Will ‘critical race theory’ hurt Terry McAuliffe?

If McAuliffe loses, analysis will doubtless stress the Democrats’ failure to pass their Build Back Better program. A more fruitful focus would be the Democrats’ messaging on cultural matters.

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Terry McAuliffe Continues Campaign For Governor Of Virginia

Democrat Terry McAuliffe is in a tight race for governor of Virginia.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

There are two big reasons that Republican Glenn Youngkin shouldn’t be within striking distance of Virginia’s state house. The first is that Virginia has been trending Democratic over the past decade and a half. Joe Biden won the state by more than 10 points last year. The second and far more important reason is that Youngkin has never distanced himself from the attempt to overthrow the constitutional order on Jan. 6. During the primary, Youngkin declined to say that Biden was the legitimately elected president and not the pretender who had stolen the presidency through fraud. Worse, he promised that “election integrity” would be his highest priority, thus giving credence to the stolen election myth.

In a politically healthy country, forcefully repudiating the dangerous lie about the 2020 election would be the price of admission to respectable politics. But in our world, voters don’t hold candidates to high standards, nor do they recognize threats to democratic legitimacy, and so the Virginia race is too close to call.

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In fairness to McAuliffe, Virginia has a countercyclical history. It likes to choose governors of the party opposite the denizen of the Oval Office.

Polls are showing that Republicans are more motivated this year than Democrats. An October Monmouth poll showed that 49% of Republicans are “enthusiastic” about voting in November, compared with only 26% of Democrats. And independents have moved from favoring McAuliffe to Youngkin. Just as significant is the shift in female voters. In September, McAuliffe enjoyed a 14-point lead among women. That dropped to a four-point advantage in October.

And while polls are all we have until Election Day, it would be foolish to imagine that pollsters have completely fixed the problem of the non-responsive Trump voter. If there’s an error in the polling, it’s likely to under-predict Republican strength.

McAuliffe has worked hard to link Youngkin to Trump, even mocking him as “Glenn Trumpkin,” but it hasn’t stuck, partly because voters are too forgiving, but also because Youngkin’s affect — mild, non-combative — is so disarming.

Youngkin has also run a good campaign, hitting upon Democratic weaknesses. In one of his TV ads, Youngkin uses the backdrop of a supermarket to stress the rising price of groceries and promises to repeal the grocery tax. Are the Democrats responsible for inflation? It’s hard to say, but when it’s happening on your watch and when you are planning to pump even more money into the economy, it’s hard to escape responsibility.

Youngkin also highlights rising crime (clearly not the Democrats’ fault since it began under Trump). Using a tactic that worked well for Republicans in 2020 and will doubtless dog Democrats in 2022, Youngkin links McAuliffe to the “defund the police” crowd, and features a montage of police officers asking voters to keep Virginia safe.

Teaching complicated history

But the issue that has arguably done the most harm to McAuliffe is education. Remember those independent and female voters who have moved so strongly toward Youngkin? That has coincided with the rise of education as a campaign issue. Women usually rank education as more important than men do. Between September and October, the number of Virginians listing education as a priority rose from 31% to 41%. And the issue that has drawn large crowds to school board meetings is critical race theory.

Youngkin has seized on it. At a campaign rally in July, he said that critical race theory, or CRT, has “moved into all of our schools in Virginia.”

McAuliffe was flat-footed in response, declaring that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” He dismissed concerns about CRT as manufactured — a “racist dog whistle.”

Well, it’s not that simple. While it’s true that CRT is not listed on the Virginia Standards of Learning (the content all Virginia students are tested on) and several county school boards have issued statements affirming that they do not teach CRT, some CRT-adjacent lessons have been entertained by the Virginia Department of Education. Among other steps, they’ve recommended books about CRT to teachers and tout Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Anti-Racist” on their website.

The matter is clouded by imprecision, poor information and deliberate incitement. McAuliffe is not wrong that Republicans are exaggerating the prevalence of CRT. And while it’s undoubtedly the case that some parents object to CRT because they are badly motivated, some are genuinely worried about exacerbating racism in the name of fighting it.

Instead of denying that there’s any issue at all, McAuliffe could have stressed that there’s one right way and many wrong ways to teach history. The right way tells the unvarnished truth about slavery, racism and Jim Crow, while also emphasizing the success of the civil rights movement, affirmative action and other efforts to combat the legacy of racism and discrimination. One wrong way to teach history is to airbrush the brutality of slavery, lynchings and racism. Another wrong way amplifies race as the sum total of identity, encourages segregationist mindsets and fails to account for progress.

As the campaign closes, McAuliffe is airing ads suggesting that his remarks about parents and schools were taken out of context — which is to say, he’s flailing, which likely means he’s failing.

If McAuliffe loses, the analysis will doubtless stress the Democrats’ failure to pass their Build Back Better program. A more fruitful focus would be the Democrats’ messaging on delicate cultural matters like CRT.

Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.

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