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There was a referendum in the Virginia election; it just wasn’t about Biden | COMMENTARY

A family participates in a rally sponsored by Catholic Vote and Fight for Schools, in Leesburg, Virginia on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. When Democrat Terry McAuliffe said during the Virginia governor’s debate that he doesn’t believe “parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” his opponent pounced. Republican Glenn Youngkin won the race one month later. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen).
A family participates in a rally sponsored by Catholic Vote and Fight for Schools, in Leesburg, Virginia on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. When Democrat Terry McAuliffe said during the Virginia governor’s debate that he doesn’t believe “parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” his opponent pounced. Republican Glenn Youngkin won the race one month later. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen). (Cliff Owen/AP)

Terry McAuliffe’s loss to Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race was no shocker. Claims of a reliably “blue” Virginia were badly overstated. Polls predicted a close election, and Virginia voters have chosen plenty of Republicans for state offices over the years. Mr. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman closely associated with Bill and Hillary Clinton, may be highly influential within his party’s hierarchy, but he was no rock star on the Old Dominion campaign trail. He was elected the commonwealth’s governor by fewer than 57,000 votes in 2013, and he lost Tuesday night by somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 votes more. President Joe Biden’s recent dip in popularity may well have hurt his chances, but this was no referendum on the president or his stalled economic agenda — as much as the national media may claim it to be so.

But there was a referendum in Virginia, and one that’s much more worrisome: a referendum on public education. Specifically, Mr. Youngkin tapped into the public’s broad unease with school systems, which have been forced to make all kinds of difficult choices during the COVID-19 pandemic from mask mandates to stay-at-home instruction by computer and into the very specific fears of white parents over what’s become known as “critical race theory.” In this, the Republican candidate took a page from Mr. Trump’s playbook, though without so much of the coarseness and overt racism that accompanied the former president’s tirades against Latino immigrants.

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“Parents matter” was the rallying cry of the Youngkin campaign and, on the surface, that seemed fairly reasonable. Who would argue that parents should play no role in public education? But what this often translated to, as education became the dominant campaign talking point, was a not-so-subtle message that “teacher unions” and “progressives” had hijacked the curriculum to indoctrinate youth into their “woke” cultural views. Dig deeper and one discovers that what really energizes the movement is not just the possibility that children will learn more about the atrocities of slavery or leave American history class with a diminished view of the nation’s founders. Rather, what seems to have triggered many white suburbanites is the prospect their children will be taught about systemic racism and how it continues to disadvantage people of color. Whether this level of theorizing normally associated with graduate education represents a K-12 classroom reality or not appears irrelevant at this point. The GOP misinformation machine is fired up.

Mr. McAuliffe failed to recognize this. As his onetime Clinton colleague James Carville might have told him, “It’s the education, stupid.” Yet the Democrat fumbled when he said during a debate that he would not allow parents to tell schools what to teach their children. Mr. Youngkin didn’t. And now, he’s set the standard for Republican candidates across the country on how to use this sham issue of “critical race theory.”

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Maryland voters should be on guard. As unlikely as it may seem in a state so reliably Democratic-leaning, Maryland is far from immune. It has never elected an African American candidate for the top statewide office, unlike Virginia. And while Larry Hogan, the state’s two-term Republican governor, has outright denied that critical race theory has been an issue in this state, he has also demonstrated that a GOP candidate can win statewide without courting Baltimore, where Black voters hold a nearly two-thirds majority. As a result, next year’s Republican primary may bring out the race-baiting. Indeed, it already has. One of the GOP’s declared candidates for governor, Del. Dan Cox, is a Trump supporter whose campaign web site includes a personal pledge to “honor parental rights to end the divisive CRT and make our schools free from political or ideological indoctrination.”

This trend needs to be nipped in the bud. Not because it diminishes Democratic Party prospects in the mid-term elections. That’s just politics. But because it’s ugly, and it’s untrue, and it’s insidious. There are voters who spend little time immersed in the issues facing state and local governments, not out of disregard but because they are preoccupied with their own travails. A message that stirs their deepest anxieties, whether unreasonable and factually wrong, is a powerful tool, especially when it’s reinforced by the right-wing media echo chamber repeatedly. There’s a reason why deep-pocketed right-wing donors happily finance bogus culture war campaigns. Sadly, they work.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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