Takeaways from GOP Political Messaging and Ad Strategy in Virginia and New Jersey, and What They Can Tell Us About the 2022 Midterms
In Virginia, Republicans ran a racist campaign and won. As Greg Sargent wrote at the Washington Post, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s campaign “built heavily around stoking white grievance with attacks on phantom critical race theory in schools and torquing up the base by feeding Donald Trump’s lies about our election system.” Simply put, Youngkin’s strategic use of racism helped him cobble together a majority of votes. While disturbing, the lesson cannot be that silence works.
Republican gubernatorial candidates in both Virginia and New Jersey avoided campaigning on the anti-immigrant attacks and nativism that are currently consuming the rest of the party. This was in stark contrast to the 2017 campaigns in both states. Instead, the Youngkin campaign led with racist dog-whistles of a different melody.
NB: Determining the reasons behind the success or failure of any electoral campaign requires untangling a complex web of factors. This analysis only examines one of those factors with the understanding that paid and organic media strategy is not solely responsible for these electoral outcomes.
- Youngkin didn’t run on education or crime, he harvested racial animus. Despite an expensive and convincing sheep outfit Glenn Youngkin is still a wolf. He ran a racist campaign. Youngkin relied on coded racist appeals to strategically stoke racial anxiety.
- Silence is a losing strategy. Ignoring the opposition’s main message, believing instead that talking about popular policies is sufficient to win, is naïve. It was clear from the start of the year that Republicans were going to rely on strategic racism in their electoral campaigns. They will most assuredly do so again in the 2022 midterms. Dog-whistle politics has been and remains a potent weapon. Democrats cannot afford to meet this strategy with deafening silence. If Republicans are talking about race and Democrats don’t, then both sides are talking about race but only one has a strong view on it.
- Nativist demagoguery is not the silver bullet some claim it to be. Despite proclamations from leading Republicans that nativism is a winning strategy in diverse voter battlegrounds like Virginia and New Jersey, the GOP gubernatorial candidates in both states largely avoided xenophobia. This suggests that immigration as a wedge issue in competitive general election races is not nearly as potent as many in the right-wing ecosystem claim. Where Republicans need to expand their coalition to win, they often avoid anti-immigrant dog-whistles and opt for other issues to stoke racial fear.
- Democrats cannot rely on the news media to explain the consequences of Republican’s strategic racism. It was clear to most in the political class that Youngkin’s messaging regarding Critical Race Theory (CRT) was nothing more than a racist dog-whistle. But that did not stop the news media from portraying it as “education issue” that was an honest concern of swing voters. Republicans have proven themselves skilled at convincing the news media to view issues through their narrative lens. Democrats do themselves a disservice if they believe that the news media will not run with an unexamined racist fiction that they portray as fact.
- Combating strategic racism must start early, not in the weeks before the election. The McAuliffe campaign failed to define and disarm the Critical Race Theory attacks. In the final weeks, the McAuliffe campaign did invest in pushing back, but it started too late. To be fair, making the dog-whistle audible is a difficult affair that cannot fall on one political campaign. This is not simply a McAuliffe messaging problem. If Democrats want to reduce the effectiveness of the racist dog-whistles sure to come next year, they must lay the groundwork now to expose this cyclical and destructive political strategy.
- The diversity of the rising American multi-racial majority is not sufficient to win for Democrats absent strong candidates, strong messaging, and sustained investment in mobilizing and persuading potential Democratic voters.
Racist Dog-Whistles Around CRT and Crime in Virginia
Racism was the central pillar of Youngkin’s campaign strategy. Even as he avoided the immigrant bashing of the previous GOP gubernatorial candidate, he used dog-whistle tactics around education by attacking critical race theory. At times, Youngkin was explicit, promising at a rally on October 23, that “on day one, I will ban critical race theory in our schools.” More often, Youngkin was abstract, coding racial anxieties into seemingly race-neutral worries around schools, children’s safety, and parental discretion.
