Lincoln Project Adviser Stuart Stevens Defends Tiki Torch Stunt Amid Backlash

Lincoln Project adviser Stuart Stevens defended the group sending people dressed as protesters from the deadly 2017 Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally to Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin's campaign bus.

Dressed in white shirts, khaki pants, sunglasses, and baseball caps, five people withh tiki torches appeared at the bus Friday morning. Their outfits were a reference to those worn by the marchers at the 2017 event, where a woman was killed by a white nationalist who drove his car into a crowd. At the time of the rally, then-President Donald Trump infamously said there were "fine people" on both sides of the protest. His comments were criticized by many accusing him of downplaying the violent march.

During Stevens' appearance on CNN Friday night, host Chris Cuomo pressed the adviser on whether or not he supported the stunt, which has been widely condemned by both Republicans and Democrats.

Stevens defended it, saying it's necessary for Democrats to "play hardball" before questioning why Youngkin has not condemned Trump's remarks about the march.

"The question here is not about some guys who showed up at a rally," Stevens said. "It's why hasn't Glenn Youngkin denounced Donald Trump for saying that there are good people on both sides?"

The Lincoln Project said in a statement Friday that the demonstration was meant to remind voters about "what happened in Charlottesville four years ago, the Republican Party's embrace of those values, and Glenn Youngkin's failure to condemn it."

The stunt has faced backlash from Republicans and Democrats alike. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe's campaign manager Chris Bolling called it "disgusting and distasteful" and urged the Lincoln Project to "immediately apologize."

Winsome Sears, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, described it as a "despicable stunt."

"People are setting out to divide, stoking our worst fears and divisions. We cannot let them win &we won't," she tweeted.

The controversy comes after a difficult week of polling for McAuliffe, who previously served as Virginia's governor from 2014 to 2018. He has long held a narrow lead in most polls, but several this week showed him trailing Youngkin. A Fox News poll released Thursday showed Youngkin up 8 points among likely voters.

On Friday, an Echelon Insights poll showed Youngkin ahead by 3 points, and a Washington Post/George Mason University poll found McAuliffe leading by one point among likely voters.

One year earlier, President Joe Biden won Virginia by just over 10 points.

Some Democrats have voiced concern about the stunt potentially harming McAuliffe.

"What a massive, massive screw up," Lis Smith, a former senior advisor to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign, tweeted. "The last thing that the McAuliffe campaign needed this weekend."

Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, warned that the overreach could backfire because "it is so ridiculous in its execution it hurts the point they're trying to make," per The Washington Post.

Newsweek reached out to the Lincoln Project and Youngkin campaign for comment Saturday morning but had not heard back by publication. This story will be updated with any response.

Virginia Governor Debate
A Lincoln Project adviser defended sending protesters with tiki torches to GOP Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s campaign bus Friday. Here, Youngkin (right) and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe debate in Alexandria, Virginia, on September 28. Win McNamee/Getty Images