RICHMOND, Va. — The vicious tenor of the 2016 GOP presidential primary — which included attacks on a spouse's looks, demeaning nicknames and veiled talk of a candidate's ... ahem ... hand size — is being matched by Virginia's raucous congressional primaries.
A GOP House candidate said he's been the target of fake stories about his advocacy for penis enlargement techniques.
A Senate hopeful said his young daughter was brought to tears because of online taunts that their last name — Freitas — sounds like it belongs "on the dollar menu at Taco Bell."
And a different House candidate has publicly disputed claims that she does not like Thomas Jefferson.
"The attacks have become so repeated, so constant, so malicious," said Cynthia Dunbar, a member of the Republican National Committee running for a House seat. "I would like to think that the Republican Party is above that, but clearly we are not."
For the record, Dunbar said it's untrue that she dislikes Jefferson, who served as Virginia governor and founded the state's flagship university in addition to being the country's third president.
Bare-knuckle GOP primaries are taking place in several states across the country. In Indiana, a Senate hopeful released a children's book ridiculing an opponent. In West Virginia, a former federal convict and coal baron accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky of creating jobs for "China people" and charges that the senator's "China family" has given him millions of dollars. Both candidates lost in primary elections on May 8.
But only Virginia has already felt the full effects of a voter backlash against President Donald Trump. Republicans were swallowed by an anti-Trump wave in last year's election, losing the off-year gubernatorial contest and 15 seats in the state House.
Those losses, as well as tough prospects in this year's contests as the state tilts increasing Democratic, has unsettled state GOP politics.
GOP state legislators have been sniping at one another over whether to cave in to Democrats' demands to expand Medicaid, a stalemate that threatens a possible government shutdown.
Republican House candidate Shak Hill said he was unfairly attacked by a conservative media outlet friendly to his opponent, incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock, after a website he runs uploaded articles about penis enlargement without his knowledge. Comstock's Northern Virginia district is widely viewed as one of the most favorable to Democrats in the country.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte's decision to retire from his Shenandoah Valley-area congressional seat has led to a fierce battle among multiple candidates seeking the nomination. New accusations of voter intimidation, strong-arm tactics or campaign finance violations have been made on a semi-regular basis. That race will be decided at a convention on Saturday while other GOP primary contests will take place on June 12.
In the Senate race, much of the negative tone has been set by Corey Stewart, a one-time Trump state campaign chairman who has frequently attacked fellow Republicans and mocked their looks and virility.
At a recent candidate debate, state Del. Nick Freitas got emotional when he accused Stewart supporters of making racist attacks online that had made Freitas' daughter cry.
Stewart's response? He mocked Freitas for getting upset.
"If that's all it takes to get under your skin, you've got some major problems," he said.
Stewart said politics has always been a "blood sport," but Trump's success in 2016 showed that voters respond to candidates who don't pull punches or use surrogates to throw dirt.
"People know that you're going to attack your opponent, my feeling is, you should just own it," Stewart said.
Allegheny College President James H. Mullen Jr. said politicians might see some short-term gain in using in-your-face attacks, but at a high long-term price.
"There are consequences for our democracy if we go down the pathway of incivility as a preferred strategy," Mullen said.
The college tracks public attitudes toward civility in public life and found that voters in 2016 were more accepting of personal attacks in politics than they'd been in previous years.
"The norms are breaking apart," Mullen said.