Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin ran for office using the tactic of berating teachers for pushing critical race theory (CRT) on school kids. As was the case around the country, in district after district and in red state after red state, the candidate was largely attacking a straw man. CRT is a complex academic idea, generally taught in universities rather than in K-12 classrooms. 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 to win statewide office in Virginia since 2009.
Now, in his first days in office, the new governor is provoking another battle over school classrooms. But unlike the artificial brouhaha over CRT, this one is a battle in which he stands to sustain significant political damage. Hours into his governorship, Youngkin signed a confrontational executive order allowing parents to opt out of local mask mandates in schools, and to send their children into classrooms maskless, despite the still-lethal danger that the Omicron surge poses, particularly to immunocompromised children 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. Indeed, even before Omicron displaced Delta as the dominant variant, Quinnipiac polling from last September showed that nearly two-thirds 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 poll put the number supporting the mask mandate in the state even higher, at 70 percent.
In the wake of Youngkin’s executive order, seven districts in his state announced that they would sue to block 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. Now, after being in office only a week, many voters in these same suburbs are enraged by his signature policy to date.
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. On a daily basis, instead of reporting on manufactured CRT controversies, local news outlets are reporting more fire-and-fury stories on the issue of mask mandates. One person was arrested after telling her local school board that she would bring loaded guns to the local school if her child was required to wear a mask while attending classes.
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. Instead, he lit a fuse while standing perilously close to the dynamite.
The irony here is that Youngkin rode to power on a huge tactical error by his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, who went on record 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. Yet Youngkin saw an opening, and relentlessly attacked McAuliffe for this, repeatedly saying on the stump that education should be left in the hands of 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. If he were, mask mandates would be largely a non-issue for him this early in his governorship. 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 candidate in 2024. The Youngkin formula is seen as a winning one: Trumpite political tricks, but delivered with the patter of a sophisticated, suburban, polite financier.
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 are outdoing themselves in their efforts to limit the power of public health officials to set in place economic and educational restrictions. At the forefront of this is a visceral hostility to mask mandates. An Axios poll from late last summer found less than one in three Republicans supported school mask mandates. Governors Ron DeSantis, in Florida, and Greg Abbott, in Texas, have taken the lead in crafting public policies to pander to this sentiment, though governors in South Carolina, Arkansas, and many other states have also pushed back against mandates both for mask-wearing in public, indoor settings and also for vaccinations in schools, businesses and for federal agencies.
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 thought that riling up parents over schooling would prove to be their winning ticket. Now, in Virginia, they are seeing that policies around schooling can be just as treacherous for Republicans as they were, last November, for the Democrats.