Thanks to the state’s proximity to the Beltway, off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia get outsize attention as prophetic bellwethers of emerging trends in national elections. So you can be sure that what happens in the 2021 contest featuring Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin will be reported and studied to death, particularly if the lavishly financed “outsider businessman” Youngkin can pull off an upset in a place where the GOP hasn’t won a statewide contest since 2009.
Off-year elections typically generate lower than average turnout, so candidates invariably have to possess both a base-mobilization and a swing-persuasion strategy. The former is particularly important in this hyperpolarized era. It’s pretty clear Youngkin has settled on exploiting anxieties about public education as his best option for flipping suburban swing voters who had been trending Democratic and for getting MAGA stalwarts to go to the polls and encourage others to do so as well.
In this third pandemic school year, of course, there are plenty of anxieties to exploit: fears about learning lost during suspensions of in-person school instruction (in Virginia, public schools all reopened no later than March), fears about mask and vaccination policies (Virginia has a statewide school mask mandate this school year), and, as always, fears about educational quality and curricula. In the latter category, Virginia has been a hotbed of disturbances over the contrived issues of critical race theory and allegedly “woke” offenses to conservative doctrine on sexuality and gender identity.
Youngkin has shrewdly positioned himself as the champion of parental rights in education. He has battened on highly publicized incidents of school-board hostility to protesting parents, and he has focused intensely on a remark McAuliffe made at a candidates’ debate in September, as reported by the New York Times:
Mr. Youngkin attacked Mr. McAuliffe over his 2017 veto of a bill permitting parents to opt out of allowing their children to study material deemed sexually explicit. The dispute was prompted by a mother who objected to her son, a high school senior, reading literary classics including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”
Mr. McAuliffe shot back that he did not believe “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” In the weeks since, he’s stood by those remarks, saying that the state Board of Education and local school boards should determine what is taught in the classroom.
So the Republican is now calling some of his campaign events “Parents Matter” rallies to dramatize T-Mac’s purported allegiance to soulless educational bureaucrats and teachers unions.
What’s smart (if disingenuous) about this framing of education issues is that it appeals equally to anxious swing voters who don’t trust local school boards, administrators, or teachers; conservative base voters who dislike “government schools” to begin with (e.g., parents who send their kids to private schools or homeschool them); and voters without kids at home who resent paying school taxes. It should be remembered that parental rights have been the touchstone of Republican school-voucher experiments in many states; they have largely replaced the standards-and-accountability principles that used to be front and center in GOP education policy.
Focusing on highly variable disgruntlement with public schools is also smart for Youngkin because it may disguise the weakness of his positions on specific pandemic-related issues such as masking and vaccine mandates, which “the base” demands of him. McAuliffe, echoing the successful strategy Gavin Newsom employed to defeat a recall initiative last month, is focusing on his opponent as a puppet of anti-vaxxers, of the anti-abortion movement, and of Donald J. Trump, who endorsed the Republican but has so far avoided direct involvement in the general-election contest.
McAuliffe remains the favorite thanks to Virginia’s recent emergence as a blue if somewhat competitive state. He has led Youngkin in all but one public poll of the race but not by big margins. In the FiveThirtyEight averages, he’s up by 2.6 percent, which is close, particularly given the difficulty of predicting turnout.
If Youngkin wins with a parental-rights message focused on schools, make no mistake: There will be an immense number of imitators in 2022 (certainly in state elections and perhaps in federal contests). There’s a lot riding on what Old Dominion voters decide on November 2.