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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In a first taste of Republicans' Biden-era villains, the Virginia GOP is rolling out some of Donald Trump's favorites — China and Hillary Clinton — for the state's 2021 election.

Why it matters: Virginia’s off-year elections are an early battleground in defining the Republicans’ post-Trump identity. A spate of attacks against GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin appears to be drawing from the same playbook, hyping familiar Trump-era GOP villains.

What’s new: The latest round of ads came from a Virginia-based nonprofit called Americans for Limited Government.

  • ALG has placed radio and television spots going after Youngkin.
  • The former private equity executive is well-positioned in the primary, already raising well over $1 million, and he has substantial personal wealth he can pour into his campaign. Among his formidable challengers are former state House Speaker Kirk Cox and state Sen. Amanda Chase, a hard-right Trump ally.
  • The ads dubiously accuse Youngkin of funding Black Lives Matter protests and Hillary Clinton. They also mention his business dealings in China, with the radio ad punctuating the attack with gong sound effects.
  • ALG has attempted to downplay its politicking in official paperwork. It told a Norfolk radio station its ads do not “communicate a message relating to any political matter of national importance,” a designation requiring additional disclosure in political ad filings.

What they're saying: “These are false and deceptive smears, and the political insiders and previously failed candidates behind them are going back to their old political playbook and hiding behind shady groups because they know their dirty games are rotten to the core,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said.

Another group dubbed the Virginia Cornerstone PAC has run ads with similar messaging.

  • A video from the group also hypes Youngkin’s Chinese business dealings and supposed Clinton backing. (The donations to Clinton and other Democrats all came from the Carlyle Group, his former employer, or his colleagues at the firm — not from Youngkin.)
  • The Cornerstone PAC retained the same firm as ALG to place radio ads in the Virginia governor's race, FCC filings show.
  • Virginia Cornerstone is run by Chris Jankowski, a prominent GOP strategist in the state. He has declined to identify the group’s funders to the media before filing mandatory disclosure reports.
  • In addition to its ads, the group has also posted a 120-page opposition research file about Youngkin on its website.

Phrases from that oppo file appear verbatim on the website of another new political group called Stop Bad Candidates PAC.

  • That PAC’s website, which appears to have been created late last year, is devoted to posting bits of opposition research on Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, whom Stop Bad Candidates — like Virginia Cornerstone — attempt to portray as like-minded.
  • The people, organizations and funders behind Stop Bad Candidates PAC are a mystery. It hasn’t disclosed any information about its finances and did not respond to inquiries from Axios.

The bottom line: All three groups are pushing similar messages, seemingly based on the same research file. But each is careful to obscure information about its operations.

  • For Youngkin’s campaign, that’s making it difficult to nail down precisely who is coming after their candidate.

Go deeper

FBI, Homeland Security warn of increasing threat to Capitol

Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report reviewed by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says an unidentified group of extremists discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

21 mins ago - World

Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

"Neanderthal thinking": Biden slams states lifting mask mandates

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).