The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Antisemitic mailer in Virginia legislative race follows a recent GOP pattern

Dan Helmer, a Democrat, is running for reelection in Virginia's 40th House District. (Dayna Smith/for The Washington Post)

Antisemitic stereotypes, tropes and imagery, centuries old, recur episodically in American politics, and not only on the ideological fringes. Days ago, in a tightly contested Northern Virginia state legislative race, a Republican challenger sent a mailer to thousands of households with a digitally altered photo of the Democratic incumbent, who is Jewish — his face in profile, features accentuated in shadowy tones — gazing upon stacks of gold coins.

The mailer, authorized by Harold Pyon, a GOP candidate for the House of Delegates, was paid for by Virginia’s Republican Party. Its target is first-term lawmaker Dan Helmer, an Army veteran who was an armor officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now a management consultant as well as an instructor at West Point, his alma mater.

The antisemitism conveyed by Mr. Pyon’s campaign mailer is classic and blatant. To claim that it was unintentional is to assert blind ignorance of history. Nonetheless, that is the position of the Pyon campaign, whose spokesman told us that antisemitic stereotyping “was not in anyone’s mind” when the mailer was designed.

Mr. Helmer is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and the only current member of the military in Virginia’s legislature. He is also the descendant of Holocaust survivors. One of them, Edith Shapiro, now 86, his maternal grandmother, spoke movingly at his 2020 swearing-in about having come through trauma as a child in wartime Poland — she and her family were hidden from the Nazis by good Samaritans — to see her grandson elected to public office in the United States.

We have no reason to assume Mr. Pyon, a retired federal worker and former Army medic, is himself an antisemite. But there is no doubt that his noxious mailer is an affront to decency. It also fits a recent pattern among Virginia Republican candidates in this fall’s legislative elections. One, Hahns Copeland, running in Norfolk, responded to a photo of state House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) by tweeting, “I was surprised to see a pair of eyes and a mouth with that NOSE.” Another, Julie Perry, running for a seat in Northern Virginia, made light of the Holocaust by comparing the experience of conservative teachers to the plight of German Jews in Nazi Germany.

As for Mr. Pyon, there are other good reasons to oppose his candidacy, and favor Mr. Helmer’s, in Virginia’s 40th House District, which straddles Fairfax and Prince William counties. In the mailer, he attacks Mr. Helmer for backing 2020 legislation to raise the gas tax. As it happens, the price of gas at the pump fell after that, owing to the pandemic; moreover, the bill ensured revenue for critical road and transit improvements, including for Metro. In effect, Mr. Pyon has positioned himself as the pro-traffic candidate.

By contrast, Mr. Helmer has displayed guts, independence and intelligence as a freshman lawmaker, including by backing a bipartisan redistricting commission — a reform overwhelmingly approved by Virginia voters — even when members of his own party reversed themselves to oppose it. He is the better choice in the race.