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Can Virginia Democrats Win Back Suburban Moms?
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Can Virginia Democrats Win Back Suburban Moms?

Glenn Youngkin was able to flip Biden voters by focusing on education.

Inflation is soaring, Joe Biden’s approval ratings are down, and the White House’s economic agenda is stalled. Against that backdrop, vulnerable House Democrats across the country are steeling themselves for tough reelection battles in 2022.

But in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Terry McAuliffe in the commonwealth’s off-year gubernatorial election revealed an issue that could make congressional campaigning even more difficult for vulnerable Virginia Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria: K-12 education.

Youngkin spent the months leading up to the general election carefully crafting a political messaging strategy that would resonate with independents, Trump-skeptical Republicans, women, and suburban voters. That strategy took particular aim at parents of young children, many of whom struggled to afford childcare and even dropped out of the workforce as a result of pandemic-induced school closures. Youngkin vowed to build more charter schools, ban “critical race theory,” and reopen K-12 schools that had opted for remote learning during the pandemic.

And, as far as some parents are concerned, it worked. Dee O’Neal is a single mom and Virginia resident who founded a grassroots parent group to urge schools to go back to full-time, in-person schooling after more than a year of being shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.*

O’Neal told The Dispatch it seemed like only Republicans cared about schools reopening. “I was like, where are these liberal groups that are supposedly for children? They were just silent.”

As The Sweep noted in its Virginia gubernatorial post-election analysis, Fairfax County didn’t reopen full-time, in-person learning for the 2020-2021 school year, even after teachers received priority access to vaccination.

Then came the late September gubernatorial debate, when McAuliffe said the quiet part out loud: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The remark was widely criticized, but McAuliffe never walked it back.

“I’m independent, not crazy about either party,” O’Neal said. “I’m definitely not going to be voting Democrat in the near future.” She said out of the roughly 100 volunteer parents who are a part of Open Fairfax County Schools Coalition, she believes “99 percent of them voted for Youngkin, even Democrats,” because of their concerns about McAuliffe’s position on parents and public schools.

Although it’s still unclear whether McAuliffe’s late September gaffe doomed his campaign, polling suggests that Youngkin’s ability to harness education as a political messaging strategy likely boosted his support among parents of school-aged children. An Echelon Insights poll conducted October 27-29 showed Youngkin carrying K-12 parents by 15 points compared to the mere 3 point lead over McAuliffe he held in the same poll when non-parents were factored into the equation.

A separate poll of 500 general election voters in Virginia conducted by Democrats for Education Reform and Murmuration November 10-15 found Youngkin carries voters 52 percent to McAuliffe’s 40 percent when it comes to his handling of schools and education. Of the 21 percent of survey respondents in that poll who ranked education as their top issue in the gubernatorial race, a striking 70 percent said they voted for Youngkin.

According to NBC News exit polls, white women in particular voted for Youngkin 57 to 43 percent, a 13 point swing from 2020 where the demographic went for President Biden. Exit polling by the Washington Post showed that women overall went for McAuliffe, but by a lesser margin than they went for Biden. Non-educated women went for Youngkin in higher numbers—74 percent without college degrees voted GOP—while 61 percent of white women with college degrees broke for McAuliffe.   

“[Youngkin] talked about cutting the grocery tax, putting parents in charge of their kids’ education and creating jobs,” former New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie said in an interview with The Dispatch last month. “And Terry McAuliffe talks about Donald Trump.”

McAuliffe’s defeat is a particularly troubling sign for Democratic Reps. Spanberger, whose district Youngkin won by 11 points, and Luria, whose district Youngkin won by 8 points. Both congresswomen know their reelection prospects are slim, and consistently tiptoe around campaign-related questions from reporters. “I don’t really want to talk about that,” Luria told The Dispatch when asked about Youngkin’s focus on education and how it might affect the midterms.

She said the entire Virginia congressional delegation—including both U.S. senators and all eleven Virginia members of the House—met with Youngkin on Tuesday to discuss his governing priorities moving into next year and that “he was very receptive to hearing from all of us about how we’re going to work together on education.” 

