Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin ran for Virginia governor using the tactic to berate teachers for pushing critical racism (CRT). As was the case in all of the country, the candidate was largely attacking an untrue straw man. CRT is an academic idea that is complex and taught in universities, rather than in K-12 schools. But the effort to paint educators as “race warriors” and white parents as victims of a conspiracy to make their children reject God and country proved a vote winner with anxious white suburbanites. Youngkin became the first Republican in Virginia to win the statewide office since 2009.
In his first days as governor, the new governor is provoking yet another battle over school classrooms. He stands to suffer serious political damage in this battle, unlike the artificial controversy over CRT. Youngkin signed the following hours, just hours into his governorship. confrontational executive orderAllowing parents to opt-out of local mask mandates at schools, and to send their children maskless into classrooms, despite the still-lethal threat that the Omicron flood poses, especially to immunocompromised students and educators.
The executive order played well with Youngkin’s most dyed-in-the-wool Republican supporters, and with the broader GOP base around the country, but there’s scant evidence that a majority of voters either nationally or in Virginia actually support ending mask mandates during a surge of the pandemic’s most contagious virus variant to date. Omicron was the dominant variant even before it was replaced by Delta. Quinnipiac pollingA September survey showed that almost two-thirds (32%) of Americans wanted to keep school-mask mandates in place. A Monmouth University poll from that same month found that roughly two-thirds of parents in Virginia, specifically, supported mask mandates in schools, and a majority supported the University of Virginia’s decision to disenroll students who refused to declare their vaccine status. A Washington Post poll70% is the highest number of people who support the state’s mask mandate.
In the wake of Youngkin’s executive order, seven districts in his state announced that they would sueTo block the implementation of the order. The school boards from the districts included those representing Fairfax County, Prince William County, and the cities of Alexandria, Arlington, Richmond, Falls Church and Hampton — large northern districts containing affluent suburbs of D.C., in which Youngkin had managed to peel away enough voters from the Democrats in November 2021 to eke out a two-point win. Many voters in these same suburbs are angry at Youngkin’s signature policy after he has been in office for only a week.
Indeed, the mask issue is threatening to subsume the rest of the new governor’s agenda. It is crowding out reporting on his proposed changes to the state’s education system — including the noxious, but probably politically savvy, move of setting up a snitch line for parents to report teachers who teach “divisive” subjects in the classroom — to tax policy and to Virginia’s regulatory environment. Local news outlets are reporting more on the issue of mask mandates than they are on manufactured CRT controversies on a daily basis. One person was arrested after telling her local school board that she would bring loaded guns to the local school If her child had to wear a mask while attending class.
This is a crisis entirely of the politically inexperienced Youngkin’s own making. He could, quite simply, have said that he personally opposed mask mandates, but recognized that Virginia’s constitution gave local school boards the power to supervise the schools in their districts. He lit a fuse, but he was perilously close the dynamite.
Ironically, Youngkin rode to power due to a huge tactical mistake made by Terry McAuliffe his opponent. McAuliffe went on record as saying that parents shouldn’t always control what their children learn in school. He was talking about the need for sex education, and for some lessons on the country’s troubled racist history. McAuliffe didn’t say it very diplomatically, but the basic idea animating his statement oughtn’t to have generated too much controversy. Virginia was, after all, home to Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital; has a centuries-long history of slavery to grapple with; and banned interracial marriages into the 1960s. Surely, an honest reckoning with this history is long overdue in Virginia’s classrooms. Youngkin, however saw an opportunity, and relentlessly attacked McAuliffe, repeatedly claiming that education should remain in the hands parents and localities. He also promised to lead a national movement against progressive educational policies and curricula. In doing so, and in carving out a niche for angry parents to try to reclaim local control over an education system they saw as beholden to state and national interests, Youngkin laid down a template for the Republicans’ midterm elections strategy for 2022: accuse Democrats of educational over-reach, and promise voters that if they elect Republicans, decisions about the classroom setting will be left to localities rather than to state officials.
However, when it comes to the executive order against mask mandates, Youngkin himself isn’t even pretending to hew to that strategy. Instead of leaving education decisions in the hands of local policy makers, he is trying to impose a centralized education-cum-public-health policy, dictated from the state capital, that many parents fear will put their children’s health at risk, and, by extension, their own health, as well as that of their elderly relatives.
Youngkin’s dilemma here is that he isn’t just responding to the animating issues of the Virginians who voted him into office last November. Mask mandates would not be an issue for him so early in his governorship if he were. But, since his upset victory in Virginia’s November election, he has risen from being an unknown on the national stage to being talked about by Fox and other conservative media as a possible presidential candidateIn 2024. The Youngkin formula is viewed as a winning one. Trumpite political tricks mixed with the polite, suburban, sophisticated financier are delivered with the Youngkin formula.
And so, the newly elected GOP governor of Virginia finds himself now playing to a national audience — a far more treacherous terrain to navigate. Republicans with national ambitions outdo themselves in their efforts restrict the power of public health officials in imposing economic and educational restrictions. At the forefront of this is a visceral hostility to mask mandates. An Axios pollLate last summer, less than one third of Republicans supported school mask mandates. Governors Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas have led the effort to craft public policies to appeal to this sentiment. However, governors from South Carolina, Arkansas and many other states have also opposed mandates for mask-wearing in public indoor settings as well as for vaccinations in schools and businesses.
Republicans hoped Youngkin’s win presaged a breakdown of the electoral coalition that propelled Joe Biden to the presidency in the November 2020 election. They thought he had, in honing in on critical race theory, found a formula that would win back many of the affluent, educated and only vaguely socially liberal white suburbanites who once upon a time reliably voted Republican but who were repelled by Trump’s extremist, irrationalist presidency. Now, the Virginia governor’s magic seems somewhat less spectacular, his vulnerability on mask mandates a sign of the fragility of the coalition that the Republicans hope to build. Youngkin’s position might play well in Texas or in Florida, or in an overwhelmingly Republican state like Mississippi, but it isn’t necessarily a winning policy stance in Virginia, a critical swing state that Republicans very much hope to hold onto over the coming election cycles.
Youngkin’s emphasis on local control over schools helped propel him to power. Now, his pandering to the anti-maskers of the GOP base, and his denial of local districts’ right to keep mask mandates in place, risks alienating the same voters who propelled him to power. The GOP believed that raising up parents over schooling would be their winning ticket. They are now seeing in Virginia that policies regarding schooling can be just a as treacherous as for Democrats.