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Youngkin’s Win Bolsters GOP Optimism, But Did Governors Learn?


PHOENIX — Virginia Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin sought to inspire party colleagues to adopt the mantle of parental rights in education as a centerpiece of their campaigns in next year’s midterms.

“This is so clearly an area where Republicans have historically been a bit on our heels,” Youngkin said on stage at the Republican Governors Association (RGA) annual conference in Phoenix. “We shouldn’t be at all. … I will tell you through this entire campaign season, the polls kept telling us that education was the seventh or eighth or ninth most important issue. Let me tell you, it is the top issue right now.”

Two weeks ago, Youngkin led Republicans in Virginia to their first sweep of statewide victories in more than a decade after the businessman-turned-candidate made cultural issues embedded in education the focal point of the contest. Republicans not only took the governor’s mansion, but they swept each of Virginia’s top three statewide offices and claimed a majority in the House of Delegates. President Joe Biden carried Virginia by a 10-point margin less than a year prior.

In Arizona, Youngkin explained why Republicans in competing states would be wise to bet on education as a winning strategy.

This is not a Republican versus a Democrat issue. This is a parent issue. This is the future of our children. … [We support] the fundamental principles of strong schools that teach our children how to excel, not watering down the curriculum. Of schools where parents have a say about what their children are being taught. Of school choice within a public school system where parents can actually choose whether they want to go to a school across town or a charter school or even have an educational savings account somewhere down the road where they get to take their tax dollars and bring them on the road with them. This is what Republicans stand for.

Education loomed large at the conference as a platform to run on, in no small part due to Youngkin’s victory igniting an electric excitement throughout the annual gathering.

“We’re so happy about that we can hardly stand it,” said a visibly giddy South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster seated next to Youngkin on Wednesday’s panel.

While conversations surrounding issues of energy, immigration, and inflation at the hands of the Biden administration dominated discussions on day one, education emerged as the dominant topic Thursday.

“We’re at an inflection point in this country,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said in the grand ballroom of the Arizona Biltmore. “I think we saw that in Virginia but it didn’t just happen in Virginia.”

Lee went on to highlight the battle over school boards, which have become the ground zero for the 21st-century culture wars, as a “parent awakening” that is a result of “decades of slumbering.”

“We trusted the system to our children, trusted our children to the system,” Lee said. “We can’t do that.”

Concerned conservative parents captured seats on school boards across the country earlier this month coinciding with Youngkin’s trailblazing victory.

Lee and few others, however, offered concrete specifics beyond grassroots activism and traditional GOP policy solutions featuring school choice and vocational education as effective platforms. Republican rhetoric and Republican governance have historically divorced at the conclusion of the campaign trail.

Out of the 15 Republican governors who participated in the week’s series of three public panels, only eight come from states with passed bans on critical race theory, a toxic ideology that has been embedded in K-12 curriculums while Republicans slept on the issue.

Youngkin himself was shy on specifics, already wavering on the issue of mask and vaccine bans and allowing private mandates to be implemented absent state protection.

“Localities are going to have to make decisions the way the law works and that is going to be up to individual decisions but, again, from the governor’s office, you won’t see mandates from me,” Youngkin said last weekend, less than two weeks after his victory.

The issue raises questions over Youngkin’s commitment to the cause on education. Will he emerge in office as a true champion for parental rights in schools as he campaigned? Or will he transform into a traditional Republican with attractive rhetoric followed by hollow action? Light details from Youngkin and others offered at the conference meant to serve at least in part as a forum for the exchange of ideas are reasons for the kind of conservative skepticism that triggers primaries.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is one incumbent facing an inner-party challenge from former Ohio Rep. Jim Renacci.

“I don’t think it ever helps to tell any young person they’re a victim,” DeWine told The Federalist on the conference sidelines when asked about critical race theory. “I think that’s a mistake.”

The governor fell shy of making a pledge to run on the issue or pass a ban similar to those in Texas and Florida, which have barred the distortion of history in classrooms that propels political narratives of left-wing wokeism.

“I’m a big proponent of teaching history, teaching government, and making sure people understand the good and the bad of our country, but teaching history and letting kids develop critical thinking to me is the most important thing,” DeWine said. “The ability of a child, a young person, a citizen to be able to sort out facts and then be able to make a persuasive argument is the most important thing. So that’s been my approach.”

The Republican emphasis on vocational training and voucher programs Thursday — even after Youngkin’s win credited to a crusade against critical race theory — underscores the depth of education as a broad topic. The fight in schools for parental rights is not just about the left’s manipulation of historical events to promote abject wokeism, but serves as an umbrella term to include battles over the rapid acceleration of radical gender theories, the endurance of everlasting COVID protocols, the effectiveness of curricula that ignore pragmatism, and economic disparities engineered by the denial of school choice.

“It’s incredible to me that fifty-plus years ago, you had elected leaders standing in the schoolhouse door not allowing any minorities in, and today you have elected leaders standing in the schoolhouse door not allowing minorities out,” said Arizona Governor and Chairman of the RGA Doug Ducey during Thursday’s panel. “They are trapped in failing schools across our country [and] in our lower-income areas. We know that the achievement gap falls squarely along racial and economic lines and school choice is the way to go.”

The RGA has made it clear to members that running on education will be a key to Republican success across the 36 gubernatorial races scheduled next year.

“Parents are rightly concerned about the woke curriculum being taught in public schools,” RGA Communications Director Jesse Hunt told The Federalist. “Democrats, heeding the demands from the teachers unions, haven’t listened to these concerns and it’s going to be an important issue on the campaign trail in 2022.”