Some Republicans see the issue as a central part of their campaign strategy ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
In the final weeks of his Virginia gubernatorial campaign, Glenn Youngkin made a hard pivot to education — specifically, by stoking conservative fears that "critical race theory" was being taught in Virginia public schools.
This strategy seemed to pay off for Youngkin, who won the governorship on Tuesday night in an upset victory over his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, in a state that President Joe Biden won by a 10-point margin one year ago.
For the past year, Republican politicians and conservative media have been stoking fears around school mask mandates and curricula that deal with the United States' history of racial oppression, including subjects like slavery, Jim Crow laws, and police brutality.
In July 2020, amid widespread protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Fox News host Laura Ingraham claimed that public schools were trying to "turn your kids into mini-Ilhan Omars" and suggested that educators who disagreed would be subject to "race tribunals."
"Say goodbye to the three 'R's' — reading, writing, and arithmetic — and say hello to the three 'C's' of critical race theory, cancel culture, and community organizing," Ingraham said.
Over the past year and a half, "critical race theory" has only grown in prominence in conservative discourse, as seen in the campaign that resulted in Youngkin's win on Tuesday.
Virginia voters' concerns about education seemed to help the GOP in down-ballot races as well. In addition to winning back the governorship, Republicans won the lieutenant governor and attorney general races and appeared poised to regain control of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Three candidates who echoed Youngkin's messaging on education won seats in the Virginia Legislature on Tuesday:
- In Hampton Roads, first-time candidate A.C. Cordoza beat incumbent Democratic Del. Martha M. Mugler, a school board member.
- In Fredericksburg, Tara Durant, an elementary school teacher who pitched herself as a political outsider, defeated Democratic Del. Joshua G. Cole.
- In Colonial Heights, south of Richmond, Mike Cherry, the head of school of Life Christian Academy, beat Democrat Katie Sponsler in a close race to replace a retiring Republican.
Republican strategists had already seen attacking "critical race theory" as a winning strategy before its apparent success in Virginia on Tuesday.
Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former chief strategist, told Politico in June that he sees critical race theory as a key to Republicans reaching "mainstream suburban moms" in future elections.
"I look at this and say, 'Hey, this is how we are going to win,'" Bannon said. "I see 50 [House Republican] seats in 2022. Keep this up, I think you're going to see a lot more emphasis from Trump on it and [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis and others. People who are serious in 2024 and beyond are going to focus on it."
Republican Senate candidates in Ohio continue to echo Youngkin's language. J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and the author of the 2016 book "Hillbilly Elegy," repeated earlier false messaging about "critical race theory" during an appearance on Fox News Tuesday night, saying, "People are really worried about their kids not getting an education at school but basically being indoctrinated to hate their country at school. So I think critical race theory is a very big issue nationwide, certainly in the state of Ohio. It's something that parents talk to me about constantly."
Former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken is making education a focus of her Senate campaign. In an ad released Thursday, Timken pledged to "stop the liberal indoctrination of our children and ban critical race theory."
A great deal of conservative money and effort has been spent on transforming the phrase "critical race theory" from the name of a little-known academic theory mostly taught in law schools and graduate programs in education and the humanities into a catchall term encompassing everything from discussions of white supremacy to attempts to reform educational standards.
Parents Defending Education, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Koch donor network, has helped structure the movement by pursuing litigation against K-12 schools and instructing parents in how to "begin reclaiming your school."
However, recent attempts by conservatives outside of Virginia to oust public school officials have been less successful.
In Wisconsin, a conservative campaign to recall four members of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board over mask mandates and "critical race theory" failed. The recall campaign had gained the backing of Rebecca Kleefisch, Wisconsin's former Republican lieutenant governor, who is running for governor in 2022.
Similar stories played out in Wayzata, Minnesota, and Guilford, Connecticut, where conservative candidates running against "critical race theory" failed to win a single seat on their local school boards this week.
Four conservative school board candidates in Iowa also lost their elections. The candidates were backed by Warriors & Wolves United, a political action committee founded by one candidate's wife. The group has claimed the Waukee Community School District is engaging in "ideological activism" by teaching students about anti-Black discrimination, among other subjects.
At least one anti-"critical race theory" candidate did win her school board election on Tuesday in a potential sign of things to come. In Ohio, Katie Stewart was elected to the Forest Hills Board of Education among three newcomers.
"I'm against critical race theory," Stewart told the Cincinnati Enquirer in September. "I don't like the idea of pitting anyone against each other. And I don't like the idea of equity, personally."
An earlier version of this story said that Virginia Republicans had regained control of the House of Delegates in Tuesday's election. It has been updated to reflect that as of publication time, not all races had been called.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.