Virginia GOP candidate tests school fight message for 2022

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LEESBURG, Va. (AP) – When Democrat Terry McAuliffe said during the Virginia governor’s debate last week that he didn’t think “parents should tell schools what to teach,” his opponent said .

Republican Glenn Youngkin quickly turned the images into digital advertising, then announced he spent $ 1 million on commercial broadcast statewide, claiming “Terry attacked the parents.” Youngkin’s campaign has since founded a parent-led group to circulate petitions and distribute flyers rejecting “McAuliffe’s disqualifying position,” while also scheduling a “Parents Matter” rally on Wednesday in the northern Washington suburbs. from Virginia.

Youngkin is trying to capitalize on a wave of relatively small but loud parent groups organizing against school programs they consider “anti-American”, COVID-19 safety measures, and school board members they consider them too liberal and closely aligned with teacher unions.

It’s an effort to excite GOP-trending suburban voters that Youngkin needs to win the Nov. 2 race. If the approach proves successful in Virginia, a one-time swing state that has turned more reliably blue, Republicans across the country are likely to replicate its efforts during the midterm of next year, when control of Congress is at stake.

“Glenn Youngkin harnesses the energy of frustrated and tired parents,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter.

Virginia’s most active parent activist groups argue they are non-partisan and do not seek to influence the governor’s race, instead focusing on school board elections and efforts to remove board members, especially in growing areas outside of Washington. But many such organizations have ties to Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks, and are led by people who have worked for the GOP and its candidates, which may make it easier to reproduce the message at home. nationwide.

“The other part is that this is all meant to help applicants. I think it’s the opposite, ”said Ian Prior, 44, a former Trump administration official who founded Fight for Schools, which aims to recall five school board members from Loudoun County, Va. where her two children go to school. “It exists and smart candidates are taking it. Politically, I would say it is a bi-product.

Youngkin attended a fundraiser and rally last month for Fight for Schools, and his campaign has occasionally asked Prior’s group to help him build crowds for the Republican campaign events. Over the past weekend, Prior’s group co-hosted a rally with around 100 people outside the Loudoun County Supervisors Building in the leafy town of Leesburg to protest “the divisive educational programs underway in our own backs. -Classes “.

“I am happy that Mr McAuliffe said this, that more people can see the truth and that the Democratic Party wants to control,” said Patti Hidalgo Menders, a 52-year-old Republican activist and mother of six sons, the youngest. from who is now in high school, who spoke at the event. “Our founding fathers created our country to be the rights of God. These are not rights of our government. So it was a great awakening. “

Loudoun County, across the Potomac River from Washington, is populated by thousands of political professionals. As has happened in other states, a recent school board meeting erupted in cries of parents as officials discussed teaching about racial equality and determining transgender rights policies.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has called on federal authorities to strategize with law enforcement to deal with growing threats targeting school board members, teachers and others, citing “a worrying increase in harassment, ‘intimidation and threats of violence’ against them.

“I was impressed with (Youngkin) when he reached out to parents when he saw how disappointed they were with the school boards,” said Susan Cox, a Youngkin campaign volunteer and dance instructor at 58-year-old from Sterling, Virginia, who competed in the Leesburg rally and whose two children graduated from Loudoun County Public Schools.

McAuliffe supporters reject the blitz as Youngkin sets the Tory base on fire without appealing to suburban voters who dropped out of the GOP en masse in last year’s presidential election.

“Youngkin is working to divide Virginians instead of protecting our children from COVID-19,” McAuliffe spokeswoman Christina Freundlich said.

Still, an effort to draw angry Loudoun County residents over school problems could drag McAuliffe into a generally low-attendance and out-of-year election. Last year Democrat Joe Biden won Loudoun County, 420,000, with 61% of the vote. He won the state by 10 percentage points.

Republicans say Youngkin could win if he gets 40% of the vote in the Greater Washington area. But complaining about teaching racial awareness could also backfire in a county that has diversified over the years. Only 53% of Loudoun’s population is white, up from 69% in 2010.

“Running a race in Loudoun County on this issue when it could create a backlash against non-white voters risks being counterproductive,” said Mo Elliethee, former campaign adviser to McAuliffe and other leading Democrats from Virginia.

Many parent groups retort that their movement is multiracial and was born out of the wave of virtual learning brought on by the pandemic – which gave parents from all walks of life a home view of what their children were learning.

Sue Zoldak, founder of Do Better FCPS, which focuses on neighboring Fairfax County schools, is a former Republican National Committee consultant. She said her group was “not at all connected” to statewide races, only school board races, which are non-partisan.

“It’s funny to me, the accusation that, ‘Well, this is obviously a conservative-led movement,” Zoldak said. “The only reason we’re the ones talking is because every school board is full of Liberals.”

The funding behind such activism can be substantial. The Free to Learn Coalition was launched in June with more than $ 1 million worth of television advertising focusing on public schools in Fairfax County and Peoria, Ariz., As well as a private school in New York City.

Schools were chosen to represent rural, suburban and urban areas, as well as east and west. Within weeks, Free to Learn had heard from parents in every state and is now approaching 10,000 members, said its chairman, Alleigh Marré, who served as the Air Force Secretary’s Special Assistant and Chief of Staff during the Trump administration.

His group followed up with a television commercial that aired during the season opener for the Washington football team. He denounced Loudoun County officials for spending lavishly on a “divisive program promoted by political activists” and accused “powerful education unions” of using “dirty political campaign tactics to s ‘take it out on parents’.

More ads are planned elsewhere soon, said Marré, who lives in Virginia and has two children who have not yet reached school age. She said her group wanted to create “coalitions of like-minded parents” and “raise their voices where they cannot necessarily be ignored.”

Marré said parents who criticized school policies have been sanctioned by school districts and neighbors have sometimes complained to their employers or seen things like their child’s football team playing time decrease. – which is not surprising that the question was raised during the Governors’ debate.

“It’s something that is absolutely on everyone’s minds,” Marré said. “It definitely got people excited. “

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Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.

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