LEESBURG, Va. – When Democrat Terry McAuliffe said during the Virginia governor’s debate last week that he doesn’t believe “parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” his opponent pounced.
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.
“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 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 he needs to win the Nov. 2 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 and 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, which aims to recall five school board members in Loudoun County, Virginia, where his two children attend school. “This exists, and smart candidates are picking up on it. Politically, I would say it’s a byproduct.”
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 it helped sponsor 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.”
Loudoun County, across the Potomac River from Washington, has high concentrations of people who work in politics. 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, an effort to draw Loudoun County residents angry over school issues could squeeze McAuliffe in a typically low-turnout, off-year election. 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. 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 and other leading Virginia Democrats.
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.
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 connected at all” to statewide races, only school board ones, which are nonpartisan.
“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.”
The funding behind such activism can be substantial. The Free to Learn Coalition launched in June with more than $1 million in television advertising centered on public schools in Fairfax County and in Peoria, Arizona, as well as a New York City private school.
The schools were chosen to represent rural, suburban and urban areas, as well as the east and west. Within weeks, Free to Learn had heard from parents in every state and is now approaching 10,000 members, said its president, Alleigh Marré, who served as special assistant and chief of staff to the Air Force secretary during the Trump administration.
Her group followed up with a TV ad that aired during the Washington Football Team’s season opener. 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 Marré, 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."
Marré 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 that is absolutely on the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Marré said. “It definitely has people fired up.”
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.