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Opinion McAuliffe ended up dancing to Youngkin’s choreography

Virginia gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) hugs his wife Dorothy McAuliffe before speaking to a crowd of supporters on Nov. 2, 2021 in McLean, Va. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

It is an article of faith among political scientists that gaffes and stumbles by politicians don’t really matter. Oh, the premise goes, they give the media something to feast upon for a while, but elections are won and lost — predetermined, even — because of larger forces, such as the direction of the economy or the general sense of whether the country is headed in the right direction.

I will admit that journalists, operatives and the legions of self-styled political analysts who populate cable news are all too eager to declare a politician’s foot-fault a “game changer,” only to have seen its effects evaporate from the collective consciousness when the next one comes along. I’ve been guilty of that a few times — actually, more than a few — myself.

But sometimes, a candidate’s blunder or miscalculation really does matter. The freshest example was the disastrous declaration by Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia who fell short in his bid to regain his old job. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” he said in his second and final debate with GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin. His comment came after Youngkin criticized McAuliffe for having vetoed a bill that would have allowed parents to opt their children out of certain reading assignments.

McAuliffe handed Youngkin — now the governor-elect and the first Republican since 2009 to win a statewide election in Virginia — a loaded weapon that he and other Republicans would continue to use against the Democrat right through the closing of the polls on Tuesday.

In this case, the dozen words that McAuliffe carelessly lit and tossed off landed on dangerously dry tinder.

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Public school curriculum, not normally an issue in gubernatorial politics, was gaining currency for some reasons that are legitimate and others that are less so. Parents have been understandably frustrated and worried about what the shutdowns that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic were doing to their children’s education. But these concerns have been rolled into battles in the culture war that are taking place and disrupting school board meetings across the country.

McAuliffe’s gaffe ignited a spectacular display of the demagoguery — and racist signaling — that has accompanied the right’s campaign against the phantom menace of critical race theory, an academic construct that is not even part of Virginia’s K-12 curriculum and is separate from laudable, overdue efforts to assure that students receive an honest and full picture of how race has factored in the country’s history.

It also mattered that Youngkin, a wealthy former private equity executive, had the resources to amplify McAuliffe’s comments in his ads, forcing the former governor to respond with one of his own, in which McAuliffe claimed his comments had been taken “out of context,” and that he has “always valued the concerns of parents.” To which the Republican quickly hit back with a response spot in which he replayed other instances where McAuliffe had said something arguably similar.

So with just two days to go before Election Day, and early voting already underway, McAuliffe found himself off his own message and dancing to Youngkin’s choreography. “He’s ending his campaign on a racist dog whistle,” McAuliffe complained of his opponent. But the fact was, McAuliffe himself was being forced to continuously address the issue, rather than touting his gubernatorial experience and competence.

How much of an impact did all of this have? A significant one, the early evidence would indicate.

According to preliminary exit polling, about half of Virginia voters said parents should have “a lot” of say in what their child’s school teaches, while another roughly 3 in 10 said parents should have “some.” Just 1 in 10 said parents should have little or no say.

The contretemps also was key to the success of the balancing act that Youngkin achieved, where he was able to rouse the Trumpian GOP base, without alienating the suburban and swing voters of Virginia who came out in force last year to eject the 45th president from office. For example, Youngkin dramatically outperformed former president Donald Trump among non-college-educated White women. Where Trump had carried their vote by 56 percent to 44 percent for Joe Biden, Youngkin won them by a 3-to-1 margin against McAuliffe, 74 percent to 25 percent. (McAuliffe did slightly better than Biden among White women with a college degree.)

The success that Republicans achieved in capitalizing on McAuliffe’s biggest campaign mistake will no doubt mean they will run this play again — and again and again — in the upcoming midterm elections. Democrats have been forewarned. What they have actually learned is another question entirely.