Glenn Youngkin
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks with members of the press alongside his wife Suzanne, back left, after voting early, Thursday, September 23, 2021, in Fairfax, Va. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Glenn Youngkin, “is surging because he’s *leaned in* to talking about cultural issues,” argued the National Review writer Nate Hochman on Twitter. “The guy was 5 points down when he was running a standard milquetoast blue-state GOP campaign 3 months ago. Only when he stopped being afraid of CRT, gender ideology, etc., did he become a serious threat.” Hochman’s counsel to Republicans is that “CRT/gender ideology/rabidly anti-American curricula/etc. are clearly winning issues, regardless of whether Youngkin pulls it off in VA.”

No doubt if Youngkin wins, or barely loses, the preponderance of hot takes will be along these lines—that backlash over critical race theory and policies toward transgender students reversed Virginia’s 21st-century blue trend. But such hasty conclusions would gloss over much of what Youngkin has done right and what former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe has done wrong to make the race competitive.

Yes, it’s true that Youngkin has said he would ban critical race theory in Virginia classrooms (even though it isn’t taught in Virginia classrooms). And he has defended a Loudoun County teacher who refuses to address transgender students by their preferred pronouns. But contrary to Hochman’s implication, Youngkin took those stances back in the spring.

In the Real Clear Politics poll average, McAuliffe’s margin has steadily ticked downward, from a five-point lead on October 1 to about a one-point lead a week before the election. What happened just before that decline? McAuliffe foolishly said in a September 28th debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

McAuliffe didn’t say that in regard to critical race theory or gender identity policies, but in regard to books containing sexually explicit content assigned by teachers and available in school libraries. Youngkin had just referenced a recent controversy, fueled by parents at a school board meeting, about two books in Fairfax County’s high school libraries that had such content. (On the day of the debate, the two books were temporarily removed from the libraries, pending a formal review.) And Youngkin criticized McAuliffe for vetoing a bill when he was governor that would have given parents the ability to opt their children out of assignments dealing with books that had sexually explicit content. “You believe school systems should tell children what to do,” said Youngkin. “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.”

Youngkin was offering a false dichotomy. School systems have to tell children what to do, but most public school administrators answer to school boards with members elected by the public, including parents. The only way parents can be fully in charge of their kids’ education is by homeschooling, but parents do—just as a matter of plain fact—have a voice in how democratically managed public schools are run.

But instead of puncturing the false dichotomy and describing a public school system run by school boards and administrators, informed by community input, McAuliffe dug himself into a deeper hole. After calling Youngkin “clueless” about the vetoed bill, McAuliffe described it as letting parents “veto books,” prompting him to declare, “I’m not going to let parents come into school and actually take books out and make their own decisions.” And then, he committed the devastating gaffe: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Stripped of context, McAuliffe’s opinion sounds like it applies far more broadly than letting Jimmy’s mom yank The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That’s why Youngkin cannily cherry-picked it for a 30-second TV ad titled “Stand Up for Parents.”

The ad doesn’t mention any culture war flashpoint. It simply shows Youngkin, speaking in a commonsense voice directly to the camera, gently insisting, “Virginia parents have the right to make decisions about their children’s education,” followed by McAuliffe’s clunker. Youngkin closes the spot with a liberal twist, promising to “increase teacher pay and pass the largest education budget in history.”

Note the order of events. Youngkin picks up on an issue driven by socially conservative populists. Under pressure, McAuliffe gaffes. Youngkin exploits the blunder, sands off its conservative origins, and seeks to broaden his appeal beyond his base.

“Stand Up for Parents” is not Youngkin’s only pitch to moderate and left-leaning voters. “I’m With Glenn” shows Saundra Davis, a “lifelong Democrat” who says she voted for Biden. This ad is strictly about education, but with no mention of CRT or transgender issues. Davis complains that academic standards in Virginia have declined because “politics are being put before children.” That line can easily be interpreted in different ways by different viewers. However, the screen briefly shows an excerpt from a Washington Post editorial criticizing state Democrats for moving away from standardized testing. Davis assures viewers that Youngkin will “set academic standards high and give parents a voice in the curriculum.”

