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Opinion Glenn Youngkin’s campaign rolls out the crime ads

Glenn Youngkin, Virginia's Republican nominee for governor, at the Madison Heights Community Center in Amherst, Va., on Aug. 7. (Kendall Warner/The News & Advance via Associated Press)

Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign has rolled out a pair of new ads that hit former governor and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe in what Republicans hope is his softest spot: crime.

The ads hit very hard and are sure to energize those who already are firmly behind or leaning toward Youngkin, the Republican nominee.

That doesn’t mean the ads are flawless. Both demand we ignore the ideological gymnastics behind the pitch. Here, it’s right-to-work loving Republicans leaning on unions, and public-sector unions at that, to support their gubernatorial nominee. That’s, um, interesting.

That aside, are these good wedge issue ads that might cause a rift between Democrats and their (relatively) newfound suburban voters?

That’s certainly the hope. And there’s a solid history in Virginia of law-and-order candidates doing well in general elections. One of the most successful was a Republican first-time statewide contender named George Allen. As The Post’s Donald Baker and John Harris wrote following Allen’s landslide win over Democratic nominee Mary Sue Terry in 1993, Allen “exploited widespread dissatisfaction with Democratic leaders in Richmond and Washington and presented himself as a tough-on-crime family man who embodied change.”

Allen’s win — built partially on a promise to abolish parole — accelerated the GOP’s rise to prominence in the commonwealth and brought to statewide notice a new Republican attorney general named Jim Gilmore, who would win his own landslide gubernatorial election in 1997.

What’s any of this got to do with a couple of ads Glenn Youngkin is running in a much different governor’s race 28 years later?

Again: Law-and-order campaigns can be very successful. The University of Richmond’s Dan Palazzolo told me they “tend to work in specific situations, like when the crime rate is high or a high profile case demands of tough response.”

The Youngkin campaign’s “Extreme” and “Dangerous” ads, based in part on Virginia State Police crime data, hope to drive home the idea that violent crime in particular is nearly out of control and that renewing crime-coddler McAuliffe’s lease on the Executive Mansion means those shadowy, bearded, knife-wielding bad guys, as depicted in the ads, are coming to a suburb near you.

They’re of a kind with the MS-13-themed ads run by unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie in 2017. Gillespie’s entries were cynical, even by modern political standards. They were also spectacular failures.

What distinguishes the Youngkin ads is the larger political environment. The chief ingredient there (besides former president Donald Trump not being in the White House) is McAuliffe’s record as governor, including his appointment of Adrianne Bennett to chair the Virginia Parole Board.

When pressed during the Democratic primary about whether the Parole Board under Bennett’s watch ignored its own rules and state law to release felons, McAuliffe dodged, saying “I wasn’t there when [the controversial releases] was going on.”

That’s the underlying weakness Team Youngkin is hoping to exploit. It’s also the one Virginia Democrats thought they defused with an outside investigation into, well, not the Parole Board but the Virginia Office of the Inspector General. As the Roanoke Times editorial board wrote, that investigation “was a narrowly crafted inquiry that doesn’t pretend to address any of the big questions about the parole board, all of which are still on the table.”

How does McAuliffe brush back Youngkin’s law-and-order push? Palazzolo said, “the most important kitchen table issue might be the virus, particularly the impact on schooling.”

The major party nominees are encouraging people to get vaccinated, but they differ on mask mandates. Palazzolo said it’s unclear how this issue will play. “Is [Northam’s] statewide mandate too heavy-handed? Or is it appropriate for the times? That might be a stalemate.”

If it is a stalemate, then look for those other issues — including Youngkin’s push on crime — to get a lot more play as we approach the heart of campaign season.