In 2017, a Democratic group backing Ralph Northam for governor ran a television commercial that had Republican Ed Gillespie yowling that he’d been unfairly tarred as hostile to immigrants.
In the ad, four young Hispanic and Muslim children are chased through a suburban neighborhood by a white man, in dark glasses and a baseball cap, at the wheel of a gas-guzzling pickup truck. A Confederate flag flutters from the truck’s bed, a tea party license plate is affixed to the front bumper, a Gillespie sticker is prominently displayed on the rear.
In 2021, that spot could be remade with a Democratic nominee for governor — presumably, Terry McAuliffe, the front-runner in the June 8 primary — barreling down a leafy street in a fuel-stingy hybrid, pursuing Republican Glenn Youngkin as he tries to hide on issues important to suburban voters by fuzzing up rigidly conservative views on gun control, abortion rights and others.
Assuming a McAuliffe-Youngkin matchup, the former — as an ex-governor seeking a second term — has a long public record replete in absolutes. The latter — as a multimillionaire investment pro making his first run for office — has on hot-button issues made only occasional utterances, all scripted to assuage the far-right Republicans who decided the nomination and the centrist independents who will decide the election.
This is message discipline. For Youngkin, it is all about saying as little as possible to create as much latitude as possible.
That’s essential to breaking into the increasingly Democratic suburbs, where Youngkin, Republicans believe, has a chance — if he plays down his personal views and talks up his personal story, one rooted in financial success that is supposed to be a sign he’d manage Virginia well. The cheerful Youngkin is running as your prospective next-door neighbor, albeit one with the deepest pockets and the biggest house.
We’ve seen twice in two weeks the perils for Youngkin of the smile-and-schmooze strategy.
After the U.S. Supreme Court said it would rule in the coming year on Mississippi abortion restrictions that, if upheld, possibly could scuttle Roe vs. Wade, Youngkin was forced to say more than that he was pro-life.
Attempting on May 19 to thread the needle on a topic that energizes both parties, he declared himself open to abortion in cases of rape and incest or to save a woman’s life. Two days later, at a rally with his running mates in vote-rich Northern Virginia, Youngkin made no reference to abortion.
And in an interview with The Washington Post, he refused to say how he would implement restrictions on abortion.
This past Monday, after the Texas legislature sent to Gov. Greg Abbott, for his promised signature, a measure allowing residents to openly carry handguns without a permit or background check, Youngkin — a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and advocate for gun rights — skirted a question on making it even easier here to publicly pack heat.
In a text to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Youngkin’s press secretary said only that Virginia, where Democrats have toughened gun laws since taking back the General Assembly in 2019, is already an open-carry state.
But there are issues on which Youngkin doesn’t mince as many words.
He finally has acknowledged that Joe Biden is president, though Youngkin still is perceived as buying just enough of the Big Lie to satiate Republicans, two-thirds of whom have said in public polling that Biden’s victory over Donald Trump was not legitimate.
Even as COVID-19 restrictions are rolled back in Virginia, Youngkin trashes Northam, the soon-to-be lame duck governor, for mishandling the pandemic. Youngkin links school closings, other coronavirus precautions and Biden’s popular but pricey rescue plan to a bigger beef that, as the Republican declared on Twitter, “liberal politicians in Richmond have fostered an anti-business climate in Virginia.”
Might that be a tough sell?
Unemployment quickly has fallen from the spike at the start of the pandemic last year. The Northam administration now is reinstating the requirement that jobless Virginians, to qualify for continued unemployment pay, prove they are looking for work.
And Amazon’s selection of Northern Virginia for its East Coast headquarters — anticipated headaches with housing and transportation, notwithstanding — remains a powerful talking point for the public and private sectors that the state remains business-friendly; that its economy produces jobs that are not only abundant but high-paying.
Some of that has to do with hostility to organized labor.
Since the late 1940s, the state — through the right-to-work law — has banned making union membership a condition for a job. With Democrats again controlling all three branches of government — and with many in the party enthusiastically plumping for workers’ rights — there’s growing pressure from the left to scuttle the right-to-work law.
Not if McAuliffe and one of his similarly corporate-chummy opponents for the nomination, Jennifer McClellan, have anything to say about it.
But like Youngkin, on some of issues that could get him in trouble, they just don’t say.
Schapiro is a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @RTDSchapiro.