The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

School culture war campaigns fall flat in some tight races

Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon leaves the stage after speaking during an election night watch party in Grand Rapids Tuesday (Evan Cobb/For The Washington Post)

This week’s election results called into question the power of culture war education politics, as a string of Republicans who leaned into the issue lost close races or were trailing their opponents.

There were some victors, to be sure, notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), whose battles against what he calls “woke ideology” have made him the nation’s chief education culture warrior. He was easily reelected. Incumbent GOP governors in Texas and Georgia, who have embraced similar policies, also won. And while results from school board races across the country were still being analyzed, it was clear that culture war conservatives scored some victories.

But in some of Tuesday’s highest-profile, closest races, hard-edge attacks over gender identity, patriotism and parents’ rights appear to have been insufficient. Republican gubernatorial candidates who trumpeted these issues lost in Kansas, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin — and trailed in Arizona.

The details varied, but conservatives argued, among other things, that schools are teaching children to hate the United States, encouraging students to change genders, circulating pornographic library books, allowing “biological boys” (meaning transgender girls) to compete in girls’ sports, and hiding what they teach from parents.

They rallied around the idea of parents’ rights to stop all of the above.

Some strategists in both parties have argued that these issues are more effective with Republican voters than independent or swing voters. Each of Tuesday’s races was affected by multiple factors, but the results offered some evidence for that argument.

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In Michigan, Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon and her allies campaigned hard on education issues in her unsuccessful challenge to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. A group backed by former education secretary Betsy DeVos that supported Dixon spent millions of dollars on ads such as one that charged, “Under Gretchen Whitmer, the radicals want a drag queen in every classroom, indoctrinating our children.”

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers focused on school funding. His Republican opponent, Tim Michels, promised to expand a school voucher program and enact a parents’ bill of rights.

“Parents must know if schools are focusing more on math and reading — or instead advancing a curriculum rooted in Critical Race Theory, one that identifies and divides students as either oppressors or oppressed,” Michels said on his campaign website. He referred to the intellectual movement examining how policies perpetuate systemic racism, using a term that Republicans have adopted as a catchall label for school instruction on race.

In Maine, Republicans attacked Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, for a video that was posted on a state website featuring various online lessons telling kindergartners that sometimes doctors make mistakes when they tell parents whether their babies are boys or girls. In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly (D) was pounded for vetoing two bills banning transgender girls and women from competing on women’s sports teams.

But these attacks did not carry their proponents to victory, and the results called into question whether Republicans took the right lessons from recent history, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank.

A year ago, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) showed how education could be a winning issue for his party when he was elected in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points in 2020. Youngkin campaigned on a promise to protect parental rights and was critical of school closures, mask mandates and what he called critical race theory in schools.

The pandemic-related issues faded as schools reopened and masks became optional virtually everywhere, but many in the GOP continued to press issues of race and, more recently, gender identity. Republican legislatures in 25 states put into law restrictions on how teachers can talk about race and gender in the classroom and on access to bathrooms and sports teams for transgender students.

New critical race theory laws have teachers scared, confused and self-censoring

And conservatives brought these attacks to the campaign trail, first during GOP primaries and then, in many states, the general election.

“People looked at Youngkin’s victory and thought this would be a new way to win in purple states,” Petrilli said. “What happened this year seems to raise some real questions about this strategy.”

Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy, education and politics at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank that advises candidates, added that her group’s research suggests culture war attacks are effective in GOP primaries but not in general elections.

Voters in several states appeared in sync Tuesday with Democrats on education, which traditionally has been an area of strength for the party.

In conservative West Virginia, voters soundly rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have limited the power of the state Board of Education. Conservative critics saw the board as doing too little to address how race is taught in classrooms and to advance “school choice” programs. The proposal would have given the legislature final say over the board’s policies.

And voters in five states approved ballot measures that, in different ways, increase funding for education, a strategy preferred by Democrats for improving schools. In California, there will be new money for arts education, and in Colorado, for school meals. In Idaho, voters agreed to spend a state budget surplus, in part, on education.

Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, a group that does not align with either party, said she has long argued that economic issues, not cultural ones, motivate parents.

“We have been trying like hell to focus the conversation on things parents are concerned about,” she said. “We’ve now wasted a lot of time talking about these things, and we really don’t have that time to lose.”

The election results were dispiriting for parent activists who have been energized by the issues, said Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, a group that collects examples of schools it considers guilty of liberal indoctrination. But she said that this was “the first rodeo” for many involved, and that the movement will continue to grow despite head winds from teachers unions and others.

Gender identity lessons, banned in some schools, are rising in others

“A number of parents are deflated, disappointed,” she said. Yet “parents are enthused. They are not going away.”

Many of these battles are waged on the local level, including in school board races across the country. It was difficult to immediately draw broad conclusions about those results, though it was clear that both sides had victories.

Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks U.S. politics, has so far counted 237 school board winners who took a stance on hot-button topics, including race and gender. Of those, 55 percent took the conservative side on at least one issue, compared with 43 percent who took liberal stands (the remainder had mixed positions).

In Florida, DeSantis weighed in with endorsements of 30 school board candidates this year, and 24 were elected, including six who faced runoffs on Tuesday. Conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty and the 1776 PAC also made endorsements in Florida and across the country, and many of these candidates won, too.

Alicia Farrant, who was endorsed by DeSantis and Moms for Liberty, won a seat on the Orange County, Fla., school board after making “curriculum transparency” a focal point of her campaign. She appeared alongside DeSantis this year at the signing ceremony for a statewide “transparency in education” bill, which forces teachers to post their instructional materials. At the signing, Farrant shared a story about “exposing” a sexually graphic book she said was easily accessible at school libraries in her county.

After her victory Tuesday, she posted a Facebook video of her celebrating alongside her family. “Many have said I’m just a mom, but I know that I’m more than a mom. I’m a warrior,” she said.

Similarly, in Minnesota, conservative candidates campaigning on parental rights scored wins across the state, winning 15 out of 19 races in which they had devoted campaign resources, said Minnesota Parents Alliance, a conservative advocacy group.

But in Wake County, N.C., and Lafayette, Ind., school board candidates who supported book bans and restrictions on teaching about gender and race were defeated, in some cases by substantial margins.

And in a Houston suburb, a slate of conservative challengers failed to knock off school board incumbents who were also conservative but didn’t focus on identity issues.

Leslie Johnson, a small-business owner and active parent-teacher organization member in Tomball, Tex., identifies as conservative. But she said she felt turned off by the accusatory and mean-spirited tone of culture war candidates in the local race. Their allegations about pornographic material in Tomball schools didn’t track with her experience, and they didn’t give examples of which books on which campuses, Johnson said. The claims about indoctrination seemed to be adapted from elsewhere.

In April, the challengers sent out mailers to 2,000 residents saying librarians had used taxpayer money to attend a conference “that featured Drag Queen speakers,” complete with photos of the librarians.

“It just became this thing of, like, you’re scaring everyone in the district,” said Johnson, who voted against the advocates wielding these arguments. “It’s just not right, for me.”