Republicans look to education as winning issue after Virginia successes

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin greets supporters and potential voters at the Alexandria Farmers Market in Alexandria, Va., on Saturday, October 30, 2021.
Greg Nash

Republicans are looking to education as a winning issue ahead of next year’s midterm elections after putting it front and center propelled the party to a clear victory in Virginia on Tuesday. 

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin spent much of his campaign focusing on how much control parents should have over what is taught in their children’s classrooms. Youngkin’s focus on the issues came as Loudoun County, a Washington, D.C., exurb, became the epicenter of the nationwide fight centering on school boards. 

According to CNN exit polls, roughly 25 percent of Virginia voters said education was their most important issue, second only to the economy. 

The issue also may have played a role in the razor-thin New Jersey governor’s race that has yet to be called. Republican Jack Ciattarelli has slammed the idea of critical race theory being taught in schools and far outpaced expectations at the ballot box.  

Conservative activists are predicting the win on education in Virginia to be the start of a movement akin to the Tea Party, which was key to massive Republican gains in Congress in 2010.

“I could see the fight for the forgotten parents be at the forefront of every narrative, of every grassroots campaign, of every political expenditure going forward in a major way because they don’t want to back down,” said Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action for America, an offshoot to the conservative Heritage Foundation.  

On Tuesday night, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, rolled out a memo saying the concerns of parents must be a “tier 1 policy issue for Republicans.” 

“There is real energy from parents that we need to understand. The good news is RSC has been working for months to build out an agenda in education that will fight for and empower parents. This will include needed oversight of the Biden administration,” Banks wrote.  

Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) hosted an education roundtable, along with other lawmakers, parents and activists, meant to respond to “Democrats’ Nationalized Education.” 

“Glenn Youngkin ran on education and he won on education,” Stefanik said. “Education is a uniting issue for Republicans, and we have the answers parents are looking for.” 

House Republicans are also taking note of how the issue will impact other vulnerable Democrats. On Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee moved 13 House seats onto its offensive map as a result of the victory in Virginia. Notably, Rep. Jennifer Wexton’s (D-Va.) seat in the 10th District, which includes Loudoun County, was moved into the column. 

While Youngkin did not win the blue county, he did overperform former President Trump there, trailing Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe by roughly 10 points. Trump lost the county to President Biden by 30 points in 2020, and Youngkin’s performance there may be tied to its status as center of the school board debate. 

Republicans in other states appear to be taking a page out of Virginia’s playbook. Iowa’s GOP blasted out a fundraising email on Wednesday, writing, “Parents Matter, and woke socialism is anti-American.”

Youngkin spoke frequently his opposition to critical race theory and his belief that parents should have a say over curricula throughout the course of the campaign as contentious and heated debates raged at school boards in Virginia and across the country.

However, the issue appeared to garner the most national attention after McAuliffe said at the gubernatorial debate in September the he did not believe parents should be telling schools and teachers what to teach. Within hours of the comment, Youngkin’s campaign was up with an ad. Then outside groups such as the American Principles Project and Free to Learn Action poured money into the race, citing the education issue. 

Terry Schilling, the president of the American Principles Project, said the group’s work would continue ahead of the midterms. Schilling spoke about a metaphorical wall of a political scalps he hopes to collect from opponents going after conservative, family values.

“Next year I want that whole thing full because right now the only guy that’s up there now is Terry McAuliffe,” Schilling said. “I want to collect as many scalps for the family as possible because when you collect a scalp and you make someone play a political consequence for their extremism and their radicalism against our families, it’s going to send a message. It’s going to send a shockwave throughout the entire country.”  

Education-related issues, in particular for K-12 students, have long been contentious and confrontational. Anger about Trump-era Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fired up Democrats under the previous administration, and schools have been at the center of some of the country’s most historically polarizing issues, including segregation, integrated busing and prayer in schools.

This campaign cycle, Democrats pushed back, calling the conservative approach a dog whistle and a distraction from other policy issues. They pointed out that critical race theory, for example, is a legal theory taught at the college level and accused Republicans of trying to whitewash how history is taught.

“It’s not education that the Republicans are trying to define us on,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. Rather, he said, the debate over critical race theory amounts to “a red meat strategy” and “white identity politics.”  

“For Democrats, we have to define the message and not let them define us with their message,” Seawright said. “They have played into several factors that can be motivating factors in any race, and that’s anger, fear, frustration and confusion. And that is an old playbook from the GOP.” 

McAuliffe released his own ad last month saying Youngkin took his comments about parents’ rights in schools out of context and touting his own record as governor. Ironically, McAuliffe launched his latest gubernatorial campaign nearly a year ago on education, proposing to invest $2 billion per year into education. 

His critics and Republicans say his campaign botched its response to the issue by not taking it seriously enough. Republicans were particularly fired up when Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, spoke at his closing rally in Fairfax on Monday. Republicans have blamed Weingarten for the coronavirus-related school shutdowns in states such as Virginia, which was also a contentious education-related topic on the campaign trail. 

One national Republican strategist called the decision to have Weingarten speak at McAuliffe’s rally “the most tone deaf thing I’ve ever seen.” 

“Republicans hope that Randi Weingarten will come out and campaign for every vulnerable Democrat this cycle,” the strategist quipped.  

But the education issue did not prove to be a winning issue everywhere on election night. According to The Associated Press, a number of school board candidates who pushed back against coronavirus restrictions in schools and anti-racist curricula lost their contests in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Connecticut. On top of that, a number of Democratic House of Delegates candidates won their elections in areas such as Loudoun County, where McAuliffe appeared to underperform Biden. 

Still, other Republican House of Delegates candidates were able to win in part through the parental rights and education-related message. A memo released by the Republican State Leadership Committee on Wednesday detailed how education was one of three key issues, along with public safety and the cost of living, that put the candidates over the top.  

“We will be looking at what’s happening when state legislative sessions kick back off in January and February,” Anderson said. “I think there’s a lot of momentum going into these state legislative sessions in a way that we haven’t seen in a while.” 

Tags Betsy DeVos Donald Trump Education Elise Stefanik Glenn Youngkin Jennifer Wexton Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Terry McAuliffe Virginia

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