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Republican Glenn Youngkin makes early-bird TV pitch in Virginia governor’s race

Virginia gubernatorial nominees Glenn Youngkin (R), left, and Terry McAuliffe (D). (Left: Steve Helber/AP. Right: Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

RICHMOND — Republican Glenn Youngkin has bankrolled a $2 million radio and television blitz since securing his party's nomination for Virginia governor in early May, an unusually early and aggressive start to advertising by a wealthy, self-funded candidate.

Youngkin has hit the airwaves ahead of his Democratic rival, former governor Terry McAuliffe, who was on TV and radio in the run-up to his party’s June 8 primary but has stuck to digital ads since then.

That could give Youngkin, who has never held political office, a chance to define himself before McAuliffe and allied political action committees start trying to paint their own picture of the former Carlyle Group executive.

Youngkin’s ad buys are well ahead of schedule for a typical gubernatorial contest in Virginia. In the governor’s race four years ago, Republican Ed Gillespie launched his first general-election TV ads in late July 2017, while Democrat Ralph Northam, the eventual winner, unveiled his that August.

“It’s only June,” said Dan Bayens, co-founder of Medium Buying, which tracks political and corporate campaigns. “And it’s significant that Youngkin has a head start. . . . That gives Youngkin an advantage in the early going.”

Youngkin’s robust advertising reflects his campaign’s most fundamental challenge and strength, political experts say — his pressing need, as a political unknown facing a popular ex-governor, to introduce himself to voters, and his vast resources, as a former private equity executive worth an estimated $300 million, to make himself a household name.

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“This shows why Youngkin was probably the best candidate [the GOP] could have, because he can wage this contest in an unprecedented manner for the Republicans and he seems to be willing to spend a significant amount of his personal fortune,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst.

Youngkin has said he plans to raise $75 million for his campaign but has not specified how much of that will come from his own bank account. Whatever the source, that amount of money would exceed the $66 million spent four years ago by the Gillespie and Northam campaigns combined.

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“If the McAuliffe team had the resources to be on TV, they’d be up on TV. It’s as simple as that,” Bayens said.

McAuliffe spokeswoman Christina Freundlich declined to discuss the campaign’s plans for broadcast advertising but suggested that Youngkin’s early-bird TV ads are an effort to “buy” the election.

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“No amount of slick TV ads can hide Youngkin’s extreme agenda of opposing the American Rescue Plan, gutting Virginians’ health care, banning abortions and putting more guns on the streets,” she said. “Virginians have rejected Trump and his allies before, and this November, they will again.”

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the Republican has been able to introduce himself to Virginians as a “problem solver who knows how to deliver results.”

“Glenn is taking his message of making Virginia the best place in America to live and work and raise a family to every corner of the Commonwealth and inviting Virginians of all backgrounds and creeds to join our movement,” she said in a statement. “Virginians don’t want to recycle a politician from the past, they want a leader who will fight for a brighter future for every Virginian.”

Youngkin’s financial strength could put McAuliffe — a national party chairman and record-smashing political fundraiser before winning the Executive Mansion in 2013 — in the unfamiliar position of financial underdog.

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In every race he has run until now, McAuliffe has vastly outraised his primary- and general-election rivals. McAuliffe raised nearly $39 million in the 2013 governor’s race, when he narrowly defeated Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II, who raised $21 million.

Youngkin took the lead in fundraising in April, raising nearly $16 million — $12 million of it in loans from himself. His campaign headed into June with $4.4 million on hand.

McAuliffe had raised nearly $15 million between his campaign and political action committees through the end of April and had $3.3 million in cash. Although also wealthy, McAuliffe has not personally given or lent money to his campaign.

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Youngkin launched his latest TV ad Tuesday. It’s a soft sell, a marked departure from the conservative culture-war issues he stressed in mailings to Republican voters ahead of the convention and since then in frequent appearances on Fox News shows. In those appearances, he has called for greater “election integrity” and touted his opposition to certain transgender rights and to schools teaching critical race theory — an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.

In the ad, he is shown addressing two small, racially diverse groups, one gathered in a high-rise boardroom, the other in a warehouse.

“Let me ask everybody a question: In our communities, in our houses of worship or right here at work, does anyone really care what political party we belong to?” he asks as music plays softly in the background.

A White man and Black woman shake their heads in response.

“Exactly,” Youngkin responds. “Yet politics is undermining our potential. We deserve better. Our kids deserve better. We can create a rip-roaring economy and schools that challenge our children to be their very best. All of us can build the Virginia dream together.”

That ad joins another Youngkin TV spot that portrays him as an outsider ready to provide safe communities as well as a great economy, jobs and schools. Neither ad mentions that Youngkin is a Republican.

Those feel-good, big-picture messages will go only so far for Youngkin, who has to find a way to woo back suburbanites who rejected Republicans while President Donald Trump was in the White House, Holsworth said.

“I think he’s going to have to have a stronger message than ‘He’s a good guy’ and ‘He’s an outsider,’ ” Holsworth said.

Youngkin had a month-long head start on the general-election campaign. The GOP chose him in a May 8 nominating convention, while the Democrats selected McAuliffe in a June 8 primary. Youngkin reserved more than $2 million in ad time between his convention win through June 28, according to Medium Buying.

“No general election TV/radio ad spending from The Macker yet,” the firm tweeted, referring to McAuliffe.

But Youngkin did not actually have the airwaves all to himself until the second week of June, since McAuliffe and rival Democrats were advertising on TV in the home stretch to the primary while Youngkin was rolling out general-election ads in May.

McAuliffe, as the overwhelming favorite in the primary, did not use any of his TV ads to attack his rivals, so the campaign’s exclusively pro-McAuliffe ads were on par with a general-election message.

The former governor, who served from 2014 to 2018, spent more than $3.9 million on ads ahead of the primary, according to Medium Buying. McAuliffe’s campaign put the figure at $4.7 million. The campaign’s ads on TV streaming services, which are more difficult to track, might account for the discrepancy, said Bayens, the Medium Buying co-founder.

One of McAuliffe’s ads featured the grown son of a man who had gotten in trouble with the law just out of high school, served his sentence and rebuilt his life but never regained the right to vote until McAuliffe reinstated it — part of his sweeping restoration of rights to 173,000 ex-felons. Two other spots highlighted McAuliffe’s support from leading Black legislators and mayors, some of whom praised his $2 billion-a-year plan to raise teacher pay above the national average, get every student online and expand preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds.

It is unclear how much voters will pay attention to political ads airing so far ahead of the Nov. 2 election. But Election Day is not as far off as it might seem, given that in-person early voting — an option that, as of last year, is available to all voters — begins Sept. 17.

“The closer you get to voting, the more effective television is,” Bayens said. But, he added, the early ad buy “doesn’t mean it’s not giving Youngkin an advantage.”