Miranda Turner, a parent of three in the affluent Virginia suburb of Arlington, was so disillusioned by school closures during the pandemic that she launched an unsuccessful attempt to join the local school board as a Democrat.
So when Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race this month, Turner was unsurprised. She said that many of her friends and acquaintances had “become effectively single-issue voters on education, and draw the conclusion that this year, at least, Democrats were not the party of education”.
Youngkin’s relentless focus on education in the campaign has been credited with helping him to pull off a victory in a state where Joe Biden won by more than 10 points just a year ago. His attacks on the way that race relations are taught in Virginia’s schools sparked a nationwide debate and drew claims of dog-whistle politics from supporters of his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
But Republican strategists say many suburban swing voters in places like Arlington were more concerned with “bread-and-butter” issues, including the lingering effects of lengthy school closures during the pandemic and the role that teachers’ unions — which backed McAuliffe — play in making decisions about public education.
“You can bet every Republican in the country is going to run on education in 2022 because of what happened in Virginia tonight,” Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson wrote on Twitter as the results poured in on election night.
The sentiment underscored how many national Republicans believe Youngkin’s success in Virginia provides their party with a blueprint heading into next year’s midterm elections, when control of both houses of Congress will be hanging in the balance.
Specifically, many on the right argue that replicating the former private equity boss’s strategy on parents and public education could win them back crucial votes in America’s suburbs, where Republicans haemorrhaged support in the Trump era among moderate, upper middle-class voters.
“I think the Democrats maybe got a false sense of security about their standing in suburban America because of the four years of the Trump era,” said J Tucker Martin, a longtime Republican operative in Virginia.
“With him gone the issues have bubbled back to the surface, and I think Democrats are seen as being a little too far left and a little bit out of touch.”
Republican strategists say their party must continue to refine its strategy on education ahead of closely fought contests next November, such as Senate races in swing states including Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia.
“Education is far and away the largest part of most state budgets,” said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “Republicans really need a strong message on education, particularly if they are going to appeal to suburban voters and suburban women.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have been frustrated to see Republicans outflank them with parents, particularly since their ambitious federal spending plans — including childcare subsidies, universal pre-kindergarten education and paid leave — are directly designed to help households with children.
John Hudak of the Brookings Institution said Democrats needed to take a more proactive approach to messaging, not only on education but also on other public policy issues, if they were to stem their losses.
“If you just stop talking about something, you let the other side make all the arguments,” he said. “Until there is this powerful and effective pushback, not just about the policies that they oppose but the policies that they stand for, Democrats are going to look like bystanders to their own political fortunes.”
Central to Youngkin’s successful pitch in Virginia was banning critical race theory, a controversial legal framework examining the intersection of race and society that Republicans argue should be removed from public education. Democrats contend that CRT is not explicitly in the curriculum and that invoking it amounts to a race-based dog whistle.
“We don’t have time to be wasting on these phoney, trumped-up culture wars,” former president Barack Obama said as he stumped for McAuliffe in the final days of his campaign.
But one week after Youngkin’s victory, analysts from across the political spectrum say that while CRT resonated with the Republicans’ rightwing base, it was other more traditional education issues that helped persuade key swing voters to back Youngkin.
“There were bigots who voted in this election on [CRT], and it was a driving issue for them,” said Chris Stirewalt, the former political editor at Fox News.
“The real problem for Terry McAuliffe is the Democratic party’s relationship with the American Federation of Teachers and the NEA [National Education Association],” he added.
Many parents have soured on teachers’ unions in the wake of prolonged public school closures in the Covid-19 pandemic that led to many students missing more than a year’s worth of in-person learning, resulting in bitterness and distrust among parents.
“One of the mistakes that the McAuliffe team made is they dismissed the general feeling of voters around education,” said Martin. “They should have listened and addressed it. You can’t tell voters what matters to them.”
Miranda Turner said she was frustrated that despite McAuliffe’s ballot-box loss, Democrats were still not engaging with her concerns. “I don’t think painting every Republican out as Trump worked this year,” she said. “If the party isn’t going to change its messaging on those things and try to get at the issues, then I have real concerns about what is going to happen going forward.”
Meanwhile Todd Truitt, a parent of two primary school-aged children in Arlington who described himself as a “liberal Democrat”, added: “There were a large number of lifetime Democratic parents that I know that crossed over and voted Republican, even though they disagreed with every other thing about Glenn Youngkin. When their kids’ education is on the line, there is no other issue.”
Additional reporting by James Politi