Republican Glenn Youngkin has embraced much of the Trumpian policy playbook in his bid for Virginia governor, with a glaring exception of the illegal immigration issue.
Mr. Youngkin hasn’t aired a single radio or TV ad about immigration at a time when the U.S.-Mexico border is a mess, Republican governors are sending National Guard troops to help and Republican politicians are making pilgrimages to be photographed with Border Patrol agents.
President Trump, meanwhile, blasts out press releases about the situation on a nearly daily basis.
Rather than hammer illegal immigration, Mr. Youngkin is making a strong play for Virginia’s growing Hispanic population. He hopes Hispanic voters will help him edge out Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the neck-and-neck race for governor.
“Clearly, Youngkin and his team believe the notes he is hitting on inflation and economic issues are more aligned with and more effective at winning over voters than talking about MS-13 or immigration issues at all,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with Inside Elections, a nonpartisan campaign tracker. “If the Youngkin campaign thought that was a winning message, they would be running on it.”
The strategy marks a significant break from four years ago, when Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie ran ads warning of a nexus between illegal immigration and crime. He homed in on MS-13, a violent and ruthless immigrant-dominated street gang prevalent in Northern Virginia.
Mr. Gillespie accused Democrat Ralph Northam of enabling MS-13 by voting as a state senator against a bill that would have banned sanctuary cities.
The Latino Victory Fund, backing Mr. Northam, fired back with an ad featuring a White man in a pickup truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker and a Confederate flag that was menacing children on the streets.
Mr. Northam easily won the race and led a Democratic sweep of the state’s top offices.
That race played out during Mr. Trump’s first year in office. He campaigned on plans for a border wall, more deportations and a travel ban on predominantly Muslim nations. Republicans said those issues helped put Mr. Trump in the White House.
Four years later, illegal immigration remains a hot topic nationally, as the Biden administration oversees what analysts describe as the worst year on the border in modern history.
Members of MS-13 also have wreaked havoc on communities across Virginia.
Several recent federal indictments have charged MS-13 members with kidnapping and grisly killings. In one case, the victim was stabbed over 140 times with knives and a machete before the dead body was dumped into a river.
Still, Mr. Youngkin has stayed far away from the topic as he battles Mr. McAuliffe, who is seeking to return to the governorship after a term from 2014 to 2018.
Polls suggest the strategy is paying off. Mr. Youngkin is pulling 32% to 55% of the Hispanic vote. Surveys also show the groups that have become the most disenchanted with Mr. Biden are self-described independent and Hispanic voters.
Mr. Gillespie lost the Hispanic vote by a 67% to 32% margin in 2017, according to exit polls.
Analysts say Mr. Gillespie turned to immigration because he carried too much political baggage and struggled to keep Republican voters engaged. Mr. Youngkin, a former private equity CEO and political newcomer, lacks that baggage.
Although he has welcomed Mr. Trump’s support and echoed the former president’s calls for election audits, he has avoided the more pointed complaints of election fraud. He also has downplayed issues such as abortion. In a caught-on-tape moment this summer, he said he didn’t want to scare off independent voters.
Instead, he has targeted voters who are frustrated with the Democrats’ one-party rule in Richmond and have misgivings about Mr. Biden. He has honed messages about inflation, jobs and schools.
Rep. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican, said Mr. Youngkin is picking the right fights.
“I think you have to have some hard-nosed issues, but the people who, I think, would be moved by [MS-13 and immigration] have already completely moved into the Republican camp, so you don’t need the message there anymore,” he said. “The cutting-edge issue is education this time.”
He credited Mr. Youngkin with having a firm grasp on the challenge facing Republicans in statewide races.
“There isn’t any question you have to bring over some people who are in the middle or on the edge of both parties,” he said. “So you want to shore up the soft Republicans and bring over the soft Democrats.”
To do that, Mr. Youngkin has turned to a staple issue: education.
He has tried to tap concerns about what schools are teaching and parental involvement. These have become hot-button issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. McAuliffe gave his opponent a gift in the final debate. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to nationalize the governor’s race by making it another referendum on Mr. Trump.
On immigration, they say a Republican in the governor’s mansion would push Trump-style enforcement policies against illegal immigrants.
Mr. Youngkin’s lack of direct campaigning with Mr. Trump is denting the comparisons, so Democrats have tried another tactic: driving a wedge between the former president’s supporters and the Republican candidate. The Democratic National Committee recently flew a plane near Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida with a banner that read, “Why won’t Youngkin let Trump campaign in VA?”
Former Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said the focus on Mr. Trump has fallen flat.
“Glenn is nothing like Trump in his personality and manner, but on the issues, sure,” he said. “It is not unique for Republicans to be for lower taxes, energy independence, regulatory reform, reasonable regulations and high accountability in schools.”
As for issues related to crime and immigration, Mr. Allen said voters are directing concerns at the state’s parole board and the “defund the police” movement.
“They are different times and different issues, and there are different people running,” Mr. Allen said.