“What we’ve seen in all of these states is what we’ve known all along: While education may not be the most important issue, it’s a huge concern for parents and voters,” said Katrina Mendiola, NEA political director. “What interests them are the same things that educators care about. They want fully funded schools, they want educators to be paid decent and competitive wages, and they want mental health support for their children.”
The Republican National Committee has encouraged its candidates to go beyond culture war clubs when criticizing Democrats in the final days of their campaigns. A polling memo distributed by the RNC last month argued that Republicans have “shrunk the Democrats’ typical double-digit (20-point) lead on education to just low single digits.” Still, it added that the “focus on [critical race theory] and masks excite the GOP base, but parental rights and quality education drive independents.”
“Masks in seven-year-olds and CRT, while a problem, are not the driving force. If Republican [are] focusing solely on that, they miss a broad constituency who are receptive to the Republican message on education,” the memo continues, urging GOP candidates to “reach a broader coalition” and speak out on issues that matter ‘inspiring independent voters’ such as ‘parental involvement’ and teaching children life skills and their emotional and academic development.
The lessons of Youngkin’s victory
Recent history has shown that a focus on education in gubernatorial races can be effective for Republicans.
It was central to Youngkin’s upset 2021 win in Virginia, where he became the first Republican to win the governorship since 2009. Youngkin’s early campaign focused on everything from school safety to critical race theory, a once-obscure academic legal framework used to study race in America’s institutions that conservative activists reshaped to address broad grievances about diversity-related issues include.
“The most important thing is that [education] is not a monolithic problem,” said Kristin Davison, a senior policy adviser to Youngkin. “That’s the mistake people have been making for a long time. It’s not just about teacher pay rises and school choices.”
Davison said key to the campaign’s success is building nine different “educational message models,” each one targeting a different group of voters in the state on issues such as school choices for black voters outside of Richmond or instead, curriculum messages in Northern Virginia leave a single stream message.
The Youngkin campaign also capitalized on a comment his Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe made during a debate in early October 2021.
When asked about a 2016 bill he vetoed that would have allowed parents to exclude their children from certain study materials, the former Democratic governor said he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they do.” should teach”. Ads from Youngkin abstracting this comment aired constantly thereafter, with his first and second most frequent ads throughout the campaign refreshing these comments from McAuliffe.
But Davison stressed that Republicans cannot simply copy Youngkin’s win — which has become a popular stand-in for GOP gubernatorial candidates this year — in their own states and must direct messages to their individual constituents.
“You don’t start from scratch when you talk about education, you could start with the message ‘parents matter,'” she said. “But some of the few mistakes people have made about Virginia are just trying to copy and paste them. And you can’t, especially when you’re running for governor.” She said she believes most Republican gubernatorial candidates have been successful on that front.
Voters will soon test these lessons. They still trust teachers more than elected officials, the Democrats argue, when it comes to curriculum issues.
Liberal candidates have not repeated McAuliffe’s mistakes on the debate stage, and Democrats’ emerging message about the importance of teaching children the good and bad of American history has emerged as one of the party’s strongest school-centric lines of attack.
Additionally, Lake estimates that only 28 percent of this year’s voters will be parents of children under the age of 18. That means, she said, partisans targeting school-centric voters are best served with a message that appeals to both parents and non-parents.
“You’ve sort of learned the wrong lesson from Virginia, in a way,” the Democratic pollster said of Republicans.