During the final Virginia gubernatorial debate in late September, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s aides knew they had struck campaign gold.
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” Democrat Terry McAuliffe said in a line that would soon be taken out of context and spliced into stump speeches and campaign ads as Youngkin created a “parents matter” push that helped fuel his victory Tuesday night.
The Slack channel where Youngkin aides were trading messages lit up with disbelief, according to one person with knowledge of the campaign’s internal deliberations. “Did he really just say that?” they asked one another.
“McAuliffe handed Youngkin the torch and gasoline with which to start this bonfire,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said, reflecting on how that moment changed the race.
Youngkin – who was already skillfully navigating the tightrope of appealing to suburban voters in Northern Virginia as well as supporters of former President Donald Trump – had provoked his Democratic opponent by criticizing his veto of a bill that would have let parents opt out of reading assignments for their children that they viewed as sexually explicit. It did not matter that among average voters, the context for McAuliffe’s veto – that the bill had grown out of one conservative activist’s objections to Toni Morrison’s seminal novel about slavery – was completely lost.
“Without the gasoline and torch there is no way to know how big the fire would have gotten,” Mellman added. “Having seen this play out though, I don’t think any other Democrats will experiment with providing supplies to the arsonists.”
But Youngkin’s victory Tuesday night in a state where President Joe Biden won by 10 points may provide a template for Republicans in the 2022 midterms to run on a message centered around education that may outlast pandemic-related frustrations with remote learning. His defeat of McAuliffe – and his successful incursion into the Northern Virginia suburbs where Trump was so toxic – raises questions about whether Democrats have taken seriously enough parents’ concerns on a range of issues about education. Just under one quarter of Virginia voters called it the most important issue, behind the economy, according to CNN’s exit poll.
“The cracks in the education system, which were more or less hidden for decades, became transparent to all when kids had to start taking classes from home,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said.
Youngkin’s aides had seen proof of that in the exasperated parents showing up at his events – exhausted from pandemic disruptions, anxious about the sputtering economic recovery and feeling robbed by the promise that Biden and others had made that life would be back to normal by now. With his suburban dad vibe and his focus on kitchen table issues, Youngkin’s candidacy seemed like a ready vessel to channel those concerns.
Democrats, however, were quick to dismiss Youngkin’s invocation of so-called parental rights as racist, much in the same way they have reacted to conservatives talking about the teaching of critical race theory, an academic concept that holds that systemic racism is deeply enmeshed in American society.
But what they may have missed was that Youngkin’s “parents matter” messaging tapped into much larger frustrations that parents have felt over the past year about their loss of control – feelings that have been building and snowballing throughout the pandemic as they adjusted to one shifting set of rules after another.
“The last year-and-a-half was very illuminating for many parents who suddenly had to take on the role of being their child’s teacher in a way that they hadn’t before – helping them navigate lessons, seeing more of what they were being taught,” said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster who is the co-founder of Echelon Insights. “That stressful and eye-opening moment for a lot of parents left some real frustration and a desire for schools to take seriously their desires for their own children.”
“A lot of the conversation around education, at least on cable news, has drifted into the ‘Well, education is just a proxy for the race issue’ – and I think that is a misreading of this,” Anderson said. “There is so much other stuff that is included that education winds up being an umbrella for a lot of things. … So I think the idea that this is all just a made-up issue – Democrats believe that to their peril.”
The “parents matter” messaging and the notion of parental rights – which House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already promised he will turn into a “parents’ bill of rights” – has provided a model for Republicans in the 2022 midterms in part because it is broad enough to capture an array of parents’ concerns.
Much of the heat and passion that has inflamed school board meetings across the country has centered on the controversial question of how to teach America’s fraught racial history. And Youngkin leaned into that messaging to connect with the GOP base, promising to ban the teaching of critical race theory – which is not even taught in K-12 schools in Virginia – on “day one” but also speaking with greater nuance on the issue than Trump has.
“I think we recognize that Virginia and America has chapters that are abhorrent; we also have great chapters,” Youngkin said in one debate as he argued that Virginia needs to teach “real history.” But he added, “We don’t need to teach our children to view everything through a lens of race and then pit them against one another.”
‘We need to get back in there so we can help our kids’
Youngkin’s campaign also reflected the fact that many parents across the country have been showing up or zooming into school board meetings because they are angry about many other issues beyond curriculum.
Covid-19 restrictions have lasted far longer than anyone imagined. Many parents saw firsthand the power that teachers’ unions – who are closely allied with Democrats – exerted last spring when children could return to the classroom, a motivating factor for many of the moms who got involved in the unsuccessful effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, earlier this year.
The city of San Francisco – hardly a bastion of conservatism – sued its own school district in February to try to force the resumption of in-person classes, and several parent groups in that city launched a campaign to recall school board members, who they believed were spending too much time debating whether to change school names associated with historical figures that they viewed as racist.
And despite a flood of pandemic-related education funding from the Covid-related stimulus bills, there are still huge questions about whether school districts will be able to fix the massive learning gaps that have emerged from what amounts to a lost year for some students.
Youngkin’s message spoke to parents like Emily Diaz, a 46-year-old Warrenton mother who told CNN’s Eric Bradner she brought her three daughters to a Youngkin event so they could “see and recognize candidates who really support them.”
“He believes that we have a choice and a voice in schools – and especially right now, where parents are being locked out of schools, quote-unquote due to Covid,” Diaz said. “This is appalling, and we need to get back in there so we can help our kids, help the teachers, to get a good education.”
McAuliffe had promised to invest $2 billion in education – doubling the investment he made in his first term as governor – and said he would raise teacher salaries above the national average for the first time in history, while also ensuring pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds in need.
But Barbara Comstock, a former GOP congresswoman who represented northern Virginia, argued that Youngkin appealed to a broader base of voters on education.
“He went bigger at the issue – and he was very active in his own kids’ schools – so I think the whole opportunity issue was where it really resonated,” Comstock said. “I hope it will be a sea change, because to me, it’s education as a civil rights issue – and we’ve all talked about it in those terms. But I think there’s a moment here now where it’s really resonating with a diverse group of people. The people who don’t like this discussion, usually are White, wealthy, liberals and school administrator types who people have kind of had it with.”
Republican strategists predict that education will remain a central focus in next year’s midterms, even as the pandemic recedes, because many parents now feel more informed and engaged about what is happening on school campuses than they were before Covid-19 hit.
“McAuliffe’s comment in the debate about parents not telling schools what they should teach was tone-deaf and seemed to reinforce that he was a Democrat who believes that ‘government knows best,’” Newhouse said. “Parents really care about what their kids are being taught, and Democrats would do well to listen to them.”