The Atlanta Braves currently lead the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series for the right to advance to the World Series.
If the Braves do make it to the Series, this will surely be an embarrassment for Major League Baseball. You’ll recall that MLB moved this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta to protest Georgia’s new voting laws, which were criticized as officially sanctioned voter suppression. Now, part of baseball’s championship series might be in Atlanta, raising questions about just how much MLB really cares about voter suppression – enough to move an All-Star Game but not enough to move the World Series?
And with that feint to baseball, we now execute a pick-off move to Virginia’s governor’s race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Younkin. Namely, why are Democrats now practicing voter suppression of their own?
Unless you’re out in the country without any broadband (which some of us are), you’ve surely read the big political news of the week (somehow I’ve still managed, though). Let’s let the headlines tell the story:
Dominion Energy gave $200,000 to secretive PAC attacking Youngkin from the right. – Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Dominion CEO says company ‘failed to vet’ secretive anti-Youngkin PAC, asks for $200,000 back – Richmond Times-Dispatch
Full disclosure: Dominion is one of our major donors; under our rules, donations have no influence on news coverage. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this column.
The particulars of this “secretive” political action committee were first outlined in a Sept. 28 article on the website Axios headlined “Sneaky Sabotage” that documented all the ways this mysterious Accountability PAC is clearly affiliated with Democrats – incorporated by Democratic consultants, its ads purchased through a Democratic firm, its donation page hosted by the Democrats’ Act Blue fundraising platform. The focus on the Dominion donation has come later.
So far, the news coverage has focused on the Dominion angle: Why is the utility backing McAuliffe? What did the company know, and when did it know it, about how these funds would be used? Did Dominion get embarrassed when all this came to light or did Democrats mislead the company about their plans? All this fits into a larger question: Should state-regulated utilities be making political contributions? Should companies of any kind be making contributions? (Virginia’s campaign finance laws allow all this; we live in a state where pretty much anything goes as long as it gets disclosed. Feel free to discuss among yourselves.)
There’s another angle, though, that deserves exploration: the voter suppression angle.
The duplicitously named Accountability PAC – its website contains no information whatsoever beyond a donation portal, so it’s hardly very accountable – isn’t simply buying ads that attack Youngkin. Attacking the other side is fair game in any political campaign. As the headlines and stories have pointed out, they are attacking Youngkin from the right, by suggesting he has insufficient ardor for guns. One ad, running on Facebook, says: “While the NRA backs Donald Trump, they REFUSED to endorse Glenn Youngkin. We can’t trust Glenn Youngkin on guns. Youngkin should tell us the truth about where he stands.”
The facts there are certainly correct. Somehow Youngkin got through the Republican nomination process without filling out the customary questionnaire from the National Rifle Association. And it’s true that the NRA has failed to endorse Youngkin, which is certainly unusual for a Republican candidate for governor.
So what’s wrong with pointing out, you know, actual facts? On the one hand, nothing at all. We need more fact-based advertising! What’s pernicious here is how these facts are delivered, or, more accurately, to whom. Axios has dug through publicly available data to reveal that these ads target 207 ZIP codes, all of them in rural Virginia, almost all of them west of the Blue Ridge. You can see the map here. We see large swaths of the Shenandoah Valley targeted, and virtually all of Southwest Virginia, with special emphasis on the coalfield counties. Or, in political terms, the Republican heartland.
By heartland, we mean this: Lee County, which has every one of its ZIP codes targeted, voted 84% for Donald Trump in 2020, and that was not a uniquely Trump phenomenon. In the 2017 governor’s race, Lee County cast 79% of its votes for Republican Ed Gillespie. Buchanan County, which has every ZIP targeted, voted 83.5% for Trump in 2020 and 76% for Gillespie in 2017. These counties aren’t just red, they’re deep red.
Now why would Democrats spend money to tell voters in such strongly Republican counties that their party’s nominee wasn’t endorsed by the NRA? There can only be one reason: The Accountability PAC is trying to dampen enthusiasm for Youngkin in hopes those voters stay home.
There’s a phrase for that: voter suppression.
