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Lincoln Project organized a group to carry torches at Youngkin event in Charlottesville

Demonstrators dressed as Unite the Right rallygoers with tiki torches as Republican candidate for Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin arrives for a campaign event in Charlottesville on Oct. 29. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A group of people carrying tiki torches outside Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s tour bus in Charlottesville on Friday, which caused a stir on social media and led both political parties to blame the other for the stunt, turned out to be organized by the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump Republican group.

The event — a reference to the 2017 Unite the Right rally, when hundreds of white supremacists descended on the city with tiki torches — was organized by the group, which opposes Youngkin, as a “way of reminding Virginians what happened in Charlottesville four years ago, the Republican Party’s embrace of those values, and Glenn Youngkin’s failure to condemn it,” it said in a statement late Friday, after observers were left pondering for hours who was behind the stunt.

The stunt came during the second day of the trial of the leading figures in the violent Unite the Right rally, which ended with a car plowing through a crowd, killing a woman. A photo of the five people dressed in white button-down shirts, khaki pants, hats and sunglasses quickly started circulating on Twitter on Friday morning, prompting outrage across the political spectrum.

Before the Lincoln Project claimed responsibility, some Twitter users started suggesting it was a political stunt by Democratic operatives. Others shamed Youngkin for allowing the demonstration at the event. Both Youngkin and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe denied being connected to the group. The Youngkin campaign accused McAuliffe of setting up the event. Rich Anderson, chair of the Republican Party of Virginia, tweeted that the event was a “mockery” of the events in Charlottesville, blaming McAuliffe for the stunt and his “failure to lead” as governor in 2017. The state’s Democratic Party called efforts to tie it with the event “shameful and wrong.”

“What happened today is disgusting and distasteful and we condemn it in the strongest terms,” McAuliffe campaign manager Chris Bolling said in a prepared statement after the Lincoln Project took responsibility for the matter. “Those involved should immediately apologize.”

Late in the evening, Lauren Windsor, the liberal activist who previously recorded and released Youngkin saying he would go “on offense” on abortion if elected, tweeted that she helped organize the event.

The Lincoln Project’s statement said it would “withdraw the tiki torches” if Youngkin would denounce ‘Trump’s assertion that the Charlottesville rioters possessed ‘very fine’ qualities … Until then, we’ll be back.”

Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said that if the political stunt was intended to help McAuliffe, it took things too far.

“The overreach backfires because it is so ridiculous in its execution it hurts the point they’re trying to make,” Rozell said.