Democrats could push suburban voters back to GOP with anti-parent message on schools
A national reckoning on parental influence in schools could threaten to sway a key voting bloc that helped deliver victories up and down the ballot for Democrats in recent elections: suburban voters.
The governor’s race in Virginia could provide the first test of whether a GOP focus on schools and education policy could help reverse the gains that Democrats made among suburban voters, particularly suburban women, in 2018 and 2020. But the emergence of this issue as a flashpoint nationally could also provide Republicans with a road map back to levels of support in the suburbs that they enjoyed in previous years well beyond the Old Dominion.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe has struggled in Virginia to rebut the argument from his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, that his party doesn’t care about the concerns of parents. That’s left him running even with Youngkin in a state that President Joe Biden carried by 10 points just last year.
“I think it’s the dismissive approach to parental input that McAuliffe and teachers unions are taking,” Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, told the Washington Examiner . “It’s not just critical race theory. That’s certainly a part of it, but it’s just the whole ‘You don’t get a voice in your child’s education’ [attitude].”
“And you know, it’s also been impacted by the movement by teachers unions to not go back in the classroom until there’s zero COVID, even though they were among the first in line for the vaccines,” Bolger added. “Obviously, that movement has pretty well failed by the unions, but that caused a lot of hard feelings as well.”
McAuliffe handed the Youngkin campaign a gift in late September when he said during a gubernatorial debate that he does not “think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin’s team quickly cut the gaffe into an ad, and McAuliffe has been on defense on the issue ever since.
But high-profile surrogates for McAuliffe haven’t helped with the perception that the Democratic candidate is out of touch with parents on schools.
Former President Barack Obama dismissed Youngkin’s campaign message, which has been focused primarily on education in the final stretch of the race, as an embrace of “fake outrage” in a campaign appearance on Saturday that has since drawn criticism from the Right.
"We don't have time to be wasted on these phony, trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage the right-wing media pedals to juice their ratings,” Obama said during his appearance with McAuliffe.
McAuliffe has in recent days taken the issue more seriously, cutting an ad last week that accused Youngkin of twisting his words about schools and touting his commitment to hearing parents’ concerns about their children.
His attempt to defend himself against Youngkin’s broadsides comes as polls show the Republican candidate gaining significant ground thanks to his decision to focus on education.
A Monmouth University poll published on Wednesday showed that “education and schools” had overtaken COVID-19 as a top factor motivating voters’ choice of candidate since just last month. The poll found Youngkin with a narrow edge over McAuliffe on the question of who voters trust more to handle issues related to education.
A CBS/YouGov poll published in mid-October showed Youngkin leading by 20 points among Virginia voters who cited “school curriculums on race and history” as the top issue influencing their decision.
And multiple recent surveys have shown McAuliffe and Youngkin polling in a dead heat overall, despite the fact that a Republican hasn’t won statewide in Virginia in more than a decade.
A large part of Youngkin’s surge, according to Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, has been his ability to erode Democratic support among suburban voters.
“Suburban women, especially in Northern Virginia, have been crucial to the sizable victories Democrats have enjoyed in the commonwealth since 2017. However, their support is not registering at the same level this time around,” Murray said in a statement this week. “This is due partly to a shift in key issues important to these voters and partly to dampened enthusiasm among the party faithful.”
Concern about the classroom is not the only issue driving suburban women away from McAuliffe, Bolger said. Rising prices are also hurting McAuliffe with the key demographic.
“I think there’s a couple of things that are driving the Youngkin surge in the suburbs,” said Bolger, who does not work on the Youngkin campaign. “I’ve seen some data that suggests he’s doing better than certain recent Republicans running statewide in suburban areas.”
“One is, yes, education is definitely part of that, and the other is inflation,” Bolger said. “Costs are going up, and women see that sooner than men do.”
“They tend to do more of the purchasing, particularly on a day-to-day basis, like groceries,” he added.
Beyond Virginia, polling shows voters across the country are increasingly concerned with what their children are being taught and with the higher cost of living in ways that could benefit Republicans in the midterm elections.
Some Republican governors with national ambitions have already sought to capitalize on parental angst about the future of education. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have both moved this year to limit schools’ ability to teach critical race theory, a controversial curriculum that teaches children to see society entirely through the lens of race.
As promising as the issue of schools may be for Republicans looking to win back suburban voters, they have significant ground to regain, as Democrats made inroads with suburban voters during former President Donald Trump’s four years in office.
Trump won in 2016 with an advantage of 1.2 million more voters from large suburban counties than Hillary Clinton. By 2020, Biden had flipped that advantage by winning 613,000 more of those suburban voters than Trump, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution.
The shift of suburban voters away from Republicans and toward Democrats was evident in the 2018 midterm elections when the GOP lost dozens of House seats and control of the lower chamber.
In 2016, according to the Pew Research Center , Trump carried roughly 2 percentage points more suburban voters than Clinton. But in the midterm elections, Democratic House candidates won them by roughly 7 points.
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