Virginia’s Republican congressional hopefuls draw from Governor Glenn Youngkin’s education playbook

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How did he get here? Going viral at a school board meeting. In January 2021, he demanded that the Loudoun school board reopen schools and “raise the bar on shit” – now a kind of campaign slogan.

“It’s been a movement of parents all along,” Michon, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, said in an interview at the United States Building. Loudoun County Public Schools. last month.

Michon epitomizes the kind of parental activism who carried Glenn Youngkin (R) to the governorship of Virginia last fall, after Youngkin developed a resonant message around “parental rights” in education policy and school curricula. But Michon is far from the only candidate to capitalize on this energy. As crowded primary campaigns heat up in competitive races across the Commonwealth, many Republican candidates for Congress are taking inspiration from Youngkin’s playbook on education.

Candidates including Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega (R) and former teacher Gina Ciarcia in the 7th District – and several candidates in the 10th – have been making the rounds at school board meetings. They bolster their resumes to show they fought against critical race theory, an academic framework for studying systemic racism that has been a frequent target of conservatives, including Youngkin.

But with the Virginia General Assembly ending mask mandates, school closures in the rearview mirror, and Youngkin’s administration taking its own action targeting critical race theory, it’s unclear whether some of these issues will remain salient for voters in November. Republicans are betting they will.

“Parents have a long memory,” said Virginia-based Republican campaign strategist Zack Roday, saying those voters will be looking for candidates whose values ​​match theirs — even if federal lawmakers are limited in what they can. do in terms of local education policy.

“The list of grievances is long, and victories on some of these issues are unlikely to fully mitigate the levels of justified anger I’ve seen from parents at these meetings,” the county supervisor said. Prince William, Jeanine Lawson (R), a 10th District. The Republican nominee to lead the primary fundraising area, said in an email to The Washington Post.

Republicans in Virginia’s 10th, 7th and 2nd districts — all seats targeted by the national GOP — are seeking to unseat the three Democratic congressmen who tipped their districts blue in 2018 with major help from suburban voters. Republicans will have a better chance in 2nd and 7th — represented by Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, and in districts Youngkin won last year — than in the much bluer 10th. But John Whitbeck, former Virginia GOP chairman and Loudoun County attorney, argued that “as long as education remains a Republican issue,” the party has a chance to be competitive in all suburban contests and could recover some. suburban voters to make a dent in swing neighborhoods.

“For the past four years, we haven’t been competitive in the suburbs,” said Whitbeck, whose law firm represented Loudoun’s parents in litigation against the school board. “That’s where the party largely collapsed with suburban voters. But suburban voters are driven by education, and Glenn Youngkin is governor largely because of it.

At any Loudoun County School Board meeting, more than one Republican candidate for Congress can sometimes be spotted in the building.

A candidate, John Beatty, sits on the board. Others, including Caleb Max, went to meet and greet the crowds – often dozens of parents show up. Others, including Michon and Mike Clancy, regularly take the podium to speak.

“I’m here to focus on this barricade of tables and this wall of plexiglass once again,” Clancy said at last month’s meeting, comparing the clear barriers behind which board members sit in their “version of the Berlin Wall” that separates them from parents.

Meetings are often tense. Loudoun became the state’s most fertile ground for Republican messaging on education last year after a “perfect storm” of events thrust the county into the national spotlight — an energy that has then spread across the Commonwealth and, to some extent, the nation, Whitbeck said. A pair of sexual assaults on school grounds and the district’s handling of affairs have infuriated parents on both political camps. A relative was arrested during a noisy board meeting about the district policies for transgender students. And there was Michon’s viral speech asking for schools to reopen.

The day after that speech, Michon said, then-candidate Youngkin “called me and said, ‘Look, I think this is a message that’s going to change the course of politics. (A spokeswoman for Youngkin confirmed Michon’s account.) Soon, Michon was campaigning with Youngkin. He was in the room when Youngkin signed his Day 1 executive orders, including banning mask mandates in schools, and Michon brought home one of the pens used by Youngkin.

