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In tight governor’s race, Virginia GOP targeting critical race theory to draw votes

Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin gives a speech on the opposition to critical race theory in Loudoun County schools in Ashburn in June. Youngkin has seized on the topic as he seeks to attract voters in swing districts. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Until recently, Lauren Shupp, a software designer who lives in Northern Virginia, paid little attention to state politics, convinced that her life was shaped more by policies made in Washington than in Richmond.

But Shupp’s focus has shifted in the past year, as she has grown dissatisfied with the public schools and convinced that teachers would educate her children “through a lens of race.” Shupp, who twice voted for Donald Trump for president after backing Barack Obama, attributes her concerns about this “lens of race” to the influence of the Democratic Party, which is why she is supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin.

“They’re trying to indoctrinate the kids,” said Shupp, 39, who brought her two children to her first GOP rally in Ashburn on a recent Saturday. “They’re trying to change the curriculum from kindergarten on up.”

The policy debates roiling suburban school districts in Virginia have provoked heated meetings and rallies that, even during a pandemic, draw large crowds. But whether the uproar can help Republicans galvanize voters in left-leaning communities is a key question in the contest for governor.

The answer could have implications for how the two parties approach the midterm elections next year.

Youngkin, who would be the first Republican to win a Virginia gubernatorial race since 2009, is seeking to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, with promises to create jobs and cut taxes and crime.

But he also is trying to tap into the charged debates engulfing public schools, particularly in places like Loudoun County, where parents have protested equity initiatives they associate with critical race theory (CRT), the academic framework that examines how systemic racism is ingrained in the country’s history.

Despite the fact that it is not part of classroom teaching, CRT has catalyzed opposition in Virginia and across the country, as conservative leaders and pundits have invoked it to lambaste liberals. Trump, who endorsed Youngkin, has described CRT as a “toxic” and “poisonous left-wing doctrine” that is “flagrant racism, plain and simple.”

What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools?

It is unclear whether Youngkin’s anti-CRT message is drawing voters in what both parties describe as a close race. But a Washington Post-Schar School poll shows that Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe, is faring worse than Gov. Ralph Northam (D) did four years ago in voter-rich areas such as Loudoun and Prince William counties.

A Fox News poll released Thursday showed that 47 percent of registered Democrats favor the teaching of CRT while 65 percent of Republicans are opposed. Sizable portions say they don’t know enough to have an opinion — 38 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans. Among independents, half oppose the teaching of CRT while 16 percent favor it — and a third had no opinion.

Only 7 percent of voters overall said education was their top priority in the governor’s race — the economy and jobs, the pandemic, health care and taxes all came in as more important.

Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political science professor, said turning CRT into a target is a way to motivate Republicans in a nonpresidential election year, when voter turnout tends to be lower.

“The threat that there’s some evil outside force pushing a radical agenda into your elementary school is a vehicle for getting people energized,” he said. “It’s more about turnout of the base than persuasion.”

But David Ramadan, a former Republican state delegate in Virginia who is supporting McAuliffe, dismissed the notion that Youngkin’s pledge to ban CRT can help him gain traction in exurbs that turned from red to blue in recent years.

“Out of a hundred people, you will get one or two who say it’s an issue,” said Ramadan, whose district included portions of Loudoun and Prince William counties. “They may have heard of CRT but they can’t define it. It’s not an issue in this race.”

Nevertheless, Republicans are seizing on CRT as an opportunity to connect with voters.

In Loudoun late last month , hundreds of people attended a rally outside the county’s school board meeting, cheering as a roster of speakers denigrated the district’s transgender policy and CRT. Alongside yard signs bemoaning “Critical Racist Theory,” there were others promoting Youngkin’s candidacy.

“We need Youngkin!” the emcee, Patti Hidalgo Menders, a Loudoun Republican leader, implored the crowd.

At his appearances, Youngkin’s pledge to “ban” CRT from the classroom “on Day 1” typically draws loud applause.

“Thank you Glenn! Thank you Glenn!” supporters chanted in response at a Fairfax County stop in late August.

What to know about the 2021 Virginia governor’s race

In early September, hundreds cheered when he repeated the promise at a rally in Loudoun County organized by conservative activists protesting CRT. “We’ve watched what this liberal-left-progressive agenda in Richmond has done to our children, and guess what?” Youngkin said. “We’ve had enough.”

