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After Virginia success, Republicans look to weaponize school debates in midterm message

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pledged to "soon unroll a parents' bill of rights," while Senate candidate Jane Timken said she sees education becoming "more of a top of line issue."
A family participates in a rally sponsored by Catholic Vote and Fight for Schools, in Leesburg, Va., on Oct. 2.Cliff Owen / AP

National Republicans are moving swiftly to elevate the culture debate about schools as part of their strategy to regain control of Congress in next year's midterms, after GOP Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin of Virginia made parental involvement in education a core theme of his winning campaign in a blue state.

Just a day after Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pledged to "soon unroll a parents' bill of rights," adding at a news conference that the GOP "will be the party of education."

House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York tweeted that Republicans "will run and win on education!" And Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., tweeted that Youngkin "is the first candidate to run against CRT and he won convincingly. Many more to come in 2022."

CRT, a shorthand for "critical race theory," is an academic term that conservative media and activists have over the past year used to stoke fears about school curriculum that focuses on institutional racism. Youngkin took that nationalized issue and localized it, capitalizing on McAuliffe's assertion in a televised debate that "I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."

Republicans at all levels of government have also spent months aggressively pushing back against Covid-19 health measures like school closures and mask mandates.

Now, the party sees Tuesday's victories in Virginia and in several school board races as evidence these issues, framed as part of a broader culture war, unite former President Donald Trump's base with more moderate to center-right voters and should be a focus as the political calendar flips to 2022. Republicans also came close to defeating Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, in reliably blue New Jersey, offering more proof that Republicans are gaining ground as the 2022 midterm elections approach.

But a schools-focused strategy aimed at a smaller segment of the overall electorate — parents of school-age children — could have limitations, as some school board results on Tuesday showed.

In a memo Tuesday to members of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members, Banks wrote, "The concerns of parents need to be a tier 1 policy issue for Republicans."

Youngkin "knew parents weren’t just concerned about traditional education issues, but rather viewed education as an extension of the culture war, which I suggested we lean into in a memo back in June," Banks said.

Jane Timken, a GOP Senate candidate in Ohio, told NBC News she sees education becoming "more of a top of line issue" for Republicans after the party's showing in Virginia. Already, following the election, she released a new TV ad statewide on Fox News that calls for "a quality education that is free of indoctrination for Ohio's children."

"I think that we'll see a lot of Republicans starting to talk about education in school choice," she said. "But again, the fundamental issue is putting people and parents in charge of their child's education."

She added that a Trump-inspired conservative agenda "begins with taking back our classrooms and taking back our country."

Youngkin, who also capitalized on parental frustration with school closures, may have benefited in part by Loudoun County schools' outsize role in the backlash to what Republicans have branded as critical race theory. The academic theory is a college-level study of the modern-day effects of institutional racism that is not part of the curriculum at most public schools, but conservatives have equated it to broader diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives they believe lead to many of the same concepts entering the classroom.

In Loudoun County, with a rapidly diversifying school district, the year has been marked by heated arguments over racial equity and LGBTQ-inclusive policies that spilled into school board meetings — episodes that were central to the national schools debate.

Yet in a Fox News op-ed article published just prior to Tuesday's election, Youngkin himself made no mention of critical race theory and instead discussed learning setbacks students might have suffered stemming from pandemic school closures, declining academic standards and school violence.

"So, let’s rise above the rhetoric, rise above the division, and enable the dreams and pursuits of the next generation by securing safety and excellence in our schools," he wrote. "And I won’t rest until it is done."

There are risks here for Republicans, who also don't want to be seen as going directly after teachers. Youngkin's success may have been boosted by his state's outsize role in the national debate around schools that coincided with the campaign, while Democrats struggled to tie him directly to Trump, something that may prove less difficult in House and Senate races.

Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committe, was more cautious about making education a central issue as the GOP looks to the regain control of the House. But he said "without a doubt" Youngkin's education playbook can be replicated in other races.

"The education issue is really a lot more basic than education. It's about 'they are not listening,'" Emmer said in an interview about some parents' concerns, adding: "I think this is an issue across the country. Look, we've been talking about it since the beginning of the year."

NBC News exit polling found that education was the second-most-important issue for Virginia voters, with overwhelming majorities of Youngkin and McAuliffe voters saying parents should have a lot or some say in curriculum.

Meanwhile, in a sign of how education issues have become part of a heated nationalized debate, an NBC News poll released Sunday found that just 15 percent of voters viewed both parties as "about the same" on dealing with education — the lowest total in 25 years. That fall, Democrats enjoyed a 23-point edge over Republicans on handling education. Now, the advantage is 10 points.

These issues played out directly in school board races across the country after once-sleepy meetings became the front lines of partisan fights over masking, vaccines and race in education. Conservatives running explicitly against mandates, transgender students' access to certain bathrooms and sports teams, sex education and critical race theory won in a number of races, though some high-profile losses were mixed in too.

The 1776 Project PAC, an anti-critical race theory group that backed school board candidates across the country, said those it supported were ahead or won in 44 of the 58 races it endorsed in. In Ohio, Timken backed and donated to 41 school board candidates. Less than half of those candidates she endorsed won.

The energy has also been felt at the state level, where Republican lawmakers have introduced or passed more than 20 bills seeking to ban the "tenets" of critical race theory — legislative efforts they see as mostly preventative. In Texas, a state lawmaker is asking schools if they hold any of 850 books he compiled that he claims could make students feel uncomfortable.

One difficulty facing Republican congressional candidates seeking to seize upon the energy around these issues is that the farther away an office is from local government, the less impact an elected official can have on education policy. Republicans said in interviews they would pitch voters on a GOP-controlled House or Senate's ability to conduct oversight on the Biden administration's education-related initiatives and the Department of Education while also providing support to school officials and other local leaders on the front lines of the debate.

"The greatest opportunity lies in being real about who you're going to stand with and how you're going to be a voice for those people," Zack Roday, a Virginia-based Republican strategist, said. "And it's applying pressure at the local levels."

He added that the increased emphasis on education fights will "put a lot of cooks in the kitchen," as conservative activists, think tanks, politicians and donors will try to exert more influence post-Virginia.

"A lot of people, a lot of groups, a lot of entities," he said, "are going to look to try to see how they can contribute to this conversation."