Last year, Brandon Michon was a commercial real estate financier who had recently moved from New York City back to his hometown of Hamilton, Va., with his wife and four children, trying to escape the eeriness of empty Manhattan streets in the early days of the pandemic.
How did he get here? Going viral at a school board meeting. In January 2021, he demanded that the Loudoun school board reopen schools and “raise the frigging bar” — now something of a campaign slogan.
“This has been a parents’ movement the whole time,” Michon, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, said in an interview at the Loudoun County Public Schools building last month.
Michon embodies the type of parent activism that carried Glenn Youngkin (R) to Virginia’s governorship last fall, after Youngkin developed a resonant message around “parental rights” in education policy and school curriculums. But Michon is far from the only candidate capitalizing on that energy. As crowded primary campaigns heat up in competitive races across the commonwealth, numerous Republican congressional candidates are pulling from the Youngkin playbook on education.
Candidates including Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega (R) and former teacher Gina Ciarcia in the 7th District — and multiple contenders in the 10th — have made the rounds at school board meetings. They’re beefing up résumés to show they have been battling critical race theory, an academic framework for studying systemic racism that has been a frequent target of conservatives, including Youngkin.
But with the Virginia General Assembly ending mask mandates, school closures in the rearview mirror and Youngkin’s administration taking its own action targeting critical race theory, it is unclear whether some of those issues will remain salient with voters in November. Republicans are betting they will.
“Parents have a long memory,” said Virginia-based Republican campaign strategist Zack Roday, arguing that such voters will be looking for candidates whose values match theirs — even if federal lawmakers are limited in what they can do on local education policy.
“The list of grievances is long, and victories on some of these issues are unlikely to entirely mitigate the levels of justified anger that I have seen from parents at these meetings,” Prince William County Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R), a 10th-District Republican contender leading the primary field in fundraising, said in an email to The Washington Post.
Republicans in Virginia’s 10th, 7th and 2nd districts — all seats targeted by the national GOP — are seeking to unseat the three Democratic congresswomen who flipped their districts to blue in 2018 with major help from suburban voters. Republicans will have better chances in the 2nd and 7th — represented by Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, and in districts that Youngkin won last year — than in the much bluer 10th. But John Whitbeck, a former chairman of the Virginia GOP and a lawyer in Loudoun County, argued that “as long as education remains a Republican issue,” the party has a chance to be competitive in any suburban contests and could claw back some of those suburban voters to make a dent in the swing districts.
“In the last four years, we have not been competitive in the suburbs,” said Whitbeck, whose law firm has represented Loudoun parents in litigation against the school board. “That’s been where the party collapsed in large part with suburban voters. But suburban voters are driven by education, and Glenn Youngkin is governor in large part because of that.”
At any Loudoun County School Board meeting, more than one Republican candidate for Congress sometimes can be spotted in the building.
One candidate, John Beatty, sits on the board. Others, including Caleb Max, have gone to meet and greet the crowd — often, dozens of parents show up. Others, including Michon and Mike Clancy, regularly take the lectern to speak.
“I’m here to focus once again on this barricade of tables and this plexiglass wall,” Clancy said at last month’s meeting, comparing the clear barriers behind which board members sit to their “version of the Berlin Wall” dividing them from parents.
The meetings are frequently tense. Loudoun became the state’s most fertile ground for Republican messaging on education last year after a “perfect storm” of events launched the county into the national spotlight — energy that then spread across the commonwealth, and to some degree, the nation, Whitbeck said. A pair of sexual assaults on school grounds, and the district’s handling of the cases, incensed parents in both political camps. One parent was arrested during a raucous board meeting about the district’s policies for transgender students. And there was Michon’s viral speech demanding schools reopen.
The day after that speech, Michon said, then-candidate Youngkin “called me and told me, ‘Look, I think this is a message that is going to change the course of politics.’ ” (A spokeswoman for Youngkin confirmed Michon’s account.) Soon, Michon was campaigning with Youngkin. He was in the room when Youngkin signed his Day 1 executive orders including banning mask mandates in schools, and Michon took home one of the pens Youngkin used.
