September 28, 2022 3:14 am
Virginia GOP candidate tests school fight message for 2022

Virginia GOP candidate tests school fight message for 2022

LEESBURG (VA) — His opponent pounced when Democrat Terry McAuliffe stated last week during the Virginia governor’s debate that he does not believe that “parents should tell schools what they should be teaching.”

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 trying to capitalize on a surge of relatively small but vocal groups of parents organizing against school curriculums they view as “anti-American,” COVID-19 safety measures and school board members whom they consider too liberal and closely aligned to teachers unions. It’s an attempt to excite the GOP-leaning suburban votes Youngkin needs for the Nov. 2. race. Republicans across the country will likely replicate Youngkin’s efforts if Virginia proves to be a swing state, which has been more reliably blue in recent years. Next year’s midterms are at stake, and Republicans all over the country could copy his success.

“Glenn Youngkin harnesses the energy of frustrated parents,” stated Macaulay Porter, spokesperson for Youngkin.

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. Many of these have ties with Republican donors and party aligned think tanks. They are also led by people who worked for and supported the GOP and its candidates. This may make it easier to spread the message across the country. The other side claims that this is all about helping candidates. 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 in Loudoun County, Virginia, where his two children attend school. This is a fact that smart candidates are recognizing. Politically, I would say it’s a biproduct.”

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. Last weekend, Prior’s group co-organized a rally with 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.”

“I’m glad that Mr. McAuliffe said that, that more people can see the truth and 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 the event. “Our Founding Fathers gave our country rights from God. It is not a right from our government. So that was a big wake-up call.”

Loudoun County, across the Potomac River from Washington, is populated with thousands of political professionals. 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.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has directed federal authorities to strategize with law enforcement to address the increasing threats targeting school board members, teachers and others, citing “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” toward 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 58-year-old dance instructor from Sterling, Virginia, who attended the Leesburg rally and whose two children graduated from Loudoun County public schools.

McAuliffe supporters dismiss the blitz as Youngkin firing up the conservative base without appealing to the suburban swing voters who abandoned the GOP in droves during last year’s presidential election.

“Youngkin is working to divide Virginians instead of keeping our children safe from COVID-19,” said McAuliffe spokesperson Christina Freundlich. Still, McAuliffe could be squeezed by an attempt to attract Loudoun County residents upset over school issues. Last year, Democrat Joe Biden carried Loudoun County, population 420,000, with 61% of the vote. He won the state by 10 percentage points.

Republicans say Youngkin could win if he can get 40% of the Greater Washington area vote. In a county with a growing diversity, complaining about teaching racial awareness may backfire. Just 53% of Loudoun’s population is white, down from 69% as recently as 2010. Running Loudoun County races on this issue, when it could cause a backlash towards non-white voters, runs the risk to be counterproductive,” Mo Elliethee said. Mo Elliethee was a former campaign advisor to McAuliffe as well as other prominent Virginia Democrats.

Many parent groups claim that their movement is multiracial. It grew out of the surge in virtual learning, which allowed parents from all backgrounds to see what their children were learning.

Sue Zoldak is the founder of Do Better FCPS. This group focuses on Fairfax County schools and was formerly a Republican National Committee consultant. Her group is not connected to any statewide races. It only has ties to school boards, which are nonpartisan.

“It is funny to me the accusation that “Oh well, this movement is clearly conservative-run,” Zoldak stated. The funding for such activism can be significant. In June, the Free to Learn Coalition was launched with over $1 million in television ads that focused on Fairfax County schools and Peoria, Arizona public schools, as well as a New York City school. The schools were selected to represent urban, suburban, and rural areas as well as the east or west. Within weeks, Free to Learn had heard from parents in every state and is now approaching 10,000 members, said its president, Alleigh Marre, who served as special assistant and chief of staff to the Air Force secretary during the Trump administration.

The group followed up with a television ad, which aired during Washington Football Team’s season opening. It decried Loudoun County officials for having spent lavishly on a “divisive curriculum promoted by political activists” and accused “powerful education unions” of using “dirty political campaign tactics to go after parents.”

More ads are planned elsewhere soon, said Marre, who lives in Virginia and has two children who have yet to reach school age. She said her group wants to build “like-minded coalitions of parents” and “elevate their voices where they can’t necessarily be ignored.”

Marre said 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 something which is absolutely on everyone’s minds,” Marre stated. “It definitely has people fired up.”


Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.