In VA Governor Race, Culture War Comes to the Fore

Philip Wegmann, RealClearPolitics

Two presidents spoke similar themes three days apart in Virginia.

On Saturday, it was former President Obama who made fun of Glenn Youngkin as a goofy “fleece-wearing guy,” symbolism that President Biden further cribbed on Tuesday to knock the Republican candidate for governor. Obama had tried tying Youngkin to the stolen-election conspiracy theories that led to the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6; Biden also argued that Youngkin was complicit in “the big lie.” Obama promised that Terry McAuliffe would “rebuild a stronger economy that creates good jobs.” Again, Biden said the same.

Democrats don’t mind a little presidential echo, especially when Biden and Obama are the ones delivering the one-two punch. Yet, Biden hesitated to follow Obama in an area.

“We don’t have time to be wasting on these phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage that right-wing media peddles to juice their ratings,” Obama said in his Richmond speech, accusing Youngkin of avoiding “serious problems that affect serious people” and “stoking anger” at educators.

A Washington Post headline three days later, however, seemed to undercut that message: “Judge finds teen committed sexual assault in Virginia school bathroom.” It was disturbing news, and it dovetailed with Youngkin’s closing argument, one the GOP is beta-testing ahead of the midterms: Thanks to liberal policies, our children are in danger.

Related: At Election Time, Virginia Is for Liars

“I am calling for an immediate investigation into the Loudoun County School Board for their gross negligence,” Youngkin said a week before a juvenile court judge handed down what amounts to a guilty verdict. “They had a duty of care and they failed,” he told a cheering crowd at a campaign stop in Burke. “They endangered our students and violated the Virginia Constitution.

“Instead of investigating parents, the DOJ should be investigating those who covered up a heinous crime in our schools,” Youngkin added in a reference to a recent Department of Justice memo about stepping up investigations of threats of violence against teachers and school board members by parents angry over education policies.

The McAuliffe campaign responded to that last call by issuing a statement that the Republican’s “entire campaign has been based on Donald Trump’s divisive conspiracy theories, and tonight we saw more of the same — angry Trumpian conspiracy theories and constant threats against public school funding.”

McAuliffe continued his arguments Tuesday night. McAuliffe said that it was not him who is forcing a bitter battle over social issues on schoolchildren. “Glenn Youngkin uses education to divide Virginia,” the Democratic nominee said. “He wants to pit parents against parents, parents against teachers. His personal culture wars will be brought into the classrooms.

“Folks, we will not allow Glenn Younkin to bring his hate and his chaos in our Virginia schools. And we will never let our children be used as political pawns.”

As the Washington Post reported, the male teen in question sexually assaulted a classmate in the girls’ bathroom of a Loudoun County high school in May. The 14-year-old victim was forced to perform sex acts after the male student shoved her onto the ground. Although the parents of the victim have described the boy as “gender fluid” and said he was wearing a floor-length skirt, those details were not confirmed by authorities. It has now been established that the juvenile attacker was moved to another school where he could continue his classes as a precautionary measure while awaiting his trial. There, months later, the teenager allegedly assaulted another female student — a case that will go to trial next month.

Even before the defendant was found guilty of the first charge, some Virginia parents were fuming at Obama’s remarks. This includes Jason Miyares, who told RealClearPolitics that the former president should “go to the female victim that was 14 years old and got violently sexually assaulted in a bathroom and look her in the face and tell her this is a phony culture war.”

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Miyares, the GOP candidate for Virginia attorney general, called the assault the result of “a bunch of far-left politicians who think that good intentions guarantee good results. And they never think about the unintended consequences of their actions.”

Students in Loudoun County protested the attack Tuesday, before the judge issued a verdict. Scott Ziegler, the school system superintendent, acknowledged earlier this month that existing policies are “not adequate” to address such cases. Fox News reported that Ziegler admitted to allegations of the assault on the bathroom in an email to school board members in May. But at a June board meeting, where the father of the victim was arrested, Ziegler said the school didn’t have any record of an assault occurring and claimed that “the predator transgender student or person simply does not exist.”

The controversy, along with claims of a coverup has fuelled conservative long-standing complaints about how the public school system is becoming more liberal and disconnected from parents’ input. Republicans like Youngkin say that classrooms are already too politicized, and they blame progressives for pushing lesson plans influenced by critical race theory and backing initiatives to let biological males compete in girls’ sports. They claim that they do not have to be the aggressors in nearly all instances.

“Of course he wants us to stop,” Terry Schilling said of Obama’s remarks about the culture war, “because now they’re losing.” The executive director of the conservative American Principles Project, Schilling told RCP that Democrats are starting to realize “they’ve awakened a sleeping giant. They want us to forget that they’re putting boys in our girls’ sports. They want us to forget they are putting boys in girls’ locker rooms. They want us to move on, but the thing is, we tried the ‘Mitch Daniels truce.’ We tried it under Obama.”

The détente Schilling referred to was an effort by then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2011, when he called for a “truce” on social issues between the left and the right so the country could deal with “the new red menace” of debt and deficits. Pointing to Obama’s federal transgender bathroom guidance as evidence, Schilling said the truce ended up being “entirely one-sided and ended up being a total slaughter. It was a massacre, and so there’s no going back. Culture wars will not go away unless Democrats stop aggressing.” They won’t go away until Democrats stop aggressing.”

Youngkin is currently tied with McAuliffe in the race for president. The RealClearPolitics average polling shows that the Democrat is only 1.5 points ahead of the Republican as they reach the last stretch. Both candidates are aggressively courting suburban women — a constituency that Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, notes were “crucial to the sizable victories Democrats have enjoyed in the commonwealth since 2017.”

Related: Will Virginia Be The Canary In The Coal Mine For Biden’s Incompetence?

Republicans feel confident about their chances, and believe Virginia may be the beginning of good times ahead. In the past, Virginia has been an important indicator of political trends. Democrat Ralph Northam won the governor’s mansion in 2017, portending his party’s reclaiming the House of Representatives in a 2018 rebuke of Donald Trump. In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell’s gubernatorial victory previewed “the shellacking” that Obama experienced in the 2010 midterms.

The lessons learned from Virginia are not going to be forgotten. According to Schilling, “If Youngkin can win this race in deep blue Virginia, the 2022 midterms are going to be all about critical race theory, transgenderism, and these culture wars that Democrats now want to back away from.” A successfully waged culture war in the commonwealth, he said, would leave the GOP with a single takeaway: “It will win your campaign.”

Biden does not seem afraid of that kind of Trumpian fight, even if he avoided echoing Obama’s culture war rhetoric. He seemed to be goading his former opponent into weighing in on the race, something Virginia Republicans believe would only complicate Youngkin’s chances. They’re eager to avoid another referendum over the former president.

“How well do you know Terry’s opponent?” Biden asked the crowd. “Remember this: I ran against Donald Trump. And Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump.” Why, he continued, isn’t Trump alongside Youngkin on the campaign trail? “What’s he hiding? Is he embarrassed?” Populist extremism, the kind that embarrasses Republicans, can “come in many forms,” Biden warned, referencing the mob that stormed the Capitol after Trump’s speech to supporters on the Ellipse.

Or, Biden added, again borrowing from Obama, “it can come in a smile and a fleece vest.”

RealClearWire permission granted this syndicated version.

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