ARLINGTON, Va. — In the final days of the tight race for Virginia governor, the candidates are turning to the unlikeliest of campaign props: a novel from 1987.
A new online advertisement released this week by Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate, features a mother who pushed to have Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” banned from her son’s English curriculum eight years ago, citing the book’s graphic scenes. When that failed, she started an effort that eventually became a bill passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, but that was rejected by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat now running to win back his old job.
“It gave parents a say — the option to choose an alternative for my children,” the Northern Virginia mother, Laura Murphy, says in the ad. “But then Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it twice. He doesn’t think parents should have a say. He said that. He shut us out.”
Left unsaid in the ad was that the mother and her husband are Republican activists, that their son was a high school senior taking advanced placement English when he read the passages that supposedly gave him nightmares, or that he later went on to work briefly in the White House under former President Donald J. Trump and now works for the G.O.P.’s congressional campaign committee. Also unmentioned was the novel in question: a Pulitzer Prize-winning fixture of the American literary canon — by a Nobel Prize-winner, no less — whose harrowing scenes conveyed the horrors of slavery, a subject with obvious historical resonance in Virginia.
To Democrats, the Youngkin ad was both a throwback to the days of book banning and a coded insult to one of America’s most celebrated Black authors, after months of frantic Republican alarms, in Virginia and nationwide, about how schoolchildren are being educated about racism.
Mr. Youngkin and his allies, noting that the ad had not mentioned “Beloved” or Ms. Morrison, insisted it had merely been intended to showcase what they contended was Mr. McAuliffe’s disregard for the prerogatives of parents in overseeing their children’s education. The specifics had not been mentioned, they said, because they were beside the point.
What was indisputable was that the ad — which had not even been run on television — had suddenly given both Mr. Youngkin and Mr. McAuliffe a much-needed new rallying cry in an election that is widely expected to hinge on which of them is more successful at mobilizing their core supporters to get to the polls.
There was almost an inevitability to the way the Virginia governor’s race was winding down with an argument about racism.
Four years ago, with Mr. Trump in the White House and memories of the deadly extremist rally in Charlottesville, Va., still fresh, the Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, finished his campaign with a series of pledges to protect the state’s Confederate monuments, a development Democrats charged as racist.
This year, Mr. Youngkin is centering his closing messaging on what he calls “parents’ rights” — an all-encompassing rubric for conservative causes like opposing mask mandates, vaccine requirements and transgender rights, and stoking fears about the way race is taught in the schools.
For months, the conservative media have lavished national attention on local events in suburban Loudoun County, Va., including a sexual assault case that revived Republican criticism of gender-inclusive bathroom policies in schools, and the suspension of a physical education teacher who refused to address transgender students by the pronouns that they identified with. Conservatives have also falsely claimed that Virginia schools are teaching “critical race theory,” an advanced academic concept that is not part of classroom instruction in the state.
Polling indicates that those themes have resonated with conservative voters in Virginia.
“I don’t have any school-aged kids, but I’m a big believer that parents certainly do have say in what their kids should learn,” Tom Allen, 64, a retired airline pilot from Herndon, Va., said as he headed into a community center to cast an early vote for Mr. Youngkin on Monday. “I don’t think somebody should be jamming a political opinion down these little kids’ throats.”
Yet Democrats, too, have discerned an opportunity to energize their supporters — by painting Mr. Youngkin, who opposes abortion rights, as a threat not just to women’s control over their bodies but to the schools’ ability to shape young minds.
“He’s gone from banning a woman’s right to choose to banning books by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author,” President Biden said of the Republican candidate at a rally with Mr. McAuliffe in Arlington on Tuesday night.
There, McAuliffe staff members handed out copies of “Beloved” and other books by Ms. Morrison, along with bookmarks proclaiming that Mr. Youngkin would “ban books in Virginia schools.” Liberal television hosts quickly scheduled interviews with scholars who extolled the importance of her work.
Mr. McAuliffe has struggled to motivate liberals, and Democratic activists have expressed concern that he has yet to fully energize Black and Latino voters. Some party strategists believe the “Beloved” ad and its blowback could provide his campaign with a well-timed burst of energy.
“It’s a reminder to Virginia voters how extreme Glenn Youngkin is, despite going to great lengths to look at like a harmless suburban dad,” said Josh Schwerin, a strategist who worked on Mr. McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign.
Republicans counter it is the McAuliffe campaign that is employing divisive culture-war tactics to close out the race. Mr. Youngkin, they argue, is simply trying to ensure that parents are informed and have input over their children’s curriculum. And Mr. McAuliffe, they note, accepted the support of Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both of whom were forced to acknowledge that they dressed in blackface decades ago as students.
“The Morrison part is another distortion, trying to make it a racial issue,” said George Allen, who served as both governor and a senator from Virginia. “I don’t think parents have any idea the race of whoever wrote any book. They think the descriptions are things parents should know about.”
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican who in 2013 signed a law declaring Virginia parents “have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education and care of their children,” said Mr. Youngkin had tapped into a rich vein of voter discontent.
“What you have here is a Democratic candidate for governor and a public school system that says, ‘We don’t agree and we’re not going to provide those rights,’” Mr. McDonnell said. “That’s the takeaway from a number of parents and I think it’s a very potent issue that transcends parties.”
“Beloved” tells the story of a former slave who killed her 2-year-old daughter to spare her the horrors of bondage.
In 2013, Ms. Murphy, who said her son, Blake, told her that the novel gave him nightmares, began lobbying for policies giving parents more control over what their children read in class. At the time, her son told The Washington Post he found the book “disgusting and gross” and “hard for me to handle.”
He went on to the University of Florida, spent a summer as a clerk in the White House and now works as a lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
After several years of lobbying by Ms. Murphy and others, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a bill with bipartisan support giving parents the right to review and opt their children out of “instructional material that includes sexually explicit content.” The legislation would have made Virginia the only state to give parents that power.
Mr. McAuliffe vetoed it in 2016 and vetoed a similar bill a year later. The effort to override his veto fell short by one vote.
Although the legislation did not explicitly prohibit certain books, as Democrats now contend, opponents warned that the approach could lead to book banning.
While the effectiveness of Mr. Youngkin’s ads may not become clear until polls close on Tuesday, there has been one clear beneficiary of the controversy: As of Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Morrison’s 34-year-old novel was one of the top 50 best-selling books on Amazon.