Republican Glenn Youngkin has embraced much of the Trumpian policy playbook in his bid for Virginia’s governor’s mansion, with a glaring exception of the illegal immigration issue.
Mr. Youngkin hasn’t aired a single radio or TV ad about immigration at a time when the U.S.-Mexico border is a mess, Republican governors are sending National Guard troops to help out and GOP politicians are making pilgrimages to the border to be photographed with Border Patrol agents.
President Trump, meanwhile, blasts out press releases about the situation on a nearly daily basis.
Rather than hammer illegal immigration, Mr. Youngkin is making a strong play for Virginia’s growing Hispanic population, hoping they’ll help him edge out Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the neck-and-neck race for governor.
“Clearly, Youngkin and his team believe the notes he is hitting on inflation and economic issues are more aligned with and more effective at winning over voters than talking about MS-13 or immigration issues at all,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with Inside Elections, a non-partisan campaign tracker. “If the Youngkin campaign thought that was a winning message they would be running on it.”
The strategy marks a major break from four years ago when Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie ran ads warning of a nexus between illegal immigration and crime, particularly when it came to MS-13, a violent and ruthless immigrant-dominated street gang prevalent in Northern Virginia.
Mr. Gillespie accused Democrat Ralph Northam of enabling MS-13 by voting as a state senator against a bill that would have banned sanctuary cities in the state.
The Latino Victory Fund, backing Mr. Northam, fired back with an ad featuring a white man in a pickup truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker and a Confederate flag that was menacing children on the streets.
Mr. Northam went on to easily win the race, leading a Democratic sweep of the state’s top offices.
That race played out in Mr. Trump’s first year in office, after campaigning on plans for a border wall, more deportations and a travel ban on mostly-Muslim nations. Republicans argued those issues helped put Mr. Trump into the White House in 2017.
Four years later, illegal immigration remains a hot topic nationally, as the Biden administration oversees what analysts describe as the worst year on the border in modern history.
Members of MS-13 also have continued to wreak havoc on communities across Virginia.
There have been several recent federal indictments charging MS-13 members with kidnapping and grisly murders, including from a murder in which the victim was stabbed over 140 times using knives and a machete before the dead body was dumped in a river.
Still, Mr. Youngkin has stayed far away from the topic as he battles Mr. McAuliffe, who is seeking to return to the governorship after a previous term from 2014 to 2018.
Recent polls suggest the strategy is paying off. Mr. Youngkin is pulling anywhere between 32% and 55% of the Hispanic vote. Surveys also show the groups that have become the most disenchanted with Mr. Biden are self-described independent and Hispanic voters.
Mr. Gillespie lost the Hispanic vote by a 67% to 32% margin in 2017, according to exit polls.
Analysts say Mr. Gillespie turned to immigration because he carried too much political baggage and was struggling to keep GOP voters engaged. Mr. Youngkin, a former private equity CEO and political newcomer, lacks that baggage.
And while he has welcomed Mr. Trump’s support and echoed the former president’s calls for election audits, he has avoided the more pointed complaints of election fraud. He’s also downplayed issues like abortion, saying in a caught-on-tape moment this summer he didn’t want to scare off independent voters.
Instead, he has targeted voters that are frustrated with the Democrats’ one-party rule in Richmond and have misgivings about Mr. Biden, honing a message around inflation, jobs and schools.
Rep. Morgan Griffin, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Youngkin is picking the right fights.
“I think you have to have some hard-nosed issues, but the people who, I think, would be moved by [MS-13 and immigration] have already completely moved into the Republican camp so you don’t need the message there anymore,” he said. “The cutting edge issue is education this time.”
He also credited Mr. Youngkin with having a firm grasp on the challenge facing Republicans in statewide races.
“There isn’t any question you have to bring over some people who are in the middle or on the edge of both parties,” he said. “So you want to shore up the soft Republicans and bring over the soft Democrats.”
To do that, Mr. Youngkin has turned to a staple issue: education.
He has tried to tap concerns over what is taught in schools and parental involvement in schools that have become hot-button issues amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. McAuliffe also gave his opponent a gift in the final debate: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to nationalize the governor’s race by making it another referendum on Mr. Trump.
On immigration, they’ve argued a Republican in the governor’s mansion would push Trump-style enforcement policies against illegal immigrants.
But Mr. Youngkin’s lack of direct campaigning with Mr. Trump is denting the comparisons, so Democrats tried another tactic — driving a wedge between the president’s supporters and the GOP candidate. The Democratic National Committee recently flew a plane near Mr. Trump’s Florida resort Mar-a-Lago, carrying a banner that read, “Why won’t Youngkin let Trump campaign in VA?”
Former Sen. Georgie Allen, a Virginia Republican, said the focus on Mr. Trump has fallen flat.
“Glenn is nothing like Trump in his personality and manner, but on the issues, sure,” he said. “It is not unique for Republicans to be for lower taxes, energy independence, regulatory reform, reasonable regulations, and high accountability in schools.”
As for issues related to crime and immigration, Mr. Allen said voters are now directing those concerns at the state’s parole board and the “defund the police” movement.
“They are different times and different issues and there are different people running,” Mr. Allen said.
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