Glenn Youngkin pulled ahead of his competitors, winning a surprise victory in the Virginia Republican primary Monday night. Within moments, Terry McAuliffe, the former governor and the strong favorite to win the 2021 Democratic nomination, attacked. On economic, immigration, taxation, or infrastructure plans? Nope: McAuliffe called Youngkin a “Big Lie believing” election conspiracy theorist.
Let me introduce you to Glenn Youngkin: Glenn's a Ted Cruz and Corey Stewart-endorsed, self-funding, Big Lie believing Trump loyalist who'll stop at nothing to advance the GOP's extreme agenda.
What he’s definitely not? The next Governor of Virginia. I'll make sure of that.
— Terry McAuliffe (@TerryMcAuliffe) May 11, 2021
He’d used the attack before, when in February Youngkin rolled out his proposed Election Integrity Task Force. Of course, “conspiracy theorist” is not an unusual attack to see in politics, and especially since Sen. Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful 1964 run for president, it’s been a favorite for Democrats to use against Republicans.
While during the Clinton White House years broad accusations of “the vast right-wing conspiracy” were sufficient to help dull Republican attacks on the president, more substantive and specific attacks are always more effective. Typically, that job falls to opposition research firms paid by the candidates and their parties to dig up dirt on their opponents, but sometimes you don’t need those as much, for example: when you have The New York Times on your side.
Enter the Times: At Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial debate on April 27, the moderator opened with a question that had been submitted by the Republican Women of Greater Richmond. “Please explain in detail your plan to ensure we have election integrity in Virginia,” the moderator read, “and in particular, if Dominion voting systems and machines are used on Nov. 3, 2021, will you immediately pursue an independent audit of the results when you are sworn in as governor?”
The question referred to nationally recognized — and angrily contested — questions on the integrity of 2020 election in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, specifically referencing accusations of rigged Dominion voting machines, which were never proven true. As any practiced politician or debater knows, however, the specifics of the question matters less than the answer given.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most important issue we’re going to talk about right now,” Youngkin, the second candidate to speak, began.
It’s the first issue we talked about in our candidacy. Our Election Integrity Taskforce was launched week one. This is not a Republican issue. it’s not a Democrat issue. Now remember: Hillary Clinton complained like crazy ‘they stole the election from me.’ Folks, this is a democracy issue, and we launched right out of the box five steps to restore our trust in our election process.
Number one, our Department of Elections will be made independent and transparent. Number two, the voter rolls will be updated every 30 days and if you’ve sadly died or moved away, guess what, you’re not allowed to vote.
You will have actually have to show up at every election with a Commonwealth of Virginia photo ID. This is not a controversial — you need one to get a library card in Virginia.
If you need a mail-in ballot, you’ll fill out your application and prove you’re a citizen and there will be two signatures when you send it back in. And finally, those voting machines will indeed be tested before and audited within 30 days and it will be made public so everybody will know that this election was fair.
New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel was watching, and live-tweeted the evening’s back-and forths, including Youngkin’s answer, writing:
Ok, so first q for GOP candidates is about what you'll do if Dominion voting machines are used in November general election. "Will you immediately puruse an independent audit?"@GlennYoungkin says, "Ladies & gentlemen, this is the most important issue we're going to talk about"
— Trip Gabriel (@tripgabriel) April 27, 2021
The problem with this characterization is while the Republican Women of Greater Virginia cited Dominion voting machines in their question, and some of the candidates referenced Dominion in their answers, Youngkin did not, choosing instead to focus on broader election integrity issues and reforms that aren’t unlike what a number of states have worked to implement over the past 20 years. That kind of answer — one that tackles some of the issues while ignoring others — doesn’t flow naturally; it’s thought-out and it’s intentional.
While the Republican group writing the question had focused on Dominion, worries about voting machine integrity are as old as their introduction, have been asked by both major parties and outside observers, and are important.
But that kind of essential nuance didn’t bother Gabriel, and his mischaracterization was immediately echoed by BlueVirginia.us, a blog run by progressive Virginian Democrats and founded by a professional Democratic consultant. “Excellent job by NY Times reporter Trip Gabriel,” the post began.
Ten days later, Gabriel followed up on his tweets with an article introducing his take on the Virginian Republican candidates for the Times’ loyal readers.
“One candidate brands himself a ‘conservative outlaw,'” Gabriel began the piece, titled “Virginia G.O.P.’s Choices for Governor: ‘Trumpy, Trumpier, Trumpiest.'”
Youngkin, it continued, “asked about Dominion voting machines — the subject of egregious conspiracy theories on the right — called them ‘the most important issue’ of the campaign.”
And he wasn’t finished. Days later, when Youngkin won the nomination, Gabriel inserted his Dominion claim — accented with a completely editorialized accusation that the candidate’s election integrity plan means he “aligned himself with… lies” — into his story on the victory.
At the recent candidates’ forum, Mr. Youngkin aligned himself with Mr. Trump’s lies about a rigged 2020 election, declaring ‘voter integrity’ a top issue and referring to Dominion voting machines — the subject of conspiracy theories on the far right — as ‘the most important issue’ of the campaign.
… Although Mr. Youngkin is expected to pivot to reach independent voters, Democrats are sure to remind them in the fall of his most Trumpy declarations from the nominating race
It’s the kind of editorializing that might make sense for the bloggers at BlueVirginia.us, or that the candidates and surrogates of the Democratic Party will try to stick to Youngkin, but in an ethical media world the claim — particularly that Youngkin was “referring to Dominion voting machines” — would earn a newspaper a strong fact-check.
As if. Don’t expect one of those, of course: Facebook and its allies strongly discourage center-right fact-checkers from going after left-wing claims no matter how misleading, and left-wing outlets very rarely go after their friends on the things that actually matter.
In a complete perversion of what would happen in an ethical media world, rather than a fact-check on Gabriel, Youngkin might expect the Times article to be used in some of the cheaper checks that will be deployed against him when he works to push back against the barbs McAuliffe flings on the trail.
It’s the kind of thing Republicans have to deal with every step of the way too, from Kristi Noem and the massive deadly factory outbreak that never happened to Ron DeSantis and the vaccine corruption that also never happened.
This reality isn’t going anywhere, but it’s always good to take a peek at the reporters behind the curtain. These kinds of things aren’t one-offs, they’re how corporate media and the Democratic Party work in tandem to defeat their conservative opponents; seeing how it’s done is just the first step to fighting back.