Jorge Morales feels increasingly uneasy about the local public schools. He worries his two teenagers’ education is focusing too much on gender identity and race at the expense of math, science and history.
“I think they’re pushing a victim mentality on my kids. And that’s the type of education that we’re trying not to propagate,” said Morales, those fears fresh on his mind after he cast his ballot for GOP hopeful Glenn Youngkin at an early voting site in Stafford, a Virginia exurb 40 miles outside Washington.
Gretchen Falter is unsettled as well, but for another reason: Donald Trump. Even with the former president 10 months removed from the White House, she frets that his influence endures through Republicans, Youngkin included.
“The primary issue is getting rid of any Trump remnants,” she said. “There’s been enough hatred in our country, and it’s getting just sort of embarrassing.” Her early vote in Leesburg went to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
With election day quickly approaching on Tuesday, the gubernatorial race has become a test on which of these different sets of anxieties will have the most political impact. Most anxious of all are Democrats across the country, who fear a tough slog in a state that President Biden won by 10 percentage points last year signals steeper challenges to come in next year’s battle for control of Congress and statehouses.
McAuliffe, who’s been elected governor once before, hopes to rouse checked-out Democrats to the polls by making his candidacy a referendum on Trump and the national GOP.
Youngkin, a wealthy businessman and first-time candidate, has run on a message focused on the economy and education — tapping into widespread economic discontent and a broader culture war — in hopes of energizing the party’s base and winning over some suburbanites who rejected Republicans during the Trump era.
Polls in the final days show a toss-up race, pointing to momentum for Youngkin, who had trailed for most of the campaign.
Virginia routinely gets outsize attention for its governor races; the contests come in the otherwise quiet year after a presidential election, and the national political press corps is largely concentrated in neighboring Washington.
For decades, the results have foreshadowed the political climate for the midterms; Republican Bob McDonnell’s win in 2009, for example, presaged major GOP gains during the tea party wave the following year, while current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s win hinted at his party’s strong performance in 2018.
In Virginia, voters do not register by party. The state has clearly shifted leftward, especially in the populous Washington suburbs — Republicans have not won statewide office in a dozen years — though independent analysts say it is more purple than blue.
McAuliffe was initially favored to win, four years after his first turn as governor. (Virginia is the only state that prohibits sitting governors from seeking reelection, but does allow a second, nonconsecutive term).
Precedent is not on his side. Virginians tend to pick governors who come from the opposite political party as the president; the only person to defy that trend was McAuliffe in 2013, who eked out a victory while a fellow Democrat, former President Obama, occupied the White House.
Off-year elections tend to have steep drop-offs in turnout from presidential races, putting the pressure on both parties to motivate their base. Republicans, out of power in both the White House and Congress, are hungry for a win and polling has persistently shown they are more energized to vote in this governor’s race than Democrats. Meanwhile, Biden’s sinking popularity has become a drag on McAuliffe.
“There are political head winds that Terry McAuliffe has no control over that are impacting this race. In the national context, the decline in Biden’s popularity, and the perception that Democrats in Washington just can’t get things done,” said Mark Rozell, professor of political science at George Mason University. “And then there are events that happen in Loudoun County.”
The wealthy and largely suburban county in northern Virginia is now a hot spot in the escalating battle across the country over public schools. School board meetings here have been upended with raucous debates over transgender students’ rights and critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how racism is embedded in American institutions. Critical race theory itself is not taught in Virginia’s K-12 schools, but an increasingly vocal segment of parents and conservative activists have used it as a catchall term to describe discussions of race and equity.
The controversy comes at a time of rapid demographic change. In the last two decades, Loudoun County’s white population has dropped from 83% to 55%, with the highest rate of population growth among Asians and Latinos. Dairy farms have made way for neat subdivisions, Indian curry houses, Korean churches and Vietnamese bubble tea stores.
In the governor’s race, education is a political Rorschach test. Youngkin sees opportunity; after campaigning against critical race theory in the summer, he threw that message into hyperdrive this fall with “Parents Matter” rallies. The branding is a rebuke of McAuliffe, who, when pressed in a debate about a policy on sexually explicit materials in school, said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
McAuliffe has since put out ads clarifying his remarks, which Republicans say shows that the issue has damaged his standing.
