At a governor’s debate last week, Democrat Terry McAuliffe said he doesn’t believe “parents should be telling schools what they should teach”, causing his opponent to pounce.
Republican Glenn Youngkin quickly turned the footage into a digital ad, then announced spending $1 million on a commercial airing statewide proclaiming that “Terry went on the attack against parents.”
Youngkin’s campaign has since founded a parent-led group to circulate petitions and distribute flyers rejecting “McAuliffe’s disqualifying position,” while scheduling a “Parents Matter” rally Wednesday in northern Virginia’s Washington exurbs.
Youngkin is using the support of relatively small, but vocal groups of parents organizing against school curriculums they view as “anti-American”, Covid-19 safety measures, and schools board members whom they consider too liberal while being aligned to teachers unions.
“I’m glad that Mr. McAuliffe said that. Then more people can see the truth that the Democrat Party wants control,” said Patti Hidalgo Menders, a 52-year-old Republican activist and mother of six sons — the youngest of whom is now in high school — who spoke at a rally last weekend near Dulles International Airport organized by a group called Fight for Schools.
Youngkin is looking to excite the GOP-leaning suburban voters to win the November 2nd race. If the approach proves successful in Virginia, a one-time swing state that has become more reliably blue, Republicans across the country are likely to replicate his efforts during next year’s midterms, when control of Congress is at stake.
“Glenn Youngkin is harnessing the energy of parents that are frustrated and fed up,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter.
Virginia’s most active parental activist groups maintain they are nonpartisan and not seeking to influence the governor’s race, instead focusing on school board elections and efforts to recall board members, especially in growing areas outside Washington.
But many such organizations have ties to Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks that are led by people who worked for the GOP and its candidates, which may make it easier to replicate the message nationally.
“The other side wants to say this is all geared toward helping candidates. I think it’s the opposite,” said Ian Prior, 44, a former Trump administration official who founded Fight for Schools.
Youngkin attended a fundraiser and rally last month for Fight for Schools, and his campaign has at times asked Prior’s group for help building crowds for the Republican’s campaign events. The rally sponsored last weekend drew about 100 people in front of the Loudoun County Supervisors Building in the leafy town of Leesburg to protest “divisive educational programs being advanced in our very own backyards.”
As has happened in other states, a recent school board meeting erupted into parental shouting matches as officials discussed teaching racial equality and determining transgender rights policies.
Republicans say Youngkin could win if he can get 40% of the Greater Washington area vote. But complaining about teaching racial awareness could also backfire in a county that has grown more diverse over the years. Just 53% of Loudoun’s population is white, down from 69% as recently as 2010.
“Running a race in Loudoun County on this issue when it could create a backlash against nonwhite voters runs the risk of being counterproductive,” said Mo Elliethee, a former campaign adviser to McAuliffe.
Many parent groups counter that their movement is multiracial and sprang out of the pandemic-driven surge in virtual learning — which gave parents of all backgrounds in-home views of what their children were being taught.
“It’s funny to me, the accusation that, ‘Oh well, this is obviously a conservative-run movement,’” Zoldak said. “The only reason that we’re the ones that speak up is because all the school boards are packed with liberals.”
Some parents have even come forward stating they have been outcasted along with their children for speaking up. Parents who have criticized school policies have faced sanctions from school districts and sometimes had neighbors complain to their employers or seen things like their child’s soccer team playing time decrease — making it little surprise the issue came up at the gubernatorial debate.
“It’s definitely a matter on the forefront of everyone’s mind and has people fired up to make changes,” said Alleigh Marré, special assistant and chief of staff to the Air Force secretary during the Trump administration.