Opinion | The Virginia GOP’s focus on education policy worked. It may be issue No. 1 in the midterms. – The Washington Post


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Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s (R) effective use of the education issue in the 2021 gubernatorial campaign gives the Republican Party renewed confidence and puts Democrats’ backs to the wall with the 2022 midterms breathing down their necks.It wasn’t long ago that education issues and the actions of a school board would seldom play above the front-page fold in community newspapers. High-profile clashes on socially charged issues this year landed some school board meetings in national network newscasts.Those issues include how race and sexuality figure into curriculums and what to do about remote learning, pandemic mask mandates and student gender identity in regard to school restrooms.Story continues below advertisementThey’ve turned school board meetings in several localities into loud, angry confrontations, including in some Northern Virginia suburbs and exurbs.Dissatisfaction with public school administration burst into the open during the pandemic over closed classrooms and remote learning. They deepened after the death of George Floyd gave rise to protests over treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement. They elevated a national debate about systemic and institutional racism in the United States.Republicans had already noticed the widening fissures that were becoming evident over school board actions and were incorporating that a strategy into the 2022 midterm elections to define Democrats as radicals who, among other threats, will defund police, open the nation’s borders and impose a “Green New Deal” with ruinous taxes and energy costs. Youngkin’s campaign saw an opportunity to test drive the public education portion.Story continues below advertisementFor Youngkin, the issue offered a key to access voters in the Virginia suburbs whom Democrats had consistently locked into their column, assuring them victories for years. In a Sept. 28 debate, Democratic gubernatorial nominee and former governor Terry McAuliffe gave Youngkin the key and the chance to turn it.During the debate, McAuliffe uttered the 12 words that sent his campaign into a tailspin from which he never recovered.Pressing the fight on parents’ role in schools worked for Youngkin on multiple levels. He weaponized hot-button cultural conflicts within public schools to pry moderate, educated and affluent suburban voters away from the Democrats. Some commentators accused him of employing racist dog whistles by alleging that schools were teaching critical race theory, a claim that schools denied.Story continues below advertisementOne Youngkin ad featured a Fairfax County woman who had protested for years over her son’s assignment to read “Beloved,” a 1987 novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, an African American. Set in the Civil War era, the acclaimed fictional work is about a Black mother who kills her 2-year-old daughter rather than have her live in slavery. The objection to sexual passages in the book prompted Republican legislation in Virginia that would allow parents to reject objectionable reading assignments, but McAuliffe, as governor, vetoed the bill. Youngkin was pressing McAuliffe about the veto during the debate when McAuliffe made his statement about parents having no business dictating curriculum.Loudoun County, which had been part of the Democrats’ suburban firewall in every election for nearly a decade, was thrust into the national spotlight after protests by irate parents at school board meetings, including the arrest of one student’s father.But the issue of education also aided Youngkin’s carefully crafted image as a traditional Republican in tune with local issues and everyday concerns of voters without raising his voice. The more McAuliffe nationalized the race by bringing in Democratic presidents, past and present, and with his unceasing comparisons of Youngkin to former president Donald Trump, the more effective the contrast became for Youngkin.Story continues below advertisementThe takeaway for the GOP was that public education can be an effective issue for them in many Democratic-voting areas. And, as Youngkin learned, the issue worked on multiple levels.The most obvious is the powerful, direct conduit it provides into the daily lives of parents of public school students. You could see it unfold in the Washington Post/Schar School polls. The September poll showed that respondents ranked education as the third most important issue in the governor’s race, and McAuliffe held an 8 percentage point advantage over Youngkin as the candidate best suited to handle education. The October poll, reflecting McAuliffe’s debate misstep and Youngkin capitalizing on it, showed that education had become the top concern. Youngkin had erased McAuliffe’s lead on that issue.Though McAuliffe still won in the northern Virginia suburbs, including Fairfax and Loudoun counties, his margins were smaller than those of President Biden’s one year earlier and of Gov. Ralph Northam four years earlier, making him vulnerable to an overwhelming GOP vote in the largest turnout for a governor’s race in Virginia history.Story continues below advertisementA less visible but longer-term advantage public education politics gives the GOP is the opportunity to recruit candidates for school board seats and then identify and groom the best to run later for higher local, state and federal offices.The GOP’s winning formula on education only works, though, if the more extremist elements of the party base — those who would turn the issue into continuous calls for banning various literature and prohibiting the honest teaching of America’s history on race — do not become the dominant voices in public school debates.
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