Can Virginia Democrats Win Back Suburban Moms?

Glenn Youngkin was able to flip Biden voters by focusing on education.

Audrey Fahlberg and Harvest PrudeDec 9, 2021

Inflation is soaring, Joe Biden’s approval ratings are down, and the White House’s economic agenda is stalled. Against that backdrop, vulnerable House Democrats across the country are steeling themselves for tough reelection battles in 2022.

But in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Terry McAuliffe in the commonwealth’s off-year gubernatorial election revealed an issue that could make congressional campaigning even more difficult for vulnerable Virginia Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria: K-12 education.

Youngkin spent the months leading up to the general election carefully crafting a political messaging strategy that would resonate with independents, Trump-skeptical Republicans, women, and suburban voters. That strategy took particular aim at parents of young children, many of whom struggled to afford childcare and even dropped out of the workforce as a result of pandemic-induced school closures. Youngkin vowed to build more charter schools, ban “critical race theory,” and reopen K-12 schools that had opted for remote learning during the pandemic.

And, as far as some parents are concerned, it worked. Dee O’Neal is a single mom and Virginia resident who founded a grassroots parent group to urge schools to go back to full-time, in-person schooling after more than a year of being shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.*

O’Neal told The Dispatch it seemed like only Republicans cared about schools reopening. “I was like, where are these liberal groups that are supposedly for children? They were just silent.”

As The Sweep noted in its Virginia gubernatorial post-election analysis, Fairfax County didn’t reopen full-time, in-person learning for the 2020-2021 school year, even after teachers received priority access to vaccination.

Then came the late September gubernatorial debate, when McAuliffe said the quiet part out loud: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The remark was widely criticizedbut McAuliffe never walked it back.

“I’m independent, not crazy about either party,” O’Neal said. “I’m definitely not going to be voting Democrat in the near future.” She said out of the roughly 100 volunteer parents who are a part of Open Fairfax County Schools Coalition, she believes “99 percent of them voted for Youngkin, even Democrats,” because of their concerns about McAuliffe’s position on parents and public schools.

Although it’s still unclear whether McAuliffe’s late September gaffe doomed his campaign, polling suggests that Youngkin’s ability to harness education as a political messaging strategy likely boosted his support among parents of school-aged children. An Echelon Insights poll conducted October 27-29 showed Youngkin carrying K-12 parents by 15 points compared to the mere 3 point lead over McAuliffe he held in the same poll when non-parents were factored into the equation.

A separate poll of 500 general election voters in Virginia conducted by Democrats for Education Reform and Murmuration November 10-15 found Youngkin carries voters 52 percent to McAuliffe’s 40 percent when it comes to his handling of schools and education. Of the 21 percent of survey respondents in that poll who ranked education as their top issue in the gubernatorial race, a striking 70 percent said they voted for Youngkin.

According to NBC News exit polls, white women in particular voted for Youngkin 57 to 43 percent, a 13 point swing from 2020 where the demographic went for President Biden. Exit polling by the Washington Post showed that women overall went for McAuliffe, but by a lesser margin than they went for Biden. Non-educated women went for Youngkin in higher numbers—74 percent without college degrees voted GOP—while 61 percent of white women with college degrees broke for McAuliffe.   

“[Youngkin] talked about cutting the grocery tax, putting parents in charge of their kids’ education and creating jobs,” former New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie said in an interview with The Dispatch last month. “And Terry McAuliffe talks about Donald Trump.”