Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin doesn’t get the most applause during his rallies when he talks about lowering taxes or assails President Biden. The loudest cheers come when Youngkin promises to ban critical race theory in Virginia on his first day in office.

His Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, calls this issue “another right-wing conspiracy” being used to sow hatred and division. He’s never advocated for CRT, until last year an obscure academic acronym, and notes that the controversial concept is nowhere to be found in the state’s public school curriculums. “It really bothers me because it is a racist dog whistle,” the former governor said Tuesday on MSNBC.

What McAuliffe misses is that this term has become a stand-in for deeper-seated fears among parents about what their children are learning. CRT is now shorthand for a broader basket of issues relating to education. Polling shows a plurality of Virginia voters opposed to the teaching of this theory, so dismissing those who speak out against it as racist is doomed to backfire.

The disdain with which McAuliffe dismisses pervasive parental anxiety is eerily reminiscent of the way Democrats underestimated the potency of the emerging tea party movement 12 years ago. It was common then for many on the left to dismiss people getting engaged with right-wing politics for the first time as racist whack jobs who were being taken advantage of by Astroturf groups funded by billionaires.

Republicans are in striking distance of winning statewide in Virginia for the first time since 2009, and Democrats seem to be sleepwalking into disaster. Many parents feel exhausted and frustrated after a year of learning loss and hardships because of remote schooling. They’re upset about schools canceling gifted and talented programs in the name of equality.

GOP strategists involved in the governor’s race say focusing on CRT is more about getting their base voters off the bleachers than persuading the undecided to join the team. Off-year elections like this are decided by intensity. Railing about CRT lets Youngkin appeal to his coalition of Never Trumpers and Forever Trumpers without talking about Donald Trump.

Youngkin, who calls education the No. 1 issue in the race, held his latest “Parents Matter” event on Wednesday in Culpeper. “We don’t need to teach our children to view everything through a lens of race,” Youngkin tells crowds, sounding eminently reasonable.

Democratic strategists involved in the race argue that his focus on CRT will backfire by stoking their base as well, especially African Americans. Their research shows many voters associate CRT with Trump, who lost Virginia last November by 10 points. Democrats hope that the more Youngkin mirrors the former president’s messaging, the more their own people will show up.

Youngkin is benefiting in the homestretch from a gaffe by McAuliffe during their final debate. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” the ex-governor said on Sept. 28.

Republicans say their focus groups show college-educated suburbanites react sourly toward McAuliffe when shown the clip because he comes across as arrogant and out of touch. Youngkin deployed the clip in an attack ad playing frequently in the Washington media market. McAuliffe responded with a commercial claiming that “Youngkin would bring Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’s education policies to Virginia.” Another spot features a mom criticizing Youngkin for opposing mandatory masking in schools.

At the debate, McAuliffe was referencing bills he vetoed as governor that would have required teachers to notify parents before assigning any material that included “sexually explicit content.” Parents who objected would then have been able to opt their kids out, and teachers would have been required to plan alternative lessons. The legislation was inspired by parents who didn’t want their teenagers exposed to “Beloved,” Toni Morrison’s novel about the traumatic legacy of slavery.

Every American ought to read “Beloved,” especially kids whose parents don’t understand why it’s so important. But McAuliffe’s inartful words didn’t make that case. The veto was back in the news the week of the debate because the Fairfax County Public Schools removed books from high school libraries after parents complained to the school board that they contain “homoerotic” content.

School board meetings like that have reemerged this year as front lines in the culture war. On Tuesday, for example, the board in Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city, voted down a resolution 7 to 4 that was designed to ban CRT. The governor’s race will be decided in the counties along Interstates 95, 66 and 64 where, not coincidentally, those meetings have turned especially heated.

Trump got blown out in Virginia in 2020 because outer suburbs started voting more like inner suburbs. This contest offers an important gauge of whether exurban counties such as Prince William and Loudoun will return to form by breaking differently than bluer places closer to D.C., such as Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax.

Critical race theory is an issue tailor-made to help Republicans win this, well, critical race.