McAuliffe’s statement in a debate that parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach brought these strands together in a powerful way and allowed Youngkin to portray himself as the protector of parental prerogatives. If McAuliffe loses, his parents comment will be remembered as his “deplorables” moment. More important, a Youngkin victory would show that the educational fights that have mostly been playing out at the local level can have an impact at the state and perhaps the national level.
Education has loomed large in the suburbs. The suburban areas around Washington, Richmond and Virginia Beach have swung hard to the Democrats in recent years, making Virginia look like a lost cause for Republicans. And the larger Trump electoral trade-off of gaining working-class voters and repelling people in the suburbs worked for him once nationally, in 2016, but has its limits.
Youngkin’s approach has been to give suburban voters a “permission slip” to support him, by making himself broadly acceptable through his biography and demeanor. On top of this, he’s associated himself with the suburban revolt against school boards, most famously in Loudoun County, and talked up a cost-of-living-oriented economic agenda.