At the school board meeting last month, some parents became emotional as they celebrated the end of the mask mandate and the end of suspensions for children who did not comply. “Shame on you!” a parent, Abbie Platt, told the council in tears, after saying her three children had been suspended for 17 days for failing to comply with the school district’s mandate.

Leaving the meeting, Platt said she had noticed Republican candidates making appearances in recent weeks, but she had already decided to vote for Michon. “He allowed us to make our voices heard,” she said, standing next to Michon’s mother, who was an active participant in meetings long before her son’s campaign for Congress. “I think other candidates are there because people are here. But Brandon…has been with the parents in this whole movement.

Other candidates seek to distinguish themselves on other issues, in the 10th district and beyond.

Max, the nearly 25-year-old grandson of former 10th District Congressman Frank Wolf, says he’s best equipped to fight for congressional school choice because he was schooled at home and that his parents ran a private Christian school in DC.

Stafford County Council Speaker Crystal Vanuch, the final candidate in the eight-way 7th District Republican primary, touts the county resolution she helped shepherd last year that pledged to retain the funding schools teaching the 1619 Project, which explores the lasting consequences of slavery in the United States, or critical race theory.

Likewise, declare Senator Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), who leads the field of fundraising in the Republican primary in the 2nd congressional district, led an effort to ban the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” in Virginia public schools at the request of Youngkin. The bill did not advance from committee. Yet Youngkin’s administration rolled back diversity and equity programs and policies in accordance with the governor’s day-one executive order banning schools from teaching divisive concepts, including critical race theory.

But on Thursday, the 133 superintendents of the Virginia Public School Division called on Youngkin to end that crusade and remove a whistleblower line the administration had set up for parents to complain about programs and teachers, claiming that they “did not agree with your assumption that discriminatory and divisive concepts have become mainstream” in schools. Many teachers — and many other Loudoun County parents who last month led Black History Month “workshops” at board meetings — worry that the focus on Critical race theory and divisive concepts only chill an honest discussion of race and history in the classroom.

Wexton expressed similar concerns about the direction of some conservative education movements. “I am deeply concerned about some of these extreme movements across the aisle in Virginia calling on the government to ban books and control what children learn,” Wexton said in a statement to the Post. “The anger and vitriol they have fomented by trying to inject politics into our classrooms has put students and teachers in the crosshairs, which only harms the well-being and ability to learning of children.”

Still fresh from last fall’s defeat in Virginia, Democrats are seeking to develop a counter-education message to try to regain the ground they lost to Republicans on the issue last year — a la both in Virginia and across the country. Wexton, whose children attend or graduate from Loudoun County schools, has in previous interviews expressed empathy for parents who have grown tired of virtual school, and said last week that she would highlight the funding she and congressional Democrats have fought for to help schools reopen, catch up on lost learning and support school lunch programs.

This will likely be an important part of the Democrats’ message on education during this campaign cycle. Monica Robinson, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noted that no Republicans in Congress voted for the US bailout, which included funding to help schools reopen.

For now, however, as the May and June primaries approach, Republican candidates appear focused on stirring up the grassroots voters they’ll need for primary season brawls.

Roday noted that since so many candidates have similar platforms — prioritizing education, fighting inflation, opposing Democratic spending plans — fundraising battles can be particularly important.

It’s still early days, with many candidates not registering until after the latest campaign finance filing deadline. But in the 10th, Lawson leads with $535,000 at year-end to $211,000 for Clancy, though Michon has yet to file a report. On the 7th, Derrick Anderson, a lawyer and former Green Beret who said he was motivated to run after the US military’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan last year, is in a close fundraising battle with the US senator. State Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) – each raised over $200,000. Yesli Vega, who led the governor’s “Latinos For Youngkin” effort, is also expected to be a top contender.

“Resources are going to be more important than ever for people to get their message across; drawing contrasts on the issues is going to be difficult,” Roday said.

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