“What Really Matters” is a 60-second ad featuring another “lifelong Democrat,” Emily Curtis, who says she worked in the Bill Clinton White House and consistently voted Democratic up to and including Joe Biden. She says she will cast her first Republican vote for Youngkin because “he’s focused on what really matters: jobs, education, COVID recovery.” The Democrat portrays Youngkin as an antidote to political polarization: “I’m so tired of being told to be afraid all the time, and I’m tired of seeing my neighbors demonize each other over politics. Haven’t we had enough division?”

An August online video testimonial from yet another Democrat, Rita Parks, sought to position Youngkin as a bridge builder. “I believe that our country needs healing right now, after January 6th,” she says. “I think Glenn is in a unique position as a nonpolitical candidate to bridge the two parties.” More recently, Youngkin supporters held a rally where a flag was waved that was used in the January 6 insurrection. Youngkin did his best to distance himself from the episode, releasing a statement that read, “It is weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to a flag connected to January 6.” Youngkin doesn’t want to lose any votes from Trump cultists and insurrectionists, but for the broadest audience, Youngkin wants to be seen not as a culture warrior but as a culture peacemaker.

Of course, not all of Youngkin’s ads are as warm and fuzzy as his signature fleece vest. You may have seen the Youngkin ad in which a mother expresses shock at her son’s reading assignment, which included “explicit” material, then criticizes McAuliffe’s veto of the bill that would have allowed parents to opt their kids out of such assignments. “He doesn’t think parents should have a say,” snipes the mother. What was so explicit was never mentioned, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination. What was the book that got her so upset? Multiple media reports say it was Beloved, by the Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who is such a revered figure that Democrats hope the backlash ad will spawn anti-Youngkin backlash.

In another ad, also keying off McAuliffe’s gaffe, a female narrator accuses McAuliffe of having “pushed left-liberal bureaucrats into our schools, and pushed parents out, lowering standards and pushing extreme agendas. Now our schools are teetering on chaos [with] violence in kids’ classrooms.” At this point, footage is shown from a high school brawl last month in Chesterfield, Virginia.

Critical race theory and transgender issues are unmentioned, though social conservatives will hear the dog whistle. For example, the ad highlighting school violence was released around the same time that a 14-year old boy was found guilty of sexual assault in a Loudoun County high school girls’ bathroom. Earlier media reports had assumed that the boy—who was wearing a skirt—was transgender, feeding conservative concerns about transgender bathroom access, though it now appears the boy is not. Nevertheless, Youngkin has called for an investigation into the school board’s handling of the matter. The ad makes no direct reference to the case, but the concern about “violence” will be noticed by those familiar with it.

For viewers who don’t pick up on the dog whistles, the ad still leaves the impression that those on the “left” are “pushing extreme agendas.” In other words, Democrats like McAuliffe are instigating the culture war. Youngkin would bury the hatchet.

The 54-year-old private equity mogul is somewhat more specific when speaking to base voters. At a rally on October 23, he pledged, “On day one, I will ban critical race theory in our schools.” But even in that case, he leavened that remark by also assuring, “We will teach all history, the good and the bad” and “America has fabulous chapters, and it’s the greatest country in the world, but we also have some abhorrent chapters in our history, we must teach them.”

Democrats are scrambling to thwart Youngkin’s play to the middle. “As far as I can tell,” said former President Barack Obama at his own October 23 rally in Virginia, “the big message of Terry’s opponent is that he’s a regular guy because he wears fleece and he’s accusing schools of brainwashing our kids.” “Extremism can come,” said President Joe Biden three days later in a rally with McAuliffe, “in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest.” (As my editor said to me, they should take the fleece bit to its logical conclusion and call him a wolf in sheep’s clothing.)

With just a few days left until Election Day, we can surmise what has worked and what hasn’t.

Simply opposing critical race theory was not sufficient for Youngkin to close the gap. What happened was that McAuliffe wasn’t careful at a crucial moment late in the race, and Youngkin was. McAuliffe said something stupid; Youngkin exploited the mistake. The lanky Republican college basketball player kept his eye on the ball—the middle of Virginia’s electorate—deploying language that could be interpreted differently by conservatives and moderates.

Youngkin’s way is not the Trump way. It’s a traditional and subtle way of straddling the base and the middle. It’s not as frightening to Democrats, which is why it’s more politically sustainable for the Republican Party.

Democrats must decide how best to attack a slippery target. But they need not jump to the lazy conclusion that transgender students must be thrown under the bus or thoughtful discussion of racism in school must be abandoned out of political expediency. Youngkin’s strategy is sophisticated. The Democratic response must be, too.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.