Virginia county to test power of GOP culture wars at ballot box

Republicans are zeroing in on Loudoun County, Virginia, ahead of the state’s competitive gubernatorial race as the affluent, Democratic-leaning area finds itself at the center of America’s culture wars. 

School board meetings in the county, an exurb of Washington, D.C., have garnered national media attention amid the contentious and at times raucous debates over critical race theory and transgender issues in the classroom.

Republicans say these concerns will potentially help turn blue areas like Loudoun red in what could be a test case for the power of hot-button cultural issues ahead of next year's midterms. They point to the controversy over critical race theory in particular as an example of something that could sway parents’ decisions at the ballot box.

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Geary Higgins, the chair of the 10th Congressional District Republican Committee, which includes Loudoun County, said organizers have gathered 12,000 out of 17,000 signatures needed in the county to recall six school board members over the issue.

“I wish we had 12,000 Republican activists in Loudoun County, we would change things real quick. But these are parents that are concerned about what’s going on,” Higgins told The Hill.

Critical race theory was developed in the 1970s and 1980s by a number of American legal scholars who argued racism is rooted in the nation’s founding and that systemic racism continues to have a negative impact on the opportunities and treatment of people of color at all levels of society today.

Opponents of the theory say it teaches American students to disparage the U.S. and sows division in classrooms. Its opponents also argue that their movement is not only about the theory itself, but about parental oversight of schools.

“I get emails from people across the country asking how they can stand up to their school board, how they can replicate what we’re doing here, and it’s really been nonstop,” said Ian Prior, the executive director of Fight For Schools, the conservative group that is leading the effort to recall the school board members.

“I think that it is absolutely going to be an issue as it relates to campaigns and elections,” he said.

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Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin has spoken frequently about critical race theory, and has tied Democratic nominee and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe to it.

"We've actually seen the McAuliffe-Northam administration try to teach our children what to think, and we know that our schools are supposed to teach our kids how to think," Youngkin told Fox Business last week.

A spokesperson for Youngkin’s campaign told The Hill that the opposition to critical race theory has not only been seen in Loudoun County, but throughout Virginia.

“The open question is does critical race theory gain traction beyond the Fox News viewership? Beyond the people who are already on the Republican side,” said veteran Virginia political commentator Bob Holsworth.

Polling shows the issue resonates with voters along party lines. A Morning Consult survey released last month found that 42 percent of Republicans said they had a “very unfavorable” view of critical race theory, while 25 percent of independents and 5 percent of Democrats said the same. A total of 23 percent of voters in the same poll said they agreed.

But Republicans point to an Economist/YouGov poll released last month that found 58 percent of voters said they have an unfavorable view of the theory, while 38 percent said they had an unfavorable view.

“It’s a winning issue for us,” said one GOP operative working in Virginia politics. “This has fully taken up the oxygen, and like I said, it’s a winning issue for us with independents and even among Democrats to a certain extent.”

Democrats have dismissed it as a distraction from other policy debates, arguing that the outrage is not from the parents themselves, but rather from conservative activists.

“That's another right-wing conspiracy," McAuliffe said last month. "This is totally made up by Donald Trump and Glenn Youngkin. This is who they are. It's a conspiracy theory."

Democrats also point to the nationwide GOP strategy of talking about cultural issues, like critical race theory, to energize the conservative base. Trump has repeatedly brought up the issue in his first few campaign appearances since taking office.

“This is pretty clearly a culture war issue that I think a lot of folks see very clearly as a Republican attempt to rile people up,” said one Virginia-based Democratic operative.

Democrats instead have touted McAuliffe’s own education plan, in which he pledges to invest $2 billion in Virginia public education and raise teachers’ salaries.

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Youngkin released his academic excellence plan earlier this month, in part focusing on improving school measurement metrics, improving student academic achievement and preventing prolonged school closures.

Loudoun County itself has been subject to political and media attention partly due to its place within the Washington, D.C., media market, as well as it being one of the exurbs Virginia suburban voters largely abandoned Republicans in during the Trump years.

Suburban voters could end up playing a consequential role in the Virginia elections, as well as the 2022 elections, after they went largely for President BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE in 2020.

“With critical race theory and other cultural hot-button issues, the Republicans think they have something now that can flip those suburban voters who largely abandoned the Republican Party in Virginia during the Trump era,” said Mark Rozell, dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. 

However, analysts warn Republicans risk alienating suburban voters if they make critical race theory central to their education message.

“I think if the argument comes down to critical race theory versus paying teachers, paying teachers wins,” Holsworth said.

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Loudoun went for former President George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 before former President Obama won the county by 8 points in 2008 and by 4 points in 2012.

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE appeared to accelerate Loudoun’s Democratic tilt, losing the county by 17 points in 2016 and again by 25 points in 2020.

Democrats, who frequently tie Youngkin to Trump, say the former president’s double-digit loss in the county is evidence that the notion Loudoun County could flip is being overplayed.

Republicans acknowledge that flipping the county back to red will likely be an issue of turnout, but insist that a decent performance in the area could help them statewide.

“I think that if there was an issue or a year where that would change a little bit more in favor of Youngkin and Republicans, it would be this year and it would be because of this issue,” the Virginia-based Republican operative said.