At the Ashburn rally, Youngkin invoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to drive home his point, saying that “to judge one another based on the content of our character, not the color of our skin, means we’re going to ban critical race theory.”

Standing in the crowd, Shupp said her dissatisfaction with Fairfax’s public schools crystallized during the pandemic when classes went online, a change that caused her to enroll her kids at a Catholic school that was meeting in-person.

Now that the public schools have reopened, she said CRT is among the reasons she hasn’t re-enrolled her children.

“The Democratic Party is using CRT to justify a myriad of agendas,” said Shupp, whose children are biracial. “I don’t want my kids to see the world through a lens of race. I don’t want them to see themselves as both victim and oppressor.”

As she left a nearby polling station, Margaret Young, 78, of Leesburg, who is a Democrat, said she is concerned about the pandemic and the need for everyone to get vaccinated — not CRT, which she says she knows little about.

“What’s important is for the Republicans to lose,” she said.

At the candidates’ first debate in mid-September, Youngkin brushed off a panelist’s assertion that he had “provided little proof” for his claim that “critical race theory has moved into all schools in Virginia.”

“Critical race theory has been in our schools for quite a while,” Youngkin replied, adding that it was “absolutely bogus” to think otherwise. He added: “In fact, the first instance I can find is actually during Terry’s time as governor,” a claim he has repeated on the stump.

McAuliffe responded that Youngkin was using CRT as “a big dog whistle. I really hate it. It divides people.”

Asked for evidence that McAuliffe’s administration started the teaching of CRT in Virginia, Youngkin’s campaign cited, without elaborating, a 2015 PowerPoint presentation on school disciplinary practices at Virginia’s Department of Education.

Christina Freundlich, a McAuliffe spokesperson, said that a visiting professor had made the presentation and that it “had nothing to do with curriculum.” Referring to voters’ concerns, she said that McAuliffe is often asked about “abortion, vaccines and keeping children in schools.”

“No voter has asked Terry about CRT,” she said.

Youngkin, McAuliffe clash in final debate of Virginia governor’s race

Conceived by academics in the 1980s, CRT gained renewed currency last year after a police officer in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd, an African American man, provoking nationwide protests and a broad reexamination of equity issues. Trump seized on CRT after watching Christopher Rufo, a conservative scholar, describe it as a national threat during a 2020 Fox News interview.

Now, as the midterm election cycle approaches, Republicans are using CRT to attack Democrats. At least six Republican-controlled state legislatures have banned the teaching of CRT, including Texas, Tennessee and Iowa, according to a Brookings Institution survey in July. More than a dozen other states were considering similar bills.

Chris Jankowski, a national GOP strategist and a veteran of Virginia races, said Republicans in the commonwealth and around the country are mainly gaining a boost from President Biden’s declining popularity, as well as concerns about the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the condition of the economy and the pandemic.

But he said CRT can help Republican candidates with turnout among core supporters, and that “swing and independent voters, once they start to unpack and understand it, can be moved on the issue, as well.”

“It’s a close cousin to ‘defund the police’ and cancel culture in that suburban voters are uncomfortable with it even if they don’t express it,” he said. “The challenge with it is that it’s called CRT and can’t be distilled into a 30-second ad. But it’s a part of a set of issues that are clearly winners and support for them will only grow.”

Lissa Savaglio, chair of Loudoun County’s Democratic Committee, accused Republicans of using CRT as a “scare tactic” that “isn’t going to work.” Referring to Trump’s 10-point loss in Virginia in 2020, she said, “Look where it got him.”

Between the GOP and the governor’s mansion: A bigger, bluer Northern Virginia

Still, CRT is an undeniable subject of chatter among voters, whether or not there’s confusion over its meaning.

Diane Gordon, a poll watcher for the Democrats in Northern Virginia, said she is worried that the attention that CRT protests have gotten in Loudoun and across the country could hurt McAuliffe.

“A lot of people don’t realize that, with something like this, it makes people come out to vote when they might not otherwise,” she said as she monitored an early-voting site in Ashburn. “My concern is that a lot of people are coming out without the proper information.”

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