With a week to go until Election Day in Virginia in a deadlocked gubernatorial race with national implications, Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin is spotlighting that he’ll "always stand up for Virginia’s parents."
Youngkin’s full court press in tapping into the anger of many parents over decisions by their local school boards appears to be a key factor that’s fueled the first-time candidate’s campaign, helping to push him into a tie with former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state that now-President Biden won by 10 points just a year ago.
If Youngkin comes out on top next week and becomes the first Republican to win statewide in Virginia in a dozen years, expect his emphasis on standing up for parents and taking aim at school boards and administrators to be a blueprint for the GOP as the party aims to win back the House of Representatives and Senate majorities in the 2022 midterm elections.
"I think it’s clearly going to be a big issue," Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), told Fox News on Monday.
Youngkin, in a campaign ad that’s currently heavily in rotation across the commonwealth, stresses that "Virginia parents have a right to make decisions on their children’s education. That’s the Virginia I grew up in."
And Youngkin, former CEO of a large private equity firm and father of four children, charges that "Terry McAuliffe wants to change that."
His commercial then uses a viral clip from the second and final debate between the two candidates where McAuliffe, who’s running for his old job, said "I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."
Public school education has traditionally been a leading issue in gubernatorial contests across the country. But amid a year and a half of frustration over school closures and mask mandates due to the coronavirus pandemic and the push by conservatives nationwide to target race-focused curriculum, including this year’s well publicized battles over critical race theory in Virginia’s Loudon County, Republicans see education and parents’ rights as a winning issue to try and recapture suburban voters who fled the GOP during former President Donald Trump’s White House tenure.
And that was before McAuliffe’s unforced error at the final debate, which Republicans have repeatedly spotlighted over the ensuing weeks.
Youngkin argued in an interview Monday on Fox News’ "The Faulkner Focus" that "Virginians have a moment to stand up, not just for the future of Virginia's kids, but for America's kids. And that's why this race is so important to everyone right now."
"The nation is watching because they recognize that when Virginians stand up and take a state that has been blue and elect a Republican governor, it’s going to make a statement that’s going to be heart not just around the country, but around the world," Youngkin predicted.
The latest polls suggest Youngkin has pulled even in recent weeks with McAuliffe, who launched his campaign at an event at a public school last December to showcase his education plan.
One of those surveys, from Monmouth University, points to a shift in voters priorities, with education and schools surging in importance to become the second most pressing issue, behind jobs and the economy. And the poll indicates that Youngkin’s drawn even with McAuliffe on being trusted to handle education and schools.
Scott, a two-term Florida governor before his 2018 election to the Senate, told Fox News that "the school issue’s going to be a significant issue in ’22."
Wes Anderson, a veteran Republican consultant and pollster who conducts surveys for the reelection arm of the Senate GOP, said that "there’s sort of a perfect storm brewing when it comes to education."
Pointing to the NRSC’S latest suburban battleground survey, Anderson told Fox News that most suburban voters say their public schools are failing them. And he stressed that the widespread shift from in-person education and move to virtual learning amid the pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID-19, "was a massive eye opening to millions of parents and they didn’t like what they saw."
"Looking what’s happening in Virginia, I do suspect that this isn’t going to go away," he said as he pointed towards next year’s midterms.
Jesse Hunt, the Republican Governors Association communications director, claimed that "Youngkin has proven that there are issues that voters care about right now that Democrats have ignored," and predicted that parents rights in dealing with their children’s schools "can be a part of various campaigns throughout the country" in 2022.
"That’s something that will be litigated for the next year and beyond, as parents rightfully get more concerned with how public schools systems are teaching their children," Hunt emphasized.
McAuliffe’s campaign has seemingly stepped up their focus on education in recent weeks, and in one spot links the GOP nominee to Trump, who remains unpopular in Virginia, and Trump’s controversial Education secretary during his administration.
"Glen Youngkin would bring Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’ education polices to Virginia. Youngkin’s plan shifts money from public schools to private schools," the narrator in a McAuliffe TV ad charges. Younkin’s campaign has received donations from DeVos and her family.
And McAuliffe’s pushed back on Youngkin’s emphasis on critical race theory, which has fired up conservative activists across the country.
"It’s not taught here in Virginia," McAuliffe shot back when asked about critical race theory during a local TV interview. McAuliffe claimed that the conservative furor against critical race theory is "racist" and added that "it’s a dog whistle."
Former President Obama, campaigning with McAuliffe on Saturday, charged that "we don't have time to be wasting on these phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage that right-wing media peddles to juice their ratings." And the former president accused Youngkin of avoiding "serious problems that affect serious people" and suggested that outrage over the actions of school boards was unjustified.
Longtime Democratic strategist Brad Woodhouse argued that "what parents are really going to be concerned about in this election in Virginia and in the elections next year is who is taking care to make sure their kids are safe from the coronavirus, and who is making sure that their kids are going to school full-time, year round, five days a week. And that contrast could not be clearer. It is the Biden-McAuliffe-Democratic approach to getting rid of this coronarius, making sure people are safe."
"That’s going to be the deciding factor in Virginia and it’s going to be a big deal in 2022," Woodhouse, a former senior Obama campaign adviser and former Democratic National Committee communications director, noted.