ROANOKE, VA (Circa) - Virginia has gone Democratic. The last time Virginia elected a Republican senator was in 2002. Hillary Clinton won the state by almost 5 points in 2016. According to a Roanoke College poll, President Trump's approval rating in the state was just 36% in May. If you look at a map of the 2016 election results by county, Virginia get more Republican as you get closer to its borders with West Virginia and North Carolina.
In the 2018 midterms, Virginia's rural Republicans are left with a choice to make: stick with the establishment of the party, hoping that moderate policies and frustration with the Democratic party will swing enough independent voters... or align themselves closely with President Trump and hope to tap into the same undertones that shifted West Virginia.
"The Republican party is in the middle of a massive transition right now," said Corey Stewart, a Republican and the Trump campaign's Virginia state co-chairman before he was fired in October 2016 when he took part in a protests outside the Republican National Committee (RNC) headquarters.
The son of a life-long union democrat from Minnesota, Stewart said he never felt completely at home in the GOP until Trump. He thinks Trump's message is more accessible across party lines.
And at the moment, sticking close to Trump seems to be paying off for Stewart. A March poll conducted by Christopher Newport University showed Stewart in the lead the Republican primary, by 9 points, with 66% of voters still undecided.
This isn't Stewart's first time running for office in Virginia; in 2017, he ran in the Republican primary for governor, but lost to establishment favorite Ed Gillespie. A former White House staffer and chairman of the RNC, Gillespie lost the general election soundly to Democrat Ralph Northam.
"He was the quintessential moderate, the quintessential establishment candidate," said Stewart. "Gillespie's big, strategic error was running away from President Trump."
Gillespie notably shifted more toward Trump during his election, but Stewart explains that Trump's base of voters never really bought it, and therefore didn't turn out in droves to vote for Gillespie.
Stewart plans to do the complete opposite.
On his current campaign trail, Stewart shook hands and answered questions at a meet-and-greet in Roanoke, Va. - a city nearer the border with North Carolina than Washington, D.C. and its Democrat-heavy suburbs. One gentleman asked him about the second amendment, while a woman discussed a pipeline that was scheduled to be built through her town. Still others wanted to know where Stewart stood on religious freedom, or if he would push to get more funding for road construction and maintenance to rural Virginia.
Stewart answered each in turn, gaining enthusiastic claps and smiles from some and contemplatively supportive nods from others.
At closer look, though, this Roanoke meet-and-greet wasn't a traditional gathering of rural Republicans. Many wouldn't call themselves Republicans, at all.
Roanoke resident Brian is a self-professed conservative, who doesn't identify with the Grand Old Party, but often votes Republican. He brought his children to the meet-and-greet with Stewart to introduce them to the political process.
For Brian, Stewart - and Trump - are a welcome addition to the Republican landscape.
"I think Trump's shift was overall good," says Brian. "There was an establishment Republicanism that he has upset, which I think is a very good thing."
The establishment Republicanism, Brian says, is what he calls "country club Republicanism."
"Politics as a life support system for politicians," Brian explains, "instead of politics as a way to get people what they want from the government."
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Robert Burton is another voter who often votes for Republicans but wouldn't call himself one. He is a Trump enthusiast, and was greeted by name by Stewart when the candidate arrived on deck. He says there are now two distinct groups of Republicans.
"There's two sides," explained Robert. "There are the rhinos and then there are there's the people - the conservatives - who believe in freedom, liberty."
But establishment Republicans aren't the only ones who have left the "little guy" behind, according to some of Stewart's supporters - and Stewart himself.
"Working class Americans woke up," explained Stewart, and "they realized that the Democratic party kind of slammed the door in their face and turned their backs on them, and they found a great hero in President Trump. That's exactly what's going on right now."
Karen Scott, a Republican voter who came to ask Stewart his stance on a local pipeline project, agrees.
"The Democratic party is no longer paying any attention," Scott said, adding that environmental issues were really important to her - and aren't any longer to Democrats.
This frustration with the establishment - on BOTH sides of the aisle - is what Stewart is banking on to win his election.
"The Republican party has become the party of working, blue collar Americans," added Stewart.
Whether that will be enough in a state like Virginia that has been going blue remains to be seen. If Stewart wins his primary race, he'll face incumbent Senator Tim Kaine, also known as Hillary Clinton's running mate in the 2016 election. Kaine's approval rating, according to the same Christopher Newport University poll, is 53% and unseating an incumbent is hard.
If Stewart's strategy doesn't bring about a win, though, Brian from Roanoke doesn't think Republicans should give up.
"Trump, I think, is an adaptation to what was wrong with the establishment Republican party," Brian explained. "So we'll just have to see where things go, and if the Republican party will need another adjustment or if this one should continue."