If politics is a contact sport, GOP Senate candidate Nick Freitas has mostly played flag football when it comes to primary rival Corey Stewart.
With just 24 days to go until the June 12 primary, Freitas, a state lawmaker from Culpeper, hasn’t gone on TV and appears to have done little advertising. He sent a fundraising email to supporters on Wednesday asking for money.
“And absentee votes are already being cast, which is why it’s so urgent to ramp-up my TV Ad Blitz and radio ad campaign right away!” the email said.
John Fredericks, the conservative Virginia radio host and CNN contributor, expects low turnout in the Republican Senate primary and thinks Stewart, who retains a base of support from his 2017 run in the GOP primary for governor, is headed for the end zone untouched.
“Corey Stewart is an overwhelming favorite to be the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. The Nick Freitas campaign, although it’s interesting and he’s a great future candidate, has not really caught fire and there’s no reason not to vote for Corey Stewart if you want change in Washington,” Fredericks said.
“In order to take Corey down, you have to go negative on him. And [Freitas] is not prepared to do that, nor do they want the backlash. They don’t want to alienate his base.”
Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, and Freitas, a former Green Beret, are joined on the ballot by E.W. Jackson, a minister from Chesapeake.
The winner gets to run against Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a former governor and vice presidential candidate who is seeking a second term. All three Republicans have positioned themselves as conservative, pro-Trump candidates who support funding a new wall on the Mexican border, oppose gun control and would ban legal abortion.
Chris LaCivita, a veteran GOP political strategist who favors Freitas in the race, said he didn’t disagree with Fredericks’ analysis.
“The thing is there’s still three weeks left,” he said. “I think that it’s too soon — three weeks in politics is an eternity, number one, and it’s too soon to proclaim Corey Stewart the winner.”
He added: “There will be plenty of Republicans turning out to vote against Corey Stewart. The question is, how many are actually going to turn out and vote for Nick Freitas?”
As of March 31, the most recent date for which data are available, Freitas had $251,694 in cash on hand compared with $140,502 for Stewart and $35,495 for Jackson, according to their Federal Election Commission filings. Kaine is raising millions.
Jackson, the party’s 2013 candidate for lieutenant governor against Democratic winner Ralph Northam, has a base of evangelicals but little cash to get out a message.
Freitas is in his second term in the House of Delegates. He has the endorsement of the National Rifle Association in the Senate race. Earlier this year, in a floor speech opposing gun control, he stunned African-American Democrats, saying their party was responsible for slavery, segregation and Massive Resistance.
Stewart built a base last year, when he made protection of Confederate monuments and a call to stop illegal immigration top issues of his campaign for governor. GOP rival Ed Gillespie largely ignored Stewart in the primary and nearly lost to him.
Stewart, a lawyer who intentionally says controversial things that lead to attention in the press, has complained that GOP establishment leaders in Richmond and Washington want to derail his campaign.
In February, he stood outside the state Capitol holding a roll of toilet paper and attacked legislative Republicans who back Medicaid expansion as soft, flaccid and weak. “I’m suggesting I feel sorry for their wives,” he said.
Stewart announced his run for Senate about a month after losing the gubernatorial primary, essentially continuing a statewide campaign.
Fredericks worked with Stewart on the Donald Trump presidential campaign in Virginia in 2016. Stewart was fired from his role as campaign chairman over an unauthorized protest he conducted outside the Republican National Committee. Fredericks was critical of Stewart for the attention-seeking move. Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Virginia by 5.3 percentage points.
“The biggest problem with Nick Freitas is he has no natural base,” Fredericks said. Freitas has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., but Paul’s brand of libertarian politics isn’t popular in Virginia, Fredericks said. Plus, “Culpeper is not a base.”
A political action committee that supports Paul announced this month that it would fund a digital ad attacking Stewart and backing Freitas.
But at the end of March, America’s Liberty PAC had just $33,421 in the bank, according to its FEC filing. PAC founder and President John Tate has paid himself about $164,600 in salary from January 2017 to March 31, 2018, according to filings.
Tate is one of three former top staffers for the 2012 presidential campaign of Rand Paul’s father, Ron Paul, who were found guilty in federal court of arranging for money to be funneled through a vendor to an influential Iowa state senator who dropped his support for another Republican candidate in favor of Paul.
Tate said the PAC has raised well over $100,000 since the end of March, and the ad, already running on Facebook, “will definitely be up on TV with a six-figure buy.”
He said a final determination on which market has not yet been made.
No one responded to voicemails on Thursday and Friday with the Jackson campaign requesting comment on fundraising and advertising.
Freitas campaign spokeswoman Laura Meyers declined to say whether the campaign would have money for a TV ad. But she said the campaign believes Freitas’ strength comes from a statewide, grass-roots network and noted that he has dominated informal straw polls done by local GOP committees.
The Freitas campaign recently put high-quality B-roll of him on the Freitas YouTube channel, which generally indicates an open offering for a super PAC — which can’t legally coordinate with a campaign — to use the footage in ads on his behalf.
Stewart plans to spend “well into six figures statewide” on radio, TV and digital ads in the primary, according to campaign manager Matt Brown.
State Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, is one of the few Republicans in Virginia who has publicly challenged Stewart. Davis placed third last year in a three-way GOP primary for lieutenant governor. A day after Stewart’s toilet paper stunt, Davis gave a speech on the state House floor calling Stewart a “charlatan” and “fake politician.”
Davis said Stewart has higher name ID across the state than Freitas. But not all of Stewart’s identification is positive, he said.
“Corey’s name ID is definitely higher than Nick’s, as you’d expect from Corey’s gubernatorial run, but what is the positive-negative ratio?” asked Davis, who has not made an endorsement in the race.