“I think there was a lot of frustration from parents through COVID with kids not being in school with just so many things. So I think that that might have been the opening salvo of the discussion [about critical race theory],” Luria said, adding that the buzzword came to symbolize an overall frustration with pandemic-related school closures and remote learning. 

“I hope that we can gain ground on education loss for not being in the classroom for a year [and] people can feel comfortable that their kids are back in school and learning and we can just have all of those debates behind us,” she added.

She isn’t the only Virginia Democrat on edge heading into next year’s midterms, when Republicans need to flip only five seats to retake the House. The National Republican Congressional Committee has also expanded its list of lawmakers Republicans will target in 2022 to include Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton of Virginia’s 10th Congressional District. McAuliffe won Fairfax by 65 percent and Loudoun County by just over 55 percent, a drop from the 2020 presidential election where Fairfax voters went for Biden by 69 percent and Loudoun County 61 percent.

Spanberger and Luria are also on the list.

Election analysts sounded a note of caution on whether education will be a key factor in the midterms, noting that its importance is so far largely anecdotal. “I sort of struggle to know overall how important it was in the race,” Kyle Kondik, an elections commentator and analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics told The Dispatch.  “These things are hard to quantify,” he added. “In a race that was decided by less than 2 points, maybe it did make the difference.” 

He said the biggest reason McAuliffe lost was because the overall political atmosphere was unfavorable for Democrats. “These races have a long history of breaking against the White House,” Klondik said. GOP gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli’s narrow loss in November to incumbent New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in November is case in point. Murphy won by just 3 points in a state Biden won by 16 points in 2020.

As midterm campaign season heats up, it will be worth watching whether education-focused advertising takes center stage on the Republican side in Virginia and beyond. Shortly after Youngkin’s victory, for example, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that his GOP conference was planning on unveiling a “parents bill of rights.”

“Every Republican is going to run on education in 2022 because of what happened in Virginia,” Echelon Insights cofounder Kristen Soltis Anderson tweeted shortly after Youngkin’s victory. “Even if in reality education was just part of the picture and ‘education’ is an umbrella for a hundred different sub-issues.”

But the constant shifting pattern of COVID-19 introduces more uncertainty. Time will tell whether it becomes more of a ripe issue for political candidates to seize upon, as the world struggles to get the pandemic under control. Will K-12 public school children be required to wear masks next year? How will vaccine mandates affect the debate?

I think that probably there is some broad lingering dissatisfaction with some public schools based on how tough the couple of years have been for parents,” Kondik said. But the concern can cut in both directions. “There are plenty of parents who want to be cautious because they’re worried about their kids getting COVID.”

Luria said she hopes that over the next year parents will feel comfortable with how schools are handling in-person learning. “It’s hard to tell a year from now if it’ll be on the top of people’s minds, but I hope that kids will be back in school safely for a year and people will be feeling a lot better about their kids’ education,” Luria said.

Others remain skeptical.

“It’s the ultimate level of frustration right now,” Laura Zorc, director of Education Reform at the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks and director of BEST, a grassroots initiative encouraging parents to get involved in their local school board elections over concerns with curriculum and COVID-19 policies, told The Dispatch. “So I’m going to say we’re a couple of years away from that going away.”

Zorc said that McAuliffe’s remark, school closures, and a letter sent by the National School Boards Association in September that compared some parents protesting at school board meetings to domestic terrorists have all compounded that frustration. The NSBA has since apologized for the language in the letter, but more than a dozen states have pulled out from the organization and funding has dropped.

“These parents I’m working with across the country—these are not political parents. They’re busy. They’re taking kids to appointments, trying to get their kids to get their homework done,” Zorc said. “They wanted someone who would stand up for them, and when McAuliffe came out and said what he said, that was a confirmation for them that they needed change.”

*Correction, December 20: This piece originally misidentified the source’s name as Dee O’Neil Jackson instead of Dee O’Neal.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.