It’s not the same type of voter suppression as laws that reduce the number of voting places in certain communities so that Black voters have to wait in long lines while white voters do not (or the infamous Georgia provision that makes it illegal to give someone in one of those long lines a bottle of water).
There’s obviously a difference between a law that makes it difficult for some people (and not others) to vote and a campaign decision on what message to deliver and to whom.
But let’s not kid around. Accountability PAC is trying to discourage people from voting.
That’s not right.
Accountability PAC can’t reasonably believe that some conservative rural voter is going to see one of its ads and conclude, “Gosh darn, that Youngkin fellow can’t be trusted; I’m going to vote for McAuliffe.” If you’re a pro-gun rights voter, maybe Youngkin isn’t quite as enthusiastic about waving guns around as you’d like him to be, but he’s surely a heck of a lot closer to your views than McAuliffe is. (The reality is we don’t know why Youngkin didn’t fill out the NRA questionnaire or pursue the NRA endorsement. Is he really too squishy on guns for the NRA’s absolutist tastes, or did Youngkin make a careful political calculation that he’d fare better in the suburbs if he didn’t have the NRA endorsement tattooed on his forehead? Since we know very little about Youngkin at all – certainly less than we’ve known about any other major party candidate for governor in the modern era – it’s hard to tell.)
In any case, the Democrats associated with this PAC are being cynical and hypocritical – as are any Democrats who condone this kind of thing. Imagine how Democrats would feel if a Republican PAC bought ads in, oh, let’s say Petersburg, a city that votes even more strongly Democratic than these coalfield counties do Republican, to tell voters there that the Democratic candidate was insufficiently supportive of some issue those voters cared about? Why isn’t Act Blue cutting off Accountability PAC for this kind of smarmy behavior?
Over time, both parties have done this sort of thing, so let’s not pretend here that Republicans are angels. However, Democrats have generally been more keen on expanding the electorate – and fighting against anything that restricts voting. Good for them. We’d be better off as a society if more people voted – and contrary to popular opinion, a large turnout doesn’t necessarily mean a Democratic turnout. A study last year by the Knight Foundation found that if every eligible adult voted, “non-voters would add an almost equal share of votes to Democratic and Republican candidates.” That’s why I’ve always found it odd that Republicans have been the loudest voices against measures such as early voting that make it easier for people to vote.
But back to my main point: Democrats have been the ones pushing for greater participation while Youngkin is prattling on about “election integrity.” Over the weekend, Stacey Abrams – who has virtually made a career out of campaigning for wider ballot access and against voter suppression – came to Virginia to campaign for McAuliffe. At the same time, though, other Democrats – the ones with Accountability PAC – were spending money trying to discourage Republicans from voting. Am I the only one who sees a contradiction here?
It’s not as if Democrats don’t have a case to make against Youngkin, even among rural voters. Youngkin wants to cut taxes. That’s great except for this: Most rural school systems are subsidized by the state government – up to 65% in Scott County. What happens to that funding if Youngkin succeeds in cutting taxes? Youngkin has specifically advocated eliminating the state tax on groceries (that used to be a Democratic issue back in the days of Henry Howell) and mused about cutting the state’s income tax. Not to put too fine a point on it, but does that mean more money for rich people in Northern Virginia and less money for poor school systems in rural Virginia? But that’s not the case Accountability PAC is making, even though that might really qualify as accountability. Instead, it’s trying to make Republican voters question whether it’s worth the effort to go to the polls.
There’s something else devious about this PAC’s strategy. Look at that map Axios compiled of targeted ZIP codes. These obviously aren’t all the Republican ZIP codes in the state. These ads aren’t targeting the suburban Republican voters of Roanoke County or the Republican precincts of Prince William County or Chesapeake. Instead, these are all distinctly rural ZIP codes. So here we have some big city political consultants (both MBA Consulting and Gambit Strategies are based in Washington, D.C.) trying to hoodwink rural voters, mostly in Appalachia, to stay home on Election Day. You shouldn’t have to be a gun-loving conservative voter in Southwest Virginia to find that offensive.