Senate Republican Debate

E.W. Jackson (from left), Del. Nick Freitas and Corey Stewart, shown debating recently at Liberty University, are competing for the opportunity to challenge U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in the fall election.

LYNCHBURG — GOP U.S. Senate candidate Nick Freitas in a debate on Thursday called out rival Corey Stewart’s campaign for making ethnic jokes about his name. Stewart responded that if a little name-calling got under Freitas’ skin, he would be thrashed by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine should he be the GOP nominee in the general election.

The scrap came toward the end of a lively debate at Liberty University featuring Stewart, Freitas and minister E.W. Jackson of Chesapeake, who are competing in the June 12 primary. The candidates discussed foreign policy, defended President Donald Trump and the tax cut he signed last year, and called for an end to the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, had a touch of home court advantage. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the Christian school, endorsed him in December, saying Trump needed “a fighter like Corey in the U.S. Senate.”

Stewart announced his candidacy in July, about a month after nearly toppling Ed Gillespie in the GOP primary for governor in 2017. Freitas, a state lawmaker from Culpeper, announced in December at the Republican Party’s annual retreat, and Jackson — the party’s unsuccessful nominee for lieutenant governor in 2013 — also announced in December.

The feud over Freitas’ name came after a question on immigration, a topic where all candidates are seeking to stake out a conservative stance to appeal to the GOP base.

“Some people will tell you anything you want to hear, like my friend Nick here,” Stewart said.

House of Delegates member Freitas, who recently told a group he was speaking to that he is Latino, launched his offensive.

“My daughter came over to me one day and asked, ‘Daddy, what is wrong with our last name?’ And it’s because two of [Stewart’s] field directors were putting out memes that were saying things like ‘Freitas sounds like something more on the dollar menu at Taco Bell than it does a U.S. Senate candidate.’

“I fought for my country. I am every bit as much a citizen as you are, Corey Stewart, and I don’t appreciate it when my kids have to ask me that question in this country.”

Stewart responded: “I pledged to run a vicious and ruthless race against Tim Kaine in November. You know why? Because he’s going to run one against us. And if all it takes is to make a little bit of fun of your name by some supporters out there of mine, if that’s all it takes to get under your skin, you’ve got some major problems if you were ever to get this nomination. I don’t think you’re gonna do it, but if you did, he’s going to eat you up, spit you out.”

Jackson, who is black, then cracked a joke followed by a serious point that the party needed to operate on principle, not race.

“Folks, if we’re already arguing about ethnicity — already — I’m glad I’m not involved in that,” Jackson said.

“How in the world are we going to reach black and Hispanic voters who we’re going to need on November 6 in order to win?”

Stewart and Freitas shook hands with Jackson on stage after the debate but did not shake hands with each other.

In a Facebook group called Virginia Liberty Caucus, Freitas’ wife, Tina Freitas, posted screen shots of what appear to be several posts from activists tied to the Stewart campaign making taco-themed jokes about the Freitas family’s last name, which is Portuguese.

“Freitas…… Sounds more like a item from Taco Bells dollar menu then a Senate candidate….#BBQFreitas,” read one post that appeared to come from the Facebook account of William Totten, a conservative activist from Smyth County whose page lists the Stewart campaign as his employer.

Tina Freitas posted a second image of an apparent Totten post that claims questions had been raised about whether Nick Freitas is a legal citizen.

The Stewart campaign did not dispute the authenticity of the comments.

Freitas spokeswoman Laura Meyers said in an email Thursday night: “Nick is an American. He is of multi-ethnic heritage, and he is of Portuguese descent.”

Earlier in the debate, Freitas said he wanted Congress to authorize military strikes by the president like the recent one in Syria, and the candidates called for an end to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race.

“This thing needs to be put to bed,” Stewart said. Jackson said: “They’re not trying to undermine the president. They’re trying to overthrow the president.”

Freitas said Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey are “really causing Americans to question the integrity of our justice system.”

A report by U.S. intelligence agencies released in January 2017 found that Russia engaged in a campaign to undermine Americans’ faith in the democratic process and help elect Trump.

Freitas downplayed the problem.

“Foreign governments have always tried to meddle in our elections,” he said. Jackson said “we ought to take that seriously” and said he trusts Trump to do it. When asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Stewart said, “I think it’s a bunch of bollocks.”

Freitas and Stewart disagreed on the best way the federal government should potentially regulate Facebook, with Freitas opposing government regulation.

pwilson@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6061 Twitter: @patrickmwilson

Staff writer Graham Moomaw contributed to this story.

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