Republican candidates in states across the country are seizing on critical race theory as a talking point in their effort to appeal to cultural conservatives.
Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin vowed to expel the academic movement from schools, while Ohio GOP Senate candidate Jane Timken took it on as part of a statewide “listening tour.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), both potential presidential candidates in 2024, have also knocked critical race theory. Noem recently started a petition on her campaign website to keep it out of classrooms.
Republicans say the issue will likely help galvanize the cultural conservative base in upcoming elections.
“It offers Republicans a great opportunity to educate people about what we actually believe about race,” said Terry Schilling, the executive director of the conservative think tank the American Principles Project.
Schilling added that his organization was considering wading into the fight over the academic movement by running and testing the effectiveness of ads ahead of 2022.
The Republican effort comes after the party exceeded expectations in the 2020 elections, holding on to a number of crucial Senate seats and gaining seats in the House. Some Democrats argued the GOP’s unexpectedly strong performance was due in part to conservatives tying Democrats to progressive policies like calls to “defund the police.”
Now, Republicans are looking to tie Democrats to critical race theory in an effort to paint them as radical.
Critical race theory was developed in the 1970s and 1980s by a number of American legal scholars who argued racism is rooted in the nation’s founding and that systemic racism continues to have a negative impact on the opportunities and treatment of people of color at all levels of society today.
But opponents of the theory say it teaches students to disparage the U.S. and works to sow racial divisions in classrooms.
Democrats have largely defended the movement, arguing it sheds much-needed light on the ways racism persists in the country.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that it was “responsible” to teach about systemic racism when asked about a proposal from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), another potential presidential candidate, opposing critical race theory.
“I don’t think we would think that educating the youth and next and future leaders of the country on systemic racism is indoctrination. That’s actually responsible,” Psaki said at a White House briefing on Thursday.
The debate over the issue has already swept across the U.S., with GOP-controlled legislatures in half a dozen states taking up measures that would limit or ban the theory in schools.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) signed a bill that would keep funding from schools that taught viewpoints that are “often found in critical race theory,” while the Texas state Senate approved similar legislation. Tennessee’s state House advanced its legislation on the issue earlier this month, and lawmakers in Arizona, Arkansas and Oklahoma are drafting legislation that would combat the movement being taught in classrooms.
Republicans are also pushing the issue at the federal level, with roughly 30 GOP representatives signaling their support for Rep. Dan Bishop’s (R-N.C.) Stop CRT Act, which would ban federal employees from having to receive racial equity and diversity training.
“Particularly over the last year in lockdown, education has really rocketed to the forefront of definitely suburban mothers’ minds,” said Nicki Neily, president of the conservative group Parents Defending Education.
“A lot of this new stuff was sprung on them with no heads up, no buy-in, no introducing it to the community,” she continued. “They feel like there’s sort of no input into the process.”
A poll released last month from Parents Defending Education found that 58.3 percent of respondents said they did not believe students should be taught that the country “was founded on racism