voted to expand Medicaid.

Tom Stiehm, 48, a Prince William County voter, cast a ballot for E.W. Jackson as a protest. Jackson "wasn't the other two, particularly Corey Stewart," he said. "He's a horrible human being."

Others said the behavior of Trump and Stewart was why they wouldn't vote for any Republican.

"I want them all out," said Cheryl Washington, 63, a technology contractor in Fox Mill.

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