Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin has unveiled new ads starring Virginians who have embraced anti-vaccine and anti-mask rhetoric, even as Youngkin tries to push back on Democratic criticism of his "Trumpian" pandemic policy.
Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor — thanks to the state's peculiar one-term limit — has focused his statements and ads this month on attacking Youngkin for opposing vaccine requirements for health workers and mask mandates in schools. The issue came to a head during their first debate last week, when McAuliffe accused Youngkin, who is vaccinated and has personally encouraged people to get vaccinated, of being anti-vaccine. McAuliffe vowed to support vaccine mandates for health workers, educators and employees who would be covered by President Joe Biden's federal mandate.
Youngkin, a former private equity CEO who is using his wealth to fund his campaign, has helped bankroll anti-vaccine Republican candidates and urged "everyone who does not want to get the vaccine for whatever reason" to seek an exemption from mandates. He drew criticism earlier this month from Virginia doctors after opposing vaccine requirements and vowing to reverse Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's policy requiring schools to follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Youngkin, who has been endorsed by Donald Trump, has tried to walk a fine line in appealing to Republican base voters, who largely oppose vaccine and mask requirements, while attempting not to alienate independent and suburban voters he needs to win an increasingly blue state. Though polls currently show the two candidates neck and neck, a recent survey found that nearly 70% of Virginia voters support vaccine requirements for teachers and staff and mask requirements in schools and 55% support businesses requiring vaccines for employees. Nearly 80% of the state's voting-age population has already received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Youngkin has tried to push back on McAuliffe's criticism over his vaccine position, airing a new ad featuring three doctors who accuse the Democrat of waging a "smear campaign" and putting politics over science.
One of the doctors, Peter Zedler, has echoed anti-mask rhetoric on his Facebook page, writing last year that "'Controlling the virus' is just nonsense." In another post, he criticized Biden for not pursuing herd immunity through uncontrolled infection, a strategy that medical experts have warned could kill millions. Earlier this year, Zedler was also $300 by the Virginia Republican Party for "vote tabulations" after the party nominated Youngkin in May.
Another one of the doctors in Youngkin's ad, Georgeanne Long, was among the hosts for a Youngkin fundraiser featuring former Attorney General Bill Barr on Thursday, meaning she and her husband would have had to donate at least $25,000. Her husband previously donated more than $3,000 to Youngkin's campaign.
Another new Youngkin ad features Loudoun County teacher Paul Troth, who has repeatedly pushed anti-vaccine talking points on his Facebook page. Troth has railed against "sheep" who support vaccine requirements while repeatedly posting the slogan "My body, my choice." In other posts he compared the vaccines to dangerous discontinued drugs that were approved by the Food and Drug Administration decades earlier, calling vaccine requirements "forced vaccinations." Troth has also praised Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for refusing the vaccine, described Biden as the "epitome of tyranny," and posted a meme claiming that "Trump was right" about hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial medication that has no proven benefit against Covid and has been found to cause heart problems, blood and lymph system disorders, kidney injuries and liver problems, according to the FDA. Troth has also complained about new protections for transgender students in his school district, calling it a "disgrace" and a "clown show."
"Glenn Youngkin's track record consists of sowing doubt about the vaccine, emboldening anti-vaccine extremists, and advancing reckless policies that would prolong the pandemic," Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party, said in a statement to Salon. "His decision to put anti-vaccine and anti-mask actors on television is nothing if not consistent with his dangerous, Trumpian agenda."
Youngkin, on the other hand, has criticized McAullife for refusing to appear in a pro-vaccine PSA with him.
"These dishonest smears from Terry McAuliffe are just a sign of how desperate he is. Glenn Youngkin is the only candidate in the race with a TV ad encouraging Virginians to join him in getting vaccinated," a spokesperson for Youngkin said in a statement to Salon. "Terry McAuliffe's record consists of appointing a top anti-vax activist who called vaccines a 'holocaust of poison' to a state board because she donated to his campaign, failing to comply with federal law by violating President Biden's Amtrak mask mandate this year, and refusing to put politics aside and film a joint pro-vaccine PSA with Youngkin that could save lives."
McAuliffe pushed back on the criticism during last week's debate.
"He is not requiring vaccinations. That is the difference between the two of us. Asking to do a PSA is a political stunt," he said. "Who cares about PSAs? Half the people wouldn't know who you are on TV."
While Youngkin has run pro-vaccine PSAs alongside the ad with doctors criticizing McAuliffe, his vaccine-themed ads made up just 11% of his total TV advertising over the last week and a half, according to Politico. Youngkin's campaign has largely focused on his sheriff endorsements and his proposal to eliminate the state's grocery tax. By comparison, more than 60% of McAuliffe's ads have focused on vaccines.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom likewise focused on his pandemic response to easily beat back a Republican recall attempt and Democrats increasingly believe that pointing to the clear contrast between Democratic and Republican positions on COVID policy is a winning strategy. More than 60% of voters in the California recall backed vaccine requirements and more than 70% supported school mask mandates, according to exit polls.
"His Day 1 plan would be to unleash COVID," McAuliffe said before calling his opponent a "Trump wannabe" at the debate. "I think that's life-threatening. And I think that's disqualifying as governor."