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Virginia GOP Goes “Tough on Crime”
Breaking down the GOP’s 90’s-throwback playbook
Welcome to FWIW Virginia, where we analyze digital spending trends on both sides of the aisle in the 2021 Virginia statewide and legislative elections. Each week, we look at how campaigns are investing in digital engagement and the online tactics they use to reach voters across the Commonwealth. Was this email forwarded to you? Click here to subscribe.
What’s old is new again in Virginia, as Republican nominees across the commonwealth turn to 90’s-throwback “tough on crime” messaging to rile up their base and bring suburban voters back to the GOP with the same playbook they’ve used time and time again. The turn to crime-focused messaging comes after a summer of outrage from the Virginia GOP, which has spent most of the summer manufacturing controversy over “Critical Race Theory” and vaccine misinformation.
Who’s leading the charge on “tough on crime” messaging? And which candidates are following along? We take a look in this week’s edition of FWIW Virginia. But first...
2021 by the Numbers
FWIW, here are the top 10 spenders specifically targeting Facebook users in Virginia last week.
And here’s how total digital ad spending (national and local targeting) stacked up this week in Virginia’s statewide races.
Notably, Glenn Youngkin outspent Terry McAuliffe on both Facebook and Google last week, although McAuliffe benefited from a ton of earned media when President Joe Biden came to Virginia last week. McAuliffe is firmly positioning himself with Biden, boosting Biden’s visit in digital ads this week.
We’re also tracking cumulative digital ad spending across the state, including spending from candidates for statewide offices, competitive or potentially competitive Delegate races (any race under a 15 point margin in 2019), and partisan outside groups with spending specifically targeted at Virginia elections.
Although Democrats continue to hold their cumulative digital spending advantage over Republicans, Republicans slightly outspent Democrats on Facebook + Google ads from August 2-8, led by Youngkin’s surge in online spending. In addition, while digital ad spending from delegate candidates is relatively small compared to the gubernatorial candidates + outside groups, we saw more delegate candidates go up with digital ads this week than any previous week.
“Tough on Crime”
As we wrote earlier in July, Glenn Youngkin wants it both ways - it’s a product of a difficult statewide environment for the GOP, but Youngkin is trying to run a moderate, pro-business campaign to appeal to moderate suburban voters who abandoned the GOP in the Trump-era while also leaning into culture war issues to turn out his far-right, MAGA-inspired base voters.
Youngkin’s latest attempt to walk the tightrope is a 90’s-inspired “tough on crime” playbook that leans into all the classic dogwhistles while trying not to turn off college-educated suburbanites.
Although Youngkin’s website is still missing an “issues” page that would tell voters what he’d do as Governor, Youngkin is investing thousands of dollars on Facebook + Google running ads to make sure voters know his stance on qualified immunity. Qualified immunity, per the American Bar Association, “shields state actors from liability for their misconduct, even when they break the law.” But according to Youngkin, the doctrine “protects law enforcement from frivolous civil lawsuits.”
To justify maintaining legal protections that shield law enforcement from accountability, Youngkin is pushing fears of violent crime to Virginia voters, running fearmongering Facebook ads telling voters that Virginia’s homicide rate is at a 20-year high - while that statistic is technically true, it omits that the same report shows that overall violent crime rates dropped from 2019 to 2020, and that cities around the country are experiencing similar upticks in homicides.
Youngkin is also out with a barrage of banner ads through Google touting similar messages, advocating for “Parole Board Reform NOW” and “Public Safety Reform NOW” despite not having any plans for either on his website.
Meanwhile, GOP candidates across the commonwealth are leaning into similar “tough on crime messaging.” Three GOP challengers in competitive districts, Otto Wachsmann, Tim Anderson, and Karen Greenhalgh all ran “soft on crime” attacks against Democratic incumbents in the past week, criticizing them for “criminal sympathizer policies” like ending qualified immunity and eliminating mandatory minimums.
Youngkin’s embrace of “tough on crime” politics mirrors his broader pivot to culture war issues that’s dividing the GOP’s statewide slate. Last Saturday, August 7th, Youngkin chose to speak at an “election integrity rally” held at Liberty University, leaning into Donald Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election and amplifying lies that destabilize democracy for his own political gain. GOP organizers awkwardly chose to close the event to press, and Winsome Sears and Jason Miyares, the GOP nominees for Lt. Governor and Attorney General, respectively, skipped the event to go canvassing with a state delegate candidate.
Trying to have it both ways is a difficult tightrope walk, and Youngkin is already wobbling. He’s trying to sound a dogwhistle on law enforcement without turning off moderates, embrace Trump’s lies on election integrity to rally the base without letting the media cover his statements, and even tells donors he’s very conservative on reproductive rights while hiding those positions from voters. It’s an incredibly awkward message for a candidate trying to paint his opponent as a career politician who’s “a pro at talking out of two sides of his mouth.”
The GOP’s strategy is reminiscent of 2017 GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie’s campaign, which infamously ran inflammatory culture war ads, including $1 million to air ads about “MS-13” over 3,700 times, while trying to sound like a moderate, pro-business candidate at in-person events. Gillespie’s split personality campaign led to a nearly 9-point trouncing on Election Day, albeit in a strong political environment for Democrats.
However, with just 82 days until Election Day, Youngkin’s awkward two-step isn’t moving his vote share much in the limited public/leaked polling - despite Youngkin’s campaign dropping $4.4 million on general election TV + radio spending through late July, most polls still show a low-to-mid single-digit McAuliffe lead. In a recent poll commissioned by Conservatives for Clean Energy, McAuliffe maintains a 5-point lead over Youngkin, with President Joe Biden maintaining a 57% approval rating from Virginia moderates.
There’s still a long way to go, with nearly a month until Labor Day kicks off the most intense stretch of campaigning. Anything can happen, but big investments from Youngkin over the summer haven’t seemed to move the needle much, and his campaign seems to be following in the same path as Gillespie’s. Only time will tell whether the strategy will work this time around, but we’ll continue to keep an eye on the messaging from Youngkin + the GOP to see how their strategy evolves down the stretch.
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