WARRENTON, Virginia – Democrat Terry McAuliffe launched his campaign for governor of Virginia last year at a public school to tout his education plan.
But in the final days of a surprisingly close race, it’s his opponent, Republican Glenn Youngkin, whose closing message is about schools.
“I get texts, emails and phone calls from parents all over America and they need us to stand up for them,” Youngkin told supporters Thursday at an outdoor rally. “Parents across the country need us to say we stand up for our children because the same is happening in their school districts and school boards and they need us to give them hope. “
Schools have long been a major issue in governorship campaigns. And education has often been the battleground of America’s cultural wars, from manifestations of war to classroom prayer.
But thanks to frustration over school closures in the event of a pandemic, a nationwide push by Conservatives to resist a wave of race-based curriculum changes, and an unforced error by McAuliffe, Republicans in Virginia have found an issue that unites their fractional base without turning off the suburban moderates they need to win statewide on Nov. 2.
“Virginia offers a first test of whether education issues like these might be effective in attracting suburban voters Republicans hemorrhaged during the Trump administration,” said Jessica Taylor, an analyst who follows governor races for the non-partisan cook. Political report.
Youngkin could be an example for Republicans to use in next year’s congressional midterm election.
“If Youngkin is able to improve its margins in the suburbs that have gone from red to blue over the past decade in Virginia, we might see that used as a mid-point model in some places,” she said. added.
For Youngkin, who has organized “Parents Matter” rallies across Virginia, schooling has become a substitute for a host of contentious issues that galvanize the conservative base, from mask mandates to charter schools to critical theory of race – a subject until recently obscure. academic field that conservatives say liberals use to indoctrinate children into believing whites are inherently racist. (Supporters say they are simply advocating for schools to be honest about the nation’s complicated racial past and ongoing systemic racism.)
But emblematic of his entire approach to the campaign, Youngkin is careful to speak in a way that is unlikely to deter voters who see themselves as the good guys in the fight against racism as he vows to “ban critical theory. of the race on the first day “if elected.
“It all starts with the school curriculum. The program has gone haywire, “he told Warrenton to cheers on a sunny fall afternoon, saying parents from all ideological backgrounds were joining him in a non-partisan” movement. “
“We’re going to teach the whole story. The good and the bad, ”Youngkin continued. “On day one, we’re going to embrace the famous and famous comments from Dr. Martin Luther King that we’re not going to judge each other on the color of their skin, but rather on the content of our character.”
With just over two weeks and both sides spending a lot, the most played political commercials in Virginia right now are Youngkin’s spots featuring a McAuliffe blunder from the last debate when he said, “I don’t think so. not that parents should tell schools what to teach.
McAuliffe was referring to a 2017 bill he vetoed during his first term as governor (Virginia is the only state in the country that does not allow governors to serve two consecutive terms) that would have allowed parents to prevent their children from studying literature deemed sexually explicit, such as “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, which sparked the so-called “Beloved Bill” push.
McAuliffe vetoed the bill on the grounds of free speech, arguing it could chill the teaching of classics deemed offensive.
But his debate commentary, taken out of context, plays into long-standing Conservative accounts of “big government,” as well as new ones on mask mandates and critical race theory that are not toxic to moderates. , unlike, for example, conspiracy theories on the 2020 election from which Youngkin had to distance himself.
“He thinks the government should stand between parents and their children,” Youngkin said of McAuliffe. “We all knew it. He just absolutely confirmed what we all believed.
McAuliffe dismissed the problem and the fear of conspiracy, saying critical race theory isn’t even taught in Virginia schools. Independent fact-checkers supported him on this point and called Youngkin’s claims “false,” saying critical race theory is not part of the state’s curriculum standards and that there is little evidence that it is present in many classrooms.
“It really bothers me because it’s a racist dog whistle,” McAuliffe said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe this week. “We don’t teach critical race theory here in Virginia. And all he does, like (former President Donald) Trump, is parents fight parents, using children like political pawns. I hate that. “
Yet debates over race and history have rocked school districts across the country, with a particular hot spot in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, where one cannot venture far into just any place. what direction without meeting a street named after a Confederate general.
McAuliffe’s campaign says it doesn’t see much movement among swing voters over these issues in their internal data, which compares it to a wave of concern over the MS-13 gang in the final days of the race. governor of 2017, which incumbent Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam nevertheless ended up winning hands down. (Republicans ran ads suggesting that the Washington, DC suburbs had become unsafe due to gang activity and blamed Democrats.)
A Fox News poll released Thursday, which showed McAuliffe leading 51-46% overall, found voters were evenly split between 45-43% on which candidate they trusted most to run education.
And while a majority of parents sided with Youngkin’s message that they should be able to tell schools what to teach, McAuliffe still had a 9 percentage point lead among parents likely to vote.
But among Youngkin’s mostly white supporters pushing strollers or balancing children on their shoulders at his rally, threats to their children’s education seemed real and personal.
“Anyone who is going to tell me that I can’t have an opinion on what is going on in my child’s body or what they are being taught will never get my vote,” said Ashleigh Mitchell, referring to the warrants potentials for the Covid-19 vaccine.
George Fletcher, a father of four, said when he was growing up in Central Virginia many of his friends were black and race just wasn’t an issue people dwelled on. Now he wonders if his children could have that experience today.
“I have never heard anyone talk about racism,” he said. “Now with our children in school there is more division. “
Fred and Peggy Keapproth, who used a blue Sharpie to modify a “Parents for Youngkin” sign to read “Grandparents for Youngkin,” said they feared their three grandchildren could be exposed to “Marxist indoctrination” which downplays America’s progress in race. .
“American history, you know, wasn’t perfect. Things have happened. We had slavery and all that. It’s true and it’s a bad thing, ”said Fred. “The world is different today.
“We learned our lessons and moved on,” added Peggy.