“Democrats are in a defensive position in one of the bluer states on an issue they usually do well on,” said Joanna Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Republican Governors Assn.
Recent polls show education is increasingly a top issue for voters. Youngkin’s message resonates deeply with Morales, a libertarian who has voted for Democrats such as Obama and Northam in the past, and backed Trump in last year’s presidential race. The 45-year-old Colombian-born immigrant, who works as a geographer with the U.S. Army, follows the Loudoun County debates from his home an hour away in Stafford. He doesn’t believe his children’s schools are experiencing the same turmoil, but now he’s paying closer attention.
He was perplexed this year when his daughter, 14, told him of a classroom conversation about gender-identifying pronouns, a topic he believed should be left up to parents. And he worries his kids, who are half-Latino and half-white, may be demoralized by the focus on race, which could affect them in the future when they apply for jobs.
“If you don’t get it, then you think to yourself: ‘Is it because of my color or my skin?’” he said.
Falter, 56, is also familiar with the debates roiling her home county, but as the mother of an 11-year-old in seventh grade, she thinks that alarms about declining quality in public education are overblown.
“We’re talking about one of the richest counties in the country,” she said. “I know a lot of teachers and we have good schools. We have good teachers.”
Once a Republican who began voting for Democrats in 2017, Falter, who sells forensic and industrial microscopes, thinks the debate has been filtered through a partisan lens even among teachers she knows: Conservatives say they’re being trained to make special accommodations according to skin color, while liberals say they’re just trying to teach kids that, in history, things weren’t always so good for everyone.
“I think if we taught our kids kindness at home, we wouldn’t have issues at school like we do,” she said. “It is really the hatred from the parents now goes down to the kids.”
Democratic operatives say voters like Falter demonstrate the limits of Youngkin’s education strategy: Though it activates Trump backers, the strategists are skeptical the issue draws Biden supporters into the GOP tent. Instead, they attribute the tightening polls to the current political dynamic and typical head winds that face the party occupying the White House.
Despite being hobbled by his party’s slump, McAuliffe has not tried to separate himself from Democratic leaders. Instead, he’s brought in a slew of heavy hitters — Obama, Stacey Abrams, Vice President Kamala Harris (twice) and Biden himself — to excite the party’s voters, a sign of how “hypernationalized” the race has become, Rozell said.
“The focus on his campaign time and again is that his Republican opponent is a Donald Trump clone who will implement Donald Trump’s agenda,” Rozell said.
The former president is deeply unpopular in Virginia, but McAuliffe’s strategy tests how much an out-of-power Trump galvanizes the coalition that handed Democrats the House in 2018 and the Senate and presidency last year.
“We know Trump is on people’s minds. This race will tell us how much Trump motivates their vote,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and Virginia campaign veteran. “Suburban voters started to defect from the Republican Party before Trump, but that defection was supercharged in the Trump era. The question now is, does that suburban rejection of Republicans continue or recede back to the trajectory it had been on?”
Youngkin appears determined to downplay issues that would inflame Democrats, such as abortion, which he opposes. He’s also avoided in-person campaigning with national Republicans, including Trump, who is hosting a tele-rally for Youngkin on Monday after teasing a possible visit to the state. Instead, Youngkin has stumped solo on issues such as offering tax relief on gas and groceries.
But while other Republicans such as Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland won blue state governorships as moderates who broke strongly with Trump, Youngkin follows a different playbook.
He campaigns as a social conservative who opposes same-sex marriage. He’s made overtures to the former president’s loyalists by backing audits of voting machines, a nod to Trump’s baseless assertion that the 2020 election was rigged. (Unlike the former president, Youngkin says that Biden was “legitimately elected.”)
“He continually walks this tightrope of, on one hand feeding the Trump base, and on the other hand attempting to win suburban defections of Democrats,” said Bob Holsworth, an independent political analyst in Richmond. If Youngkin manages to pull off that balance, he said, “this will be perceived as extraordinarily problematic for Democrats.”