In reality, CRT is an academic framework to study the pervasive role racism has played in shaping our history and our present. For Youngkin, CRT is an amorphous boogeyman that he could use to provoke racial anxieties and fears, while claiming his critique was about parental control. The CRT boogeyman was built entirely on a fiction. Like the “issue” of sanctuary cities deployed by the GOP in 2017 – in a state that has no sanctuary cities – CRT is not taught in Virginia public schools. But as with other dog-whistles, facts and reality are beside the point. The goal is to provoke racial anxiety. The subtext of the attack is that African-Americans and other people of color, with their liberal allies, are seeking to impose “their agenda” on White children.
It is also important to keep in mind that this strategy requires plausible deniability of racist motives – both for the candidate and supporters. The message is abstract and coded. The appeals turn on fears that ‘the children’ are less safe because they are forced to confront a diverse America where White, straight and Christian families are losing their dominance in society. White supremacy will not be challenged. The issue is less about what is taught in schools and more about who has the power to write the American narrative. The racist dog-whistle asserts that inclusion strategies come at the direct expense of the ‘real American’ and must be fought. GOP campaigns are experts at harvesting racialized fear and anger and mobilizing it into political action and power. Even when it comes to governing, this strategy often results in policies that hurt the whole of the working-class, but that hurt non-whites more than whites.
Led by well funded right-wing groups, Youngkin adopted the CRT issue and started running Facebook ads in April. He promised CRT would not be taught in schools. Throughout the summer Youngkin repeatedly went on FOX News to blow racist dog-whistles around CRT and promoted those appearances through his campaign.
In a debate in September, Youngkin delivered a planned attack on McAuliffe for vetoing a political bill in 2016 that would have allowed any parent to ban books in public high schools in defense of White supremacy. Youngkin adroitly constructed his racist dog-whistle under the cover of protecting children from sexually explicit material and putting “parents in charge of their kids’ education.” This disingenuous attack stemmed from a Republican party activist, Laura Murphy, who tried to get a book by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison banned from her son’s high school Advanced Placement English class. Rarely did the accompanying coverage point out that her son was able to select over 17 other books to read instead of Morrison’s Beloved.
Expanding on this racist dog-whistle attack, Youngkin clipped a line from McAuliffe’s response which showed up in an ad the next day and became the thrust of Yongkin’s closing message. In an ad released on October 13, Youngkin said, “parents have a right to make decisions on their children’s education.”
Then on October 25, Youngkin had the mother who tried to get Beloved banned to cut an ad. Murphy claims that she was prohibited from “an option to choose an alternative for my children” as the ad cuts to an old family beach photo when Murphy’s children were much younger. For further context Murphy’s unnamed son who she fears for in this ad is now married, in his late 20s, and works as a lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
McAuliffe did call out Youngkin’s strategy, but it was too little too late. Nor was it enough for the news media to stop reporting the dog-whistle tactics as a debate over education. Donald Trump revealed how unwilling most of the media is with pointing out lies and racism beyond their most explicit expressions.
The weekend before the election, MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin tweeted,
Dear media, stop saying “education” is an important issue in the VA gov’s race. What has become an issue is whether VA voters fall for a fear-mongering race-baiting cultural wedge around a theory that is actually not being taught in schools. That has nothing to do with education.
In a column published at The Hill, Juan Williams wrote:
The obscene attack on great writing is gaining strength by being paired with another GOP racial tactic aimed at scaring parents — that Virginia school children might be exposed to arguments about ongoing, systemic racism from the teaching of “critical race theory.
Critical race theory — broadly, a focus on racial disparities as a fact of American life — is not explicitly taught in Virginia’s public schools or anywhere in American public schools. But Republicans nationwide have made it a boogeyman to excite racial divisions and get their base to the polls.
Yet most reporters covering the race kept the focus on education which greatly benefitted Republicans who know exactly what they are doing. In fact, in its final pre-election piece, the New York Times politics reporter Reid Epstein’s lede stated:
In the final hours of campaigning on Monday to become Virginia’s next governor, it was Glenn Youngkin offering an optimistic vision for the future while Terry McAuliffe delivered harsh warnings about ghosts of the past.