At the school board meeting last month, some parents became emotional as they celebrated the end of the mask mandate, and the end of suspensions for children who did not comply with it. “Shame on you!” one parent, Abbie Platt, said to the board through tears, after she said her three children were suspended for 17 days for not complying with the school district’s mandate.
Leaving the meeting, Platt said she had been noticing the Republican candidates making appearances in recent weeks but already had her mind made up to vote for Michon. “He enabled us to get a voice,” she said, standing next to Michon’s mother, who was active at the meetings long before her son’s campaign for Congress. “Other candidates I think are attending because people are here. But Brandon … has been with the parents in this whole movement.”
Other candidates are seeking to distinguish themselves on other issues, in the 10th District and beyond.
Max, the almost-25-year-old grandson of former 10th District congressman Frank Wolf, argues that he is best equipped to fight for school choice in Congress because he was home-schooled, and his parents ran a private Christian school in D.C.
Stafford County Board Chairman Crystal Vanuch, the latest contender in the eight-way 7th District Republican primary, touts the county resolution she helped shepherd last year that pledged to withhold funding from schools teaching the 1619 Project, which explores the enduring consequences of slavery in the United States, or critical race theory.
Similarly, state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), who leads the field in fundraising in the 2nd Congressional District’s Republican primary, spearheaded an effort to ban the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” in Virginia public schools at the request of Youngkin. The legislation did not advance from committee. Still, Youngkin’s administration has been rescinding diversity and equity programs and policies pursuant to the governor’s Day 1 executive order to banning from schools the teaching of divisive concepts including critical race theory.
But on Thursday, all 133 Virginia public school division superintendents asked Youngkin to end that crusade and to scrap a tip line that the administration set up for parents to complain about curriculums and teachers, saying they “disagree with your assumption that discriminatory and divisive concepts have become widespread” in schools. Many teachers — and many other parents in Loudoun County who last month led Black History Month “teach-ins” at the board meetings — have feared the focus on critical race theory and divisive concepts is chilling honest discussion of race and history in the classroom.
Wexton voiced similar concerns about the direction of some conservative education movements. “I’m deeply concerned by some of these extreme movements on the other side of the aisle in Virginia calling for the government to ban books and police what kids are learning,” Wexton said in a statement to The Post. “The anger and vitriol that they’ve fomented as they try to inject politics into our classrooms has put students and teachers in the crosshairs, which only hurts kids’ well-being and ability to learn.”
Still fresh from last fall’s defeat in Virginia, Democrats are seeking to develop a counter-message on education to try to regain the ground they lost to Republicans on the issue last year — both in Virginia and nationwide. Wexton, whose children are in or graduated from Loudoun County schools, has in past interviews expressed empathy for parents who were fed up with virtual schooling, and said last week that she would be highlighting the funding she and congressional Democrats fought for to help schools reopen, make up for lost learning and support school meals programs.
This is likely to be a major part of Democrats’ message on education this campaign cycle. Monica Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noted that not a single Republican in Congress voted for the American Rescue Plan, which included funding to help schools reopen.
For now, however, as the May and June primaries approach, Republican candidates appear focused on riling up base voters they’ll need for the primary-season brawls.
Roday noted that since so many of the candidates have similar platforms — prioritizing education, fighting inflation, opposing Democrats’ spending packages — the fundraising battles may matter particularly.
It’s still early, with many candidates not entering until after the most recent campaign finance filing deadline. But in the 10th, Lawson is out front with $535,000 at year-end to Clancy’s $211,000, although Michon hasn’t had to file a report yet. In the 7th, Derrick Anderson, a lawyer and former Green Beret who said he was motivated to run after the chaotic U.S. military exit from Afghanistan last year, is in a tight fundraising battle with state Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) — each has raised more than $200,000. Yesli Vega, who led the governor’s “Latinos For Youngkin” effort, also is expected to be a top contender.
“Resources are going to be more important than ever for folks to get their message out; drawing contrasts on the issues is going to be tough,” Roday said.