WINCHESTER, Va. – A lifelong Republican in her home state of Virginia, Tammy Yoder faithfully casts her vote for those who want to lower taxes, oppose abortion and support other conservative causes.
But the problem that turned Ms. Yoder, a stay-at-home mom, from a reliable voter to the kind of person who takes three young children to an evening campaign rally, wasn’t her Christian values or her wallet.
It was even more personal, she said: What her kids learn in school.
“The past year has revealed a lot to me,” said Mrs. Yoder, 41, as she waited in this Northern Virginia suburb for a speech from Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin. “The more I’ve listened and paid attention, the more I see what’s happening in schools and college campuses. And the things I see, I don’t want to spoil my children.”
From battles over evolution to desegregation to prayer, education battles have been a staple of the country’s divisive cultural problems for decades. But not quite like that.
After months of closed classrooms and lost apprenticeships, Republicans in Virginia are making schools the focus of their latest effort to take the governor’s office, hoping to rally conservatives about both their frustrations over mask mandates and mandatory vaccinations and their fears of what their children are taught.
Vocal groups of parents, some led by Republican activists, are organizing against the school curriculum, opposing public health measures and calling for recalls from school board members. And Mr. Youngkin, a former private equity executive, has capitalized on conservatives’ concerns about race education and the rights of transgender children to argue that Democrats want to come between parents and their children’s education.
The attacks of Mr. Youngkin have pushed Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic governor trying to reclaim his old job, on the defensive, pushing the usually local problems surrounding schools into the middle of a rancor nationwide outcry.
The Virginia race provides an early electoral test of that conservative energy.
A win by Mr. Youngkin would mark Republicans’ first statewide victory in 12 years and likely spark political panic within the Democratic Party about its prospects in next year’s midterm elections. Some Republican officials and strategists liken the wave of activism to the Tea Party, the anti-government movement that helped them gain control of the House in 2010 and sparked a resurgence of outrage that would define their party for the next decade.
“There’s so much focus on the schools, and it’s ingrained,” said John Whitbeck, a former Virginia Republican Party chairman from Loudoun County, where bitter school board meetings have led to arrests, death threats and constant airtime on conservative media. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m against the debt ceiling.’ This is like, “You’re destroying our children’s education.” And look, angry people vote.”
Polls in recent weeks have shown a tight race, with Democrats less enthusiastic than Republicans about voting. McAuliffe, who was barred from re-election by Virginia law in 2017, is doing worse in the booming, voter-rich suburbs of Northern Virginia than Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, did when he won four years ago. according to some studies.
Mr Youngkin’s focus on schools may not resonate as strongly with the wider electorate.
Measures such as mask and vaccine mandates cut differently from the governor’s race in more liberal New Jersey and are overwhelmingly popular among Virginia’s independents and Democrats. Critical race theory — an advanced academic concept generally introduced in college — is not part of classroom education in Virginia, and many voters say they don’t know enough about it to have an opinion about it.
And turning schools into a cultural war zone by protesting equality initiatives, sexually content books, and public health measures avoids problems like austerity and other thorny problems facing American education.
But in an out-of-the-year election, when both parties expect a sharp drop in votes, victory may depend on the candidate who can best motivate their base. Mr. Youngkin and his strategists believe that in the fighting in schools, they have discovered the rare problem that can tantalize their voters, even in places where the state is shifting to the left.
Education frustration is an issue that unites Republicans, fueling moderates who are eager to keep their kids in school, as well as conservatives who see a liberal plot to indoctrinate their children with the belief that white people are inherently racist.
“The former governor is saying, ‘Hey, I’ll decide how I teach your kids, not you’ — that’s really the cause of this,” said John Fredericks, who led Donald Trump’s campaign in Virginia last year. “Glenn Youngkin is the candidate who has conquered both sides of the party and so far he has given us just enough for us to vote enthusiastically for.”
Republicans have centered much of their closing argument around a statement by Mr. McAuliffe in last month’s debate.
The comment came after Mr. Youngkin attacked Mr. McAuliffe over his 2017 veto of a bill that would allow parents not to allow their children to study material deemed sexually explicit. The dispute was prompted by a mother who objected to her son, a senior student, who read literary classics, including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”
Mr. McAuliffe replied that he did not believe that “parents should tell schools what to teach.” In the weeks that followed, he stuck to those comments, saying that the state council of education and local school boards should determine what is taught in the classroom.
But Mr. Youngkin and Republicans, taking the quote out of context, have turned the images into the crux of their argument that Mr. McAuliffe would side with government over parents.
The video of the comment was featured in a flurry of digital ads and a national TV commercial accusing Mr McAuliffe of “assaulting parents”. The team of mr. Youngkin began organizing “Parents Matter” gatherings in suburbs, as they actively courted activist groups.
And Mr. Youngkin has also expressed his support for Byron Tanner Cross, a physical education teacher in Loudoun County. Mr Cross was suspended after announcing at a school board meeting that he would not address transgender students with their favorite pronouns because of his Christian faith.
At a campaign rally last week in Winchester, a small town in the Shenandoah Valley in one of Washington’s burgeoning suburbs, Mr. Youngkin little mention of Mr. Trump, vaccines or the coronavirus. Instead, he repeatedly cited issues surrounding schools as top priorities.
He received the loudest applause from the predominantly white public when on his first day in office he vowed to ban critical race theory and vowed never to close schools again.
“This is what great government means to Terry McAuliffe. He doesn’t want to stand alone between you and your kids. He wants to make the government a tool to silence us,” Mr. Youngkin told the crowd of nearly 200 people at a farm stall. “This is no longer a campaign. This is a movement. It is a movement led by parents.”
McAuliffe has dismissed the outrage around critical breed theory as “racist” and “a dog whistle.” He supports mask and vaccine mandates for students, teachers and school staff. (Mr. Youngkin says he encourages Virginians to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, but does not support mandates.)
But there are signs that Democrats feel danger.
Mr. McAuliffe’s campaign has returned to spotlight his education proposals to undermine any argument that Mr. Youngkin could be stronger on this issue, promising to invest $2 billion in education, increase teacher salaries increase, expand pre-K programs, and invest in broadband access for students. On Friday, Mr. McAuliffe ran an ad saying that Mr. Youngkin would cut billions of dollars in education funding and bring the education policies of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos to Virginia.
Virginia parent organizations claim to be impartial and focused more on school board elections than on national politics. But many are led by Republican activists, raising funds from Republican Party donors and aided by conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which has held briefings to discuss model legislation to block critical race theory. Last month, the Republican National Committee ran ads attacking “fascist mask mandates” and highlighting video clips of angry parents yelling at school board members.
Erin Holl, a Republican voter from Frederick County in the northern corner of the state, has always considered himself conservative, but not necessarily political. That was before the corona crisis. Months of online learning with her young daughters and the closure of her dog-sitting business changed how much attention she paid to the governor’s race.
“I gave birth to her,” Mrs. Holl said, gesturing to her daughter. “I have the right to say how she was raised. I have the right to say how she was vaccinated. This has changed my opinion about politics.”