On Monday, Donald Trump endorsed Youngkin twice with statements and also held a tele-town hall where he said McAuliffe would “abolish the suburbs.” Hardly an optimistic vision, but many in the media were determined to avoid the racist substance of Youngkin’s attacks, just as they did with Trump.
Democrats need to do a better job framing the real material harm to all Americans caused by racist dog-whistling. Dog whistles divide Americans so that the rich and powerful stay on top and ordinary people are pitted against one another. And they need to start early. The lesson from Virginia is that Democrats need to start combating racist dog-whistle messaging today if they want to reduce its effectiveness in the midterm elections.
Youngkin also attempted to capitalize on transphobic fears on the right to further weave in support for his reactionary political message around schools. Youngkin vocally sided with a transphobic teacher throughout the summer. In the final week of the campaign Youngkin dropped an ad that looked to signal support for a transphobic storyline making its way throughout right-wing media. The ad features a young girl and an image of a bathroom with two misleading headlines. While the facts of the case require nuance, nuance and facts are beside the point in a dog-whistle. Instead, Youngkin tried to turn fears and anxieties around gender into his coded narrative around schools.
In that same closing ad, Youngkin employs some of the most dangerous racist ideas to stimulate additional fears around schools. The ominous narrator warns about “rape and sexual assault in our schools” as we see a young white girl in school attire. “Now our schools are teetering on chaos,” the voiceover continues as the ad cuts to grainy cell phone footage of a high school fight between Black teens that occurred back in August. It then immediately cuts to another fight in a high school between Black teens the voiceover warns about “violence in kids’ classrooms.” Subtle it is not.
In another Youngkin ad, a voiceover claims that McAuliffe’s “George Soros backed allies got rid of school safety officers, the result? Total chaos,” as we see the same fight between Black teens alongside a headline about “sexual battery.” Combining a cynical anti-Semitic trope about George Soros and the assertion that police are the only thing standing between violent Black indiduals and ‘your’ children, further encoded his campaign message in racist imagery.
In addition the Youngkin campaign and allies attacked McAuliffe as “soft on crime.” Youngkin’s ads focused on crime rates and accusations of defunding the police. While concerns over community safety are legitimate, too often these concerns are designed to provoke racial animus. The billionaire-backed “Restoration PAC” also spent $1.5 million on an ad campaign in the closing weeks employing a similar message.
The McAuliffe campaign did seek to weaponize the Trump brand in a state that rejected Trump by 10 points. Their strategy fell short, likely due to timing, but here are a few ad examples:
- On October 28, The Lincoln Project put out an ad that looked to expose the dog-whistle racism of Younkin’s attack on critical race theory by tying the strategy to the infamous Lee Atwater. The ad ends by quoting Atwater in 1981, explaining the strategy saying “anyway you look at it, race is coming in on the back burner.”
- The McAuliffe campaign tried to frame the choice between giving “room for hate” and “lifting up all Virginans and protecting our democracy,” in one ad relased on October 19.
- The Democratic Governors Association put together a digital ad on October 28 that looked to reframe the Youngkin dog-whistles, saying that Youngkin is “trying to ban books, silence Black voices, making anti-Semtic remarks, and announcing his opposition to marriage equality.”
- On October 18, the McAuliffe campaign ran an ad trying to reveal the dark underbelly of the Republican base driving the Youngkin campaign. The ad pulls Younkin’s support for an event that celebrated the January 6 white nationalist terrorist attack.
- The Lincoln Project also released a “frame the choice” ad October 27, where the voiceover explained “Youngkin is Donald Trump’s candidate, anti-Semitisim, racism, deny gay couples the right to marry… McAuliffe believes in a different Virgina, working together, rejecting hate.”
The reality of the current Republican party is that a no matter how moderate of a front a candidate projects in tone, they are still reliant on a radical Republican voters who can be mobilized by appeals to racism. There are no more sheep, just wolves, even though some have slightly better sheep costumes.
