With Glenn Youngkin, what you see may not be what you get.
The Republican nominee for governor recently posted on Twitter a photograph of himself and one of his sons in full — and fully matching — camouflage, with a beaming Youngkin holding by its legs a dead turkey. It appears to be a tom, or a male. There are no firearms present.
In the accompanying caption, presumably written by a campaign staffer, Youngkin — who, according to the game department, does not have a hunting license but could hunt, if he actually does, without a license on land he owns — says, “It’s a blessing to live in a state that has abundant opportunities to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors!”
Youngkin’s staff isn’t talking about the picture. It doesn’t even bother to acknowledge questions about it. Among them: Where and when was it made? Is Youngkin a hunter? If so, what is his preferred game? What type of firearms might he own or favor?
To the operatives running Youngkin’s campaign, these are questions best unanswered because the answers presumably do not fit the narrative that, they believe, gets him elected. Put another way: Appearances are intentionally deceiving.
“What you’re seeing is that he’s trying to be what Republicans expect,” said Bob Denton, an expert in political messaging and director of the Virginia Tech School of Communication, of Youngkin. “He is playing all the characters — because he has to.”
And Denton said, speaking to a pol’s dilemma of reconciling conscience and candidacy: “Is it risky for me to be me? There are rules and there are expectations.”
There are many layers to the message the Youngkin photograph is intended to convey. They speak to one of the realities of politics, in general, and to Youngkin’s candidacy, in particular: Campaigns require play-acting, finding a shtick and sticking with it.
Voters are quite familiar with the routines of such political thespians as Doug Wilder (Trump-before-Trump ruthless charmer), George Allen (boot-wearing, make-believe bubba), Mark Warner (high-strung yuppie technocrat with a NASCAR habit), Bob McDonnell (well-coiffed suburban everyman), and Youngkin’s opponent, Terry McAuliffe (occasionally clownish deal-maker).
McAuliffe — by the way, he has a hunting license and has had permits to hunt turkey and bear — knows all about theatrics, though critics might call it buffoonery.
For a contribution from the Seminole tribe to Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign in 1980, McAuliffe wrestled an 8-foot alligator; however, it was more a supervised snuggle. Running for governor, he dons togs synonymous with a craft — for instance, telecom technician — and will produce a quickie video for Twitter aimed at giving him working-man cred.
Youngkin, as an unknown until he announced his candidacy in January, had a luxury — beyond a bulging personal fortune with which to bankroll his campaign — that few politicians ever have: He started as a blank canvas, one with evident charm, practiced patience and a capacity to distill the complex to a catchphrase.
This gives him more latitude than the well-known McAuliffe to tell the story that consultants, polling and focus groups suggest he must to have a chance in a blue-trending state where Youngkin is at risk for his opposition to mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations and abortion rights and his obeisance to Donald Trump.
Some of these are positions he has no choice but to take. Practical Republicanism works on Wall Street, Youngkin’s previous haunt. Philosophical Republicanism is the rule among the activists who control the GOP, where Youngkin now roams as the Great Right Hope.
Which highlights the wink-and-nod power of that picture on Twitter.
The photograph — by virtue of the bagged bird and candidate’s way, way-too-tidy Cabela’s-esque attire — is supposed to imply Youngkin is just another member of the feather-and-fin crowd; that, even with a shotgun typically used to hunt turkey nowhere to be seen, he’s a genuine 2A guy.
But that’s been fuzzed up, too.
Youngkin, who used to describe himself as a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, refused to complete the NRA questionnaire on which the besieged, muscular gun-rights group bases its endorsement. It apparently was no accident Youngkin punted on that.
No answers. No endorsement. And for Youngkin none of the negatives associated with NRA support, which might put out of reach the votes of election-deciding suburban moms Youngkin woos with, among other issues, a frightening spike in homicides.
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a national Democratic strategist in Southwest Virginia who’s been working for years to reintroduce his party to the countryside that has shunned it as high-brow and high-tax, is puzzled Youngkin even bothers to pitch to rural Republican voters.
“He’s got that crowd,” said Saunders, who is publicly neutral for governor. “Nobody’s going to like him because he killed a gobbler turkey. Damn, he should be concentrating on suburban housewives in NoVa.”
Youngkin has a habit of tailoring his themes with the surgically precise cynicism that specific audiences demand. On at least two occasions, because of Democratic guerilla tactics, it’s come back to haunt him.
There was Youngkin’s caught-on-tape aside that, to win, he has to soft-pedal his opposition to abortion; that restrictions must wait until Republicans take back the legislature. Also, a McAuliffe-circulated recording of Youngkin has him telling college students in June it’s OK to refuse requirements that they be jabbed for COVID-19.
Talk about turkeys.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond; 89.1 FM in Roanoke.