Republicans campaigning on education’s culture war lost key races

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This week’s election results challenged the power of culture war education policy, as a string of Republicans who weighed in on the issue lost close races or followed their adversaries.

There have been victors, of course, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right), whose battle against what he calls ‘woke ideology’ has made him the culture’s foremost warrior country education. He was easily re-elected. Incumbent GOP governors in Texas and Georgia, who had adopted similar policies, also won. And while the results of school board races across the country were still being analyzed, it was clear that the culture war conservatives were scoring victories in races across the country.

But in some of Tuesday’s most high-profile and narrow races, sweeping attacks on gender identity, patriotism and parental rights appear to have been insufficient for victory. Republican gubernatorial candidates who trumpeted these issues in Michigan, Wisconsin and Maine lost, and Kansas and Arizona candidates who did the same trailed their opponents in close contests.

Details varied, but conservatives argued, among other things, that schools teach kids to hate America, encourage students to change gender, circulate pornographic library books, allow “biological boys” (c i.e. transgender girls) to participate in girl’s sports and go into hiding. what they teach parents.

They rallied around the idea of ​​parents’ right to stop all of the above.

Some strategists from both parties have argued that these questions work better with Republican voters than with independent or swing voters. Each of Tuesday’s races was affected by multiple factors, but the results provided evidence for that argument.

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In Michigan, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon and her allies campaigned hard on education issues in her unsuccessful challenge to Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. A group backed by former education secretary Betsy DeVos who backed Dixon has spent millions on ads such as one accusing “Under Gretchen Whitmer, radicals want a drag queen in every class, indoctrinating our children”.

In Wisconsin, incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has focused on school funding. His Republican opponent, Tim Michels, has promised to expand a school voucher program and enact a parent’s bill of rights.

“Parents need to know if schools are focusing more on math and reading — or instead offering a curriculum rooted in critical race theory, which identifies and divides students into oppressors or oppressed,” Michels said on his site. Campaign web, referring to the intellectual movement. examining how policies perpetuate the systemic racism that Republicans have used as a catch-all label for schools’ teachings about race.

In Maine, Republicans attacked Governor Janet Mills, a Democrat, for a video posted on a state website featuring various online lessons telling kindergartners that sometimes doctors make mistakes when telling parents whether their babies are boys or girls. In Kansas, Governor Laura Kelly (D) was beaten for vetoing two bills banning transgender girls and women from competing on women’s sports teams.

But those attacks did not lead their supporters to victory, and the results call into question whether Republicans have learned the right lessons from recent history, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank.

A year ago, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, showed how education could be a winning issue for his party when he was elected in a state that President Biden won by 10 percentage points. in 2020. Youngkin campaigned on a promise to protect upright parents and criticized school closures, mask mandates, and what he called critical race theory in schools.

Pandemic issues have receded as schools have reopened and masks have become optional virtually everywhere, but many GOP members have continued to press issues of race and, more recently, gender identity. gender. Republican legislatures in 25 states have enacted restrictions on how teachers can talk about race and gender in the classroom and on access to restrooms and sports teams for transgender students.

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And conservatives have taken these attacks to the campaign trail, first in the GOP primaries and then, in many states, in the general election.

“People looked at Youngkin’s win and thought it would be a new way to win in the purple states,” Petrilli said. “What happened this year seems to raise real questions about this strategy.”

Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy, education and politics at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank that advises candidates, added that her group’s research suggests culture war attacks are effective. in the GOP primaries but not in the general election.

Voters in several states appeared on Tuesday in tune with Democrats on education, which has traditionally been an area of ​​strength for the party.

In conservative West Virginia, voters strongly rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have limited the power of the state Board of Education. Conservative critics felt the council was doing too little to address how race is taught in classrooms and to advance “school choice” programs. The proposal would have given the legislation the final say on council policies.

And voters in five states approved ballot measures that in different ways increase funding for education, a strategy favored by Democrats to improve schools. In California, there will be new funds for arts education, and in Colorado, for school lunches. In Idaho, voters agreed to spend a state budget surplus, in part, on education.

Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Union of Parents, a group that does not align itself with either party, said she has long argued that economic, not cultural, issues motivate parents.

“We tried like hell to focus the conversation on the things parents care about,” she said. “We’ve wasted a lot of time talking about these things now, and we really don’t have time to waste.”

The election results have been discouraging for parent activists who have been spurred on by the issues, said Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, a group that collects examples of schools it considers guilty of liberal indoctrination. But she said it was “the first rodeo” for many involved, and the movement will continue to grow despite headwinds from teachers’ unions and others.

Gender identity classes, banned in some schools, are on the rise in others

“A number of parents are deflated, disappointed,” she said. However, “the parents are enthusiastic. They don’t go away. »

Many of these battles are happening at the local level, including in school board races across the country. It was difficult to immediately draw general conclusions about these results, although it was clear that both sides had scored victories.

In Florida, DeSantis weighed in with the endorsements of 30 school board candidates this year, and 24 were elected, including six who faced a runoff on Tuesday. Conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty and the 1776 PAC also made endorsements in Florida and across the country, and many of those candidates won as well.

Alicia Farrant, who has been endorsed by DeSantis and Moms for Liberty, won a school board seat in Orange County, Florida, after making “curriculum transparency” a focus of her campaign. She appeared alongside DeSantis this year at the signing ceremony for the statewide “transparency in education” bill, which requires teachers to publish their teaching materials. During the signing, Farrant shared a story about the “exposure” of a sexually graphic book that she said was readily available in her county school libraries.

Following her victory on Tuesday, she posted a Facebook video of herself celebrating alongside her family. “A lot of people said I was just a mom, but I know I’m more than a mom. I’m a warrior,” she said.

Similarly, in Minnesota, conservative candidates campaigning on parental rights scored statewide victories, winning 15 of the 19 races they devoted campaign resources to, said Minnesota Parents Alliance, an advocacy group. conservative.

But in Wake County, North Carolina, and Lafayette, Indiana, school board candidates who supported book bans and restrictions on gender and race education were defeated, in some cases by substantial margins.

And in a Houston suburb, a slate of conservative challengers failed to weed out school board incumbents who were also conservative but didn’t focus on identity issues.

Leslie Johnson, a small-business owner and active member of the parent-teacher organization in Tomball, Texas, identifies as conservative. But she said she felt discouraged by the accusatory and mean-spirited tone of the culture war contenders in the local race. Their claims about pornographic material at Tomball schools didn’t match his experience, and they didn’t give examples of which books on which campuses, Johnson said. The claims about indoctrination seemed to be adapted from elsewhere.

In April, the challengers sent letters to 2,000 locals saying the librarians had used taxpayers’ money to attend a conference “which featured Drag Queen speakers,” complete with photos of the librarians.

“It just became this thing, like, you scare everyone in the district,” said Johnson, who voted against defenders making those arguments. “It’s just not right, for me.”

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