In the Virginia race, even attempts to link Youngkin to the unpopular former president were not sufficient. The campaign did use the damaging imagery from January 6 to remind voters of the worst of Trump, but failed to go beyond this until the last month of the campaign. The campaign missed an opportunity to link the former president – his opposition to effective COVID responses, his attacks on health care, tax cuts for the very, very rich, his calls to violence, his coddling of racism and facism in Charlottesville and nationally – and connect these with the everyday lives of voters. The Democrats’ strategy that did not fully communicate the real material harm to working people that would result from the Republican agenda. Future campaigns will also likely have to rely less on the crutch of anti-Trump sentiment to reveal the wolf.
Many competitive state legislative races played out on similar terms as Republican candidates and allies deployed similar racist attacks. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), made several ad buys throughout the summer and fall targeting House seats employing racist dog-whistles around crime and CRT. In a number of these contests, the Republican candidate added their own racist and anti-Semitic attacks against their opponent.
Starting in late August, the RSLC ran coded racist attacks on CRT against Democrats Chris Hurst (HD-12), Elizabeth Guzmán (HD-31), Joshua Cole (HD-28), Wendy Gooditis (HD-10), Kelly Convirs-Fowler (HD-21), and Schuyler VanValkenburg (HD-72). The ad ran with the voiceover disingenuously claiming that these Democrats “voted to allow kids to be taught to treat others differently based on the color of their skin,” as the ad displays a misleading headline with the words “critical race theory” highlighted. Picking up the attack line from the top of the ticket, the RSLC released an ad on October 7 highlighting the McAuliffe debate response, pushing the same dog-whistle against CRT. The RSLC also released an ad against Dan Helmer (HD-40) who refused to fall into a trap video question surrounding the dog-whistle. A week before the election the RSLC dropped another set of ads using anti-CRT messages against Hurst, Gooditis, Convirs-Fowler, Roslyn Tyler (HD-75), and Rodney Willett (HD-73). Never explicitly mentioning CRT, the ad further encodes the racist attack as an “extremist curriculum.” The RSLC benefits here from the large socialization of the dog-whistle, allowing them to achieve the same effect with an even more obscure framing of the issue.
The RSLC also attacked Democrats with old dog-whistle tropes around crime by trying to associate candidates with the new ‘defund the police’ slogan. “Tyler is back by a radical group that pushed to defund the police,” a voiceover warns in an RSLC ad from August 25 hitting Roslyn Tyler (HD-75). The ad shows a police car on fire and accuses Tyler of being “anti-police, weak on crime, can’t be trusted.” The RSLC also ran a cut-and-paste version of this ad against Gooditis, Guzmán, Cole and Alex Askew (HD-85), on September 16. Focusing in on their two Black male Democratic Party targets with this dog-whistle racist attack, the RSLC ran an additional ad against Cole and Askew on October 28.
In addition to RSLC’s racist dog-whistle attacks in HD-85, Republican Karen Greenhalgh ran a racist mailer attacking Askew. Askew responded that the “attack mailer displayed a darkened, burning photo of my face. Depicting any black person as burning or hanging propagates some of the most dangerous, racist tropes in history. This dog whistle attack has no place in our politics.” This dog-whistle mailer was sent with the support of Youngkin’s PAC. A similar racist ad was directed at voters in Joshua Cole’s 28th House District. Youngkin’s PAC also supported the Republican who ran an anti-Semitic mailer against Dan Helmer (HD-40).
America’s Voice also found numerous other Facebook ads by Republicans in other local races that employed racist dog-whistles around crime and CRT. Additional info on these ads can be found here.
These competitive races split, which is a reminder that there are many factors that contribute to the success of a campaign. At the same time, these results are also a reminder that strategic racism still can be used as a powerful electoral tool. The driving force of racial anxieties and fear is real, but it is not impervious to defeat. The lessons on combating the politics of racial division hold the same here as they do at the top of the ticket.
