The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are testing messages to reverse their suburban slide, and education is a winner

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R) speaks about critical race theory and Loudoun County Schools on June 30 in Ashburn, Va. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has been testing dozens of potential messages that might claw back suburban voters who drifted toward Democrats during Donald Trump’s presidency, and lines of attack related to education show as much potential for the midterms as inflation, immigration and crime.

I obtained a 45-slide PowerPoint recently presented to Republican senators that summarizes findings from a previously unreported internal poll of 1,200 likely voters in 2022 suburban battlegrounds. Notable results included:

  • Seventy-eight percent agreed that “many public-school systems in America are failing and children are falling behind the rest of the world.”
  • Sixty-five percent agreed that “allowing biological males to compete against women in high school and college sports is hugely unfair and will erase many of the gains women have made in athletics over the last 50 years.”
  • Fifty-eight percent agreed that “critical race theory should not be taught in schools” because “children should not be told they are inherently racist simply because of the color of their skin.”

Republican Glenn Youngkin has been road-testing all three arguments in the Virginia governor’s race. Although Joe Biden carried the commonwealth by 10 points last year — and is scheduled to campaign Tuesday with Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe — the latest poll, from Monmouth University, shows a tie. That survey found that schooling has surpassed covid to become the second-most-important issue, behind the economy. And after previously trailing, Youngkin has edged McAuliffe as being more trusted to handle education.

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Democrats traditionally hold advantages on education, but parental anger at learning loss caused by school closures has shifted the landscape. Many moms and dads blame recalcitrant teachers unions, to whom the Democratic Party is beholden, for slow reopenings. Mask mandates in the classroom poll well but have added to tensions.

And Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of the NRSC, intends to surf the wave of backlash. Senate challengers plan to emphasize support for “school choice” and “parental involvement” in commercials and on the stump next year, he said.

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“We can make sure that it’s a big focus,” Scott said in an interview. “People are seeing this work, and they’re going to follow it, whether Youngkin wins or not, which I’m optimistic that he can.”

One reason Republican strategists are so high on the education messages is that they also play well with Latinos. The NRSC plan to win back the Senate involves retaining support from rural and non-college-educated Whites who moved toward the GOP under Trump, continuing to make inroads among Hispanics, and reversing the suburban slide among college-educated Whites. The three-pronged approach means Republicans do not need to recapture all the suburban voters who backed Mitt Romney in 2012 but shifted to Biden in 2020 in order to regain control of the Senate, which is currently divided 50-50. “It’s ours to lose,” Scott told me.

The NRSC poll was conducted across 192 battleground counties from Sept. 27 to Sept. 30 by Wes Anderson — not the filmmaker but a partner at OnMessage, the GOP consultancy that has worked for Scott since 2010, when he first ran for Florida governor. Anderson excluded suburbs in 13 deep-blue states represented by two Democratic senators, as well as counties that technically count as suburban but broke for Trump by more than two points.

Among this sample, President Biden’s approval rating is 45 percent. Both parties are viewed more negatively than positively: Republicans have a net unfavorable rating of four points, compared with 11 points for Democrats. Asked to choose between two statements, 50 percent said the fall of Afghanistan was because of Biden’s incompetence, and 41 percent said there was no way for the withdrawal to go smoothly given the plan Biden inherited from Trump.

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Trump remains the elephant in the room. Democratic operatives predict that the ex-president will continue to be toxic, especially as he keeps the door open to a 2024 run, and they hope that gun control, health care, climate change and voting rights will keep most suburban voters in the Democratic fold. Privately, many Republican leaders still blame Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud for depressing turnout and costing them both U.S. Senate seats in Georgia’s January runoffs.

Scott, who voted to reject Pennsylvania’s electors on Jan. 6, recalled that Democrats spent millions on ads linking him to Trump when he challenged Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2018, but that he narrowly won anyway. “You have to go convince people that it’s an election about you,” he said. “That’s what I had to do. And then you’ve got to give people a reason to vote for you.”

Easier said than done. Next week’s election in Virginia will show whether education might help Republicans do just that.