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.

But the other component to a law-and-order campaign has policy roots. GOP gubernatorial front-runner Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights) outlined some of them in an interview with WRVA’s John Reid on Tuesday.

Cox criticized Democrats for pushing legislation that would eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences. Cox said repealing minimum sentences would mean leaving the punishment for “heinous crimes” to the discretion of “liberal judges” who, presumably, are — you guessed it — soft on crime.

More broadly, Cox implied Democratic moves to eliminate mandatory minimums, end the death penalty and more are a sign “we’ve just forgotten the victims totally.”

Cox was blunt: “Democrats’ agenda this session has been noticeably anti-law enforcement and very anti-law and order.”

That message will inevitably become “Democrats are soft on crime.” In any other election year — one that didn’t begin with a live-streamed insurrection on behalf of a Republican president — it might have been a guaranteed winner.

Law and order can still be a formidable GOP campaign plank, as it has been for decades. But given the public lawlessness in their own ranks, Republicans will need more to shake the Democrats’ structural advantages heading into November.

Their best hope for that comes from none other than former governor Terry McAuliffe, the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination this year. I’ll take a look at that in a future column.

Read more: