James Carville’s 1992 quip “the economy, stupid” referring to the focus of former President Bill Clinton’s first successful presidential campaign, has been one of the most reliably true maxims in almost every election cycle since, but last Tuesday, Virginia parents proved that issues like school choice can galvanize an electorate.
There are stark differences in education policy between the two major parties, with Republicans favoring school choice and voucher programs and Democrats, with some exceptions, preferring a government monopoly on education. Prominent Democrats like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Former South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren explicitly opposed school choice during their 2020 presidential campaigns.
President Biden won Virginia last November by double digits, and in August, it was looking like former Governor Terry McAuliffe was on his way to a comfortable five to seven-point victory over Republican challenger Glen Youngkin. Virginia had been trending blue for over a decade and no Republican had been elected statewide since 2009.
A major theme of the 2020 presidential election was suburbia’s GOP exodus after President Trump won the suburbs in 2016 and President Biden flipped them blue in 2020. Through a mix of effective messaging and polarizing comments by his opponent and members of the media, Youngkin was able to win back the Virginia suburbs. Exit polling shows that Virginians who consider education their top issue favored the Republican candidate by six points.
The first blow to the Terry McAuliffe campaign came in late September when the former governor declared during a debate with Youngkin “parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach” referring to the accusation by disgruntled parents that Critical Race Theory was being taught in Virginia public schools. Glen Youngkin seized on the opportunity and pledged to ban the teaching of CRT in the commonwealth. Pundits on both sides of the aisle called McAuliffe’s comment a gaffe, but his statement is in line with the views of most prominent Democrats, and the former governor went so far as to campaign with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in the days leading up to the November 2nd election. Weingarten was a leader in the effort to close schools in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and has compared school choice to segregation despite 74% of African Americans, 71% of Latinos, and 66% of public school parents supporting school choice policies.
Another blow was dealt to the McAuliffe campaign when Daily Wire’s Luke Rosiak broke the news that the Loudoun County Virginia School Board attempted to cover up the alleged sexual assault of a ninth-grade girl in a public school bathroom following the release of a viral video that showed the victim’s father, Scott Smith, being arrested by police after speaking out at a Loudoun County School Board meeting. On October 23rd, Loudoun County students staged a walk-out in protest of the school district’s coverup. The ordeal allowed Republicans to position themselves as champions for parents and students pitted against the Democrats and their allies at the school boards and teachers unions. In 2020, 97% of political donations by teachers unions went to Democrats.
Republicans have traditionally attempted to stay away from “culture war” issues on the campaign trail with Former President Trump as the most obvious exception, but Trump and Youngkin employed drastically different tactics when addressing cultural issues. The former President, to quote The Eagles, took an ‘everything, all the time’ approach to the culture. On the campaign trail, his stump speeches routinely included cultural talk ranging from abortion to school choice, to hammering academia and Hollywood, while Younkin focused singularly on education. When attempting to flip a state as reliably blue as Virginia, the Youngkin team knew that highlighting abortion, or most other cultural issues, was unlikely to help the long-shot campaign.
Unlike most culture war issues, the aforementioned polling data suggests that, unlike abortion, education issues like school choice and critical race theory are not 50/50 issues, and that gives both parties an opportunity to improve their standing with voters going into the 2022 midterms. Republicans would be wise to follow Glen Youngkin’s lead and champion school choice, and Democrats may consider moderating on the issue and distancing themselves from the Randi Weingartens of the world. What the RNC and DNC will do moving forward is anyone’s guess, but education policy may play an outsized role in deciding which party controls Congress this time next year.
Brady Leonard is a musician, political strategist, and podcaster based in Toledo, Ohio. The No Gimmicks Podcast airs Mondays and Wednesdays at 1pm EST, wherever podcasts are found. Follow him on Twitter @bradyleonard