Xenophobia Fails to Rear its Ugly Head, For The Most Part
In a reversal from the Republican strategy in 2017, the gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey avoided making aggressive xenophobic dog-whistling the centerpiece of their campaigns this time around. Four years ago, Virginia Republican Ed Gillespie was on the air warning that Democrat Ralph Northam was “in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the streets.” Meanwhile in New Jersey, Republican Kim Guadagno was running similar xenophobic dog-whistles attacks against Democrat Philip Murphy. This strategic xenophobia was, according to the pundits and Republican strategists like Steve Bannon, supposed to deliver Republicans to statewide office. In reality, it backfired. Research found that exposure to Gillespie’s xenophobic ads drove voters of color and white college-educated voters away from him at significant levels.
Nevertheless, leading national elected Republicans and strategists throughout this year have been predicting that demagoguing about immigrants was the GOP path to victory. For example:
- “I predict this, that immigration will be a bigger issue in 2022 than it was in 2016.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) said on Hannity, on February 23
- Stephen Miller told The Washington Post in February that Republicans should make the 2022 midterms all about immigration. Referring to the 2010 midterm cycle, he said, “From a purely political standpoint, this is a recipe for Democrats to have an historic drubbing in the midterms if we can make it even as big an issue or bigger than Obamacare.”
- In March, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted that immigration will “be a huge issue this year, and it’s an issue that gets you into public health, into the issue of defending America and whether there are borders.”
- In April, Senate Minority Whip John Thune (SD) predicted that their anti-immigrant politics would be a “potent weapon” in their efforts to retake Congress in November.
- “As an issue, I can’t think of one that’s better,” Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist, told Politico in June in a piece that quotes numerous other Republican strategists expressing a similar sentiment. “One day they’re erecting a wall to keep illegal immigrants out, and the next day it’s 180,000 people coming across the border. It’s incredible,” Roe said.
- “Immigration is a big part of it,” Karl Rove said on Fox News Radio when talking about Republicans’ ability to retake the House in 2022.
Both Youngkin in Virginia and Ciattarelli in New Jersey had ample opportunity to seize the cynical nativist political agenda. Throughout the year, Republican Governors, led by Greg Abbott (TX), staged numerous border photo opts and political stunts to increase their political prospects. Either candidate could have made a show out of calling on the sitting Democratic Governor to take the unnecessary steps to deploy troops to the border as so many of their would-be colleagues had done. Neither candidate made a meal out of right-wing fervor around the alleged #BidenBorderCrisis.
In one telling example, Youngkin ignored a layup from FoxNews commentator Laura Ingraham in June. Speaking about bail reform, Ingraham asked “What is that going to do from everyone from MS-13 gang members, or dabbling in gang members to the garden variety criminal?” Instead of jumping on the xenophobic framing around the El Salvadorian gang meme that lead the Gillespie campaign, Youngkin ignored the bait, choosing instead to do some general fear-mongering around crime. He still engaged in racist dog-whistling, but the shift in tune is worth noting. Youngkin did run two TV ads attempting to stoke racial anxieties around crime in late July that added a mention about “Abolish ICE.” However, Youngkin quickly dropped the line and never fully integrated it into his campaign. The fact that top of the ticket campaigns in both states chose to mostly avoided xenophobic politics is notable because it reveals a weakness in an issue for competitive general elections that many leading Republicans claim publicly to be a political slam dunk.
It seems that the Youngkin campaign decided that Trump-style nativism would not help with the voters he needed at the ballot box. As Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with Inside Elections put it, if the “Youngkin campaign thought that was a winning message, they would be running on it.” Now, a nativist campaign would likely have been popular with the base of the party as a Change Research poll in late August found over 90 percent of Youngkin voters believe “illegal immigration” poses significant threats to Virginia. However, in an election where the Republicans could not solely rely on right-wing base voters, Youngkin likely feared a backlash from the hard-edge anti-immigrant politics his party has embraced at the national level.
