Leahy: Virginia Republicans Prep a Law-and-Order Campaign
There are already some major general elections themes developing in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. One that could give Democrats some trouble is an oldie but probably still an electoral goody: law and order.
It goes by another name: soft on crime. Three syllables, easy to remember. Just like “no car tax,” the three-syllable juggernaut that carried Jim Gilmore to a landslide gubernatorial win in 1997, and Robert F. McDonnell’s landslide-worthy “Bob’s 4 Jobs” slogan in 2009.
Soft-on-crime campaigns are not meant to make fine points or offer nuanced solutions. They are rooted in fear and leavened with anger. They don’t elevate political discourse or heal divides.
But played correctly, as Republican George Allen did in the 1993 gubernatorial race against former Democratic attorney general Mary Sue Terry, a law-and-order/soft-on-crime campaign can be a big winner.
Soft on crime isn’t an invincible strategy. It can fail spectacularly, as happened in the 2017 governor’s race between Ed Gillespie (R) and Ralph Northam (D), and the 2005 contest between Jerry Kilgore (R) and Tim Kaine (D).
The big difference in those losing campaigns: Crime was almost an afterthought. It tested well with the focus groups or, in the Gillespie campaign’s case, it was a winner with a focus group of one: then-President Trump.
Things might be different this year because Republicans have a lot of material to work with. Some of it comes from the protests that were a staple in Richmond last summer. To be clear: The overwhelming majority of those protests were peaceful. But as the summer wore on, violence and acts of vandalism, particularly near the city’s Monument Avenue, escalated.
The images of fire, tear gas and armored police facing sometimes raucous crowds? They will appear again — this time in ads, either candidate-sponsored or via outside groups. Their narrators will demand to know why Democrats didn’t stop the destruction of public and private property. They will ask why Democratic lawmakers, including Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, Northam and others, joined the protesters’ cause (never mind that Stoney soon became a vocal critic of the violence and angered progressives with an aggressive police response).
Cynical? Absolutely. But it might also help deflect some of the heat that’s bound to come from Democratic ads showing images of the Capitol Hill insurrection and quotes from Republican lawmakers backing Trump’s effort at overturning the election. Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield), get ready for your close-up — even if you’re not the GOP gubernatorial nominee.
It’s enough to make some folks contemplate tossing their TVs into the recycle bin now.
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