The Republican primaries in Virginia have become a haven for schoolyard bully tactics as candidates unleash personal attacks on each other in ways and to a degree seldom seen in American politics.
One candidate blazing that trail is Senate hopeful and President Donald Trump’s former state campaign chairman Corey Stewart.
Politics has always been a “blood sport,” Stewart told The Associated Press.
But Trump's 2016 victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton after a vicious campaign in which he called her a “nasty woman” was enough to show Stewart that voters respect candidates who go full throttle at their opponents and don't only deploy surrogates to go on the attack.
“People know that you’re going to attack your opponent,” Stewart said. “My feeling is you should just own it.”
Stewart’s supporters made the daughter of one of his primary opponents, state Del. Nick Freitas, cry after they posted racist attacks about Freitas’ last name.
“Freitas” belongs “on the dollar menu at Taco Bell,” one Stewart supporter posted online.
Stewart did not sympathize with Freitas when the state delegate became emotional at a debate in April recalling his daughter’s tears. In fact, Freitas’ consternation at the episode, Stewart said, proved he was unprepared to take on Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine in the general election.
“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,” Stewart said.
Candidates on the House side have unleashed similarly campaign savagery.
Conservative online publications sympathetic to vulnerable GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock roasted her lone primary challenger, financial planner Shak Hill, after someone else posted stories about penis enlargement and other sexual topics on a blog Hill runs for his book publishing site that provides wealth management advice.
Hill has removed the posts.
Some of the attacks are so obscure they border on petty.
Cynthia Dunbar, a Republican National Committee member running to replace retiring GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte in Virginia’s 6th District, has had to push back recently on claims she does not like Thomas Jefferson, the American founding father and a towering historical figure in the state, especially among Republicans.
“The attacks have become so repeated, so constant, so malicious,” Dunbar told the AP. “I would like to think that the Republican Party is above that, but clearly we are not.”
Allegheny College in Pennsylvania tracks the public’s response to how candidates and politicians treat each other and concluded that in 2016, voters were more tolerant of personal attacks than they had been before.
Candidates may see an immediate advantage in using personal attacks, the college’s president, James Mullen, told the AP.
But “there are consequences for our democracy if we go down the pathway of incivility as a preferred strategy. ... The norms are breaking apart,” he said.
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