The candidates at the top of the ticket ignored the advice of Stephen Miller, but in the past he predicted his brand of nativist politics would prove to be a political winner only to see electoral losses. In May 2018, Stephen Miller told Breitbart News,
The big fight this summer is going to be with the open borders Democratic caucus in Congress. That is the fundamental political contrast and political debate that is unfolding right now. The Democratic party is at grave risk of completely marginalizing itself from the American voters…
The Miller-led strategy of focusing on immigration and migrant caravans backfired on Republicans, who saw Democrats win by the largest midterm margin in American history. In August 2020, Stephen Miller told Reuters that Joe Biden’s immigration stance would prove to be “a massive political vulnerability” in the 2020 campaign. Meanwhile, Biden leaned into his support for a pathway to citizenship and won the popular vote by more than 7 million votes.
It is likely that both of these Republican gubernatorial campaigns saw the limitations and avoided a nativist strategy. The rest of the party seems eager to run with such politics and in 2017 Gillespie and Guadagno quickly switched their tune during their campaigns to embrace the anti-immigrant politics. If either candidate thought the nativist politics would have brought them more voters than it would have lost, they would have employed such a strategy.
The Congressional Republican primaries around the country will most assuredly see nasty xenophobic attacks, as well as some campaigns that will lead with such attacks in the general. However, the unwillingness for these candidates facing difficult races to embrace anti-immigrant politics is more evidence that xenophobia isn’t the Republican silver bullet some believe it to be. More likely, general election Republican candidates serious about winning competitive seats will use nativist dog-whistles to fundraise and mobilize a targeted base online but not use the issue as a wedge issue in the general. The Republican candidates who, like Youngkin, set this issue to the side will instead embrace other forms of racist dog-whistling.
These off off-year elections are just the latest reminder that in competitive areas, Republicans must perform a tightrope walk between a radical base that demands unpopular policies and messages and the need to still win some sort of majority of votes among the broader electorate. Ignoring the nativist politics consuming the rest of the party due to its weakness as a persuasion tool, Republicans tried to substitute in a new racist boogeyman; a strategy that Youngkin was able to pull off. Democrats must find effective counter-strategies to Republicans’ strategic racism. To have a shot at winning the more difficult races on the horizon, Democrats must learn the lesson that silence in the face of strategic racism is a losing proposition.
A final note of caution: left unaddressed, the fictions driving Republican demagoguery will seep into a wide public consciousness. There are some indications that the Republican fiction that migrants are to blame for the spread of both COVID and fentanyl have started to spread more widely, as have the fictions around CRT. As Ron Brownstein recently wrote in the Washington Post “Republicans are twice as worried about what’s happening in schools as they are about the pandemic.” As he notes this is largely the result of “the sheer energy” of right-wing media, organizations, and activists. This energy will produce significant hurdles as the rest of the United States heads to the ballot box in a year from now. From what we have seen from the media’s adoption of the Republican’s reactionary “border crisis” frame and their willingness to engage in the fiction around CRT in Virginia, Democrats and their allies will leave a void at their own peril. As Dan Pfeiffer wrote back in August:
I wish this were not the case, but the power of the Right-Wing media ecosystem and the tilt of the Facebook algorithm are such that Democrats cannot ignore the absurd and often fictitious cultural fights. We must win them.
Silence cannot be the universal response to Republicans’ base messaging strategy. Democrats should instead use the deeply unpopular elements of the Republican base against them. Republicans have chosen to become pro-violent-insurrectionists who stand in the way of improving the lives of all Americans when it comes to childcare, education, healthcare, immigration, higher wages, and so much more. Democrats must make sure voters know that as they head to the polls. The Republicans are using strategic racism in their competition for power, a strategy that causes massive harm. Democrats need to frame the opposition’s unpopular agenda for what it is, racist, but also a strategy that directly harms working-class families, communities, and the ability for the next generation to have a bit better America than the last. Democrats cannot wait until August 2022 to start to deploy a counter strategy. Republicans are laying the groundwork now so too must Democrats do the work of interrupting their opposition’s strategy.