WAUKESHA, Wis. ― Glenn Youngkin’s campaign stop for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels had everything you would expect: red-meat conservative rhetoric, denunciations of President Joe Biden and Gov. Tony Evers, signs declaring “Parents Matter,” and exhortations for the roughly 100 attendees to vote early and bring their friends and relatives to the polls.
“The winning team makes policy,” Virginia’s Republican governor told the crowd at the county GOP headquarters last week. “The winning team puts parents first in their kids’ lives.”
But one thing you would expect was absent: any direct mention of “critical race theory,” the previously obscure legal academic theory whose alleged presence in public schools became a flashpoint as Youngkin triumphed in 2021.
At the time, Republicans boasted of how education issues helped Youngkin notch a signature victory over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and swung suburban voters into his camp. But a year later, the final days of the 2022 midterm have mostly seen Democrats on offense on education. GOP attempts to stir up CRT as a top issue in other states have largely fizzled, and Democratic incumbents are portraying their opponents’ support for voucher programs as threatening public schools rather than trying to save them.
Republicans are not exactly running from the topic, with anger over school closures lingering, and with recently released test scores showing steep declines in reading and math reigniting the frustration for some parents.
“Parents know that their kids fell behind in these states where schools were shut down at the state level by these governors,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, told Pluribus News in October. “Parents don’t ever want to be trapped like that again.”
But in swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan, and even in red territory like Kansas and Oklahoma, education has returned to its traditional role as a winning message for Democrats.
“This man [Michels] is anti-public schools. He is against public school, period,” Evers told a crowd at a union hall in Milwaukee the next day. Evers is a notoriously low-key public speaker ― crowds at his rallies gasp when he says “damn” ― but the line got significant applause.
The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political television advertising, found Democratic gubernatorial candidates were more likely to mention education in their ads than Republican candidates, though the gap is not gigantic: 34.8% of all Democratic ads to 30.6% of all Republican ads.
But CRT has been a nonissue in the television ad wars: Just 1.7% of GOP ads mentioned the topic.
“If critical race theory was the slam dunk that everybody thought it would be after the Virginia race, you’d be seeing it on the air everywhere,” said Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster at GBAO Strategies who has done polling for the American Federation of Teachers. “People know there’s a lot more to a good public school than whatever the latest culture war fight is.”
After McAuliffe lost voters focused on education issues in 2021, the Democratic Governors Association made sure their candidates proactively shaped discussions around school funding, especially in states with toss-up races. Evers, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly all ran at least four different ads on education issues over the course of the spring, summer and fall.
“When I saw the last administration cutting billions from schools, demoralizing teachers and dividing communities, I knew I had to step up,” Evers said in one of those ads. “Quality education for our kids matters to me, and it matters to the future of our state.”
One Republican strategist, requesting anonymity to avoid angering his party, said replicating the Virginia CRT frenzy was difficult for an unexpected reason: Many of the parents who helped drive the message in Virginia were longtime political professionals who knew how to file Freedom of Information Act requests, obtain documents and frame discussions.
“The parents in other states just don’t have the same background. They don’t know how to find the evidence they need,” the strategist said.
CRT has been replaced, to a certain extent, by GOP messaging on transgender rights, which often touches on education and school athletics. In Kansas, for instance, the Republican Governors Association has aired two different ads featuring Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer who lost to Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Instead of doing what’s right, Laura Kelly supported the transgender agenda, and girls like me are paying the price,” Gaines said in one of the ads. “We don’t need politicians like Laura Kelly who won’t protect us.”
In a September memo, the Republican National Committee boasted the party had managed to shrink Democrats’ traditionally large edge on education issues, but also warned its candidates not to focus exclusively on base-pleasing messages on CRT and transgender rights.
“Voters are most concerned with kids not learning enough basic life skills AND the long-term effects of COVID on emotional and educational development. While masks on seven-year-olds and CRT is a concern, it is not the driving force,” pollsters from the KAConsulting and The Tarrance Group wrote. “If Republicans [are] solely focusing there, they are missing a wide swath of voters open to the Republican message on education.”
Tudor Dixon, the Republican nominee for governor of Michigan, has tried to make concerns over transgender rights more palatable to swing voters by arguing discussions of gender have taken time away from more traditional forms of education. (Dixon’s campaign has been heavily funded by the family of Betsy DeVos, a long-time GOP political donor who served as Trump’s education secretary.)
“Gretchen Whitmer stands with radical activists pushing sex and gender theory,” Dixon says in one ad from a DeVos-funded super PAC. “Our schools need to get back to basics: Teach kids how to read, write and do math.”
“If critical race theory was the slam dunk that everybody thought it would be after the Virginia race, you’d be seeing it on the air everywhere.”
But the fights over curricula, race and gender have, in many places, taken a back seat to more traditional fights over funding and school choice ― areas where Democrats are on safer ground.
In Oklahoma, for instance, a major driver of Republican-turned-Democrat Joy Hofmeister’s surprisingly strong challenge to GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt is anger over the incumbent’s support of a school voucher program that teachers unions in the state have argued would threaten rural school districts. Stitt is still expected to win, but the margin may be surprisingly close in deep-red Oklahoma.
In Wisconsin, Evers is similarly aiming to hammer Michels, a construction company CEO and veteran, for his support of school choice, and for disdainful comments he’s made about traditional public schools in the past. During a GOP primary debate, Michels said the state was “already throwing so much money on education” and that increasing public school funding was “insanity.”
Michels is trying to tie his support for school choice to his support for giving parents more control over the curriculum, a message in-state conservatives say effectively taps into anger felt by the GOP base.
“Right now, conservatives are really just aligned 100% behind whatever we can do to get parents more power,” said CJ Szafir, the president of the Institute for Reforming Government, a Wisconsin-based conservative think tank. “How much power can we take away from the public school establishment and give it to parents ― power over curriculum, power over where to send your kids to school.”
During his speech at the Waukesha event, Michels assailed Evers’ record on education, both as governor and from his long tenure as the state’s superintendent of public education, noting standardized test scores had declined in the state. The solution, he promised, was school choice.
“We’ll put parents back in charge of education for their sons and daughters,” Michels said. “Right now, those tuition dollars are attached to a building, to an administration. Those tuition dollars should be able to go to the school of those parents’ choice.”
The latest poll from Marquette University Law School showed a tight race, with each candidate earning 48% of the vote, but voters seemed to agree with Evers’ education positions. Asked if they would prefer the next state budget to increase funding for public schools or increase funding for students to attend private schools, 63% of voters chose public schools and just 29% chose private schools.
A question about whether it was important to reduce property taxes ― which provide about 40% of the funding for the state’s public schools ― or to increase school spending resulted in a more even split: 48% of voters chose school funding while 46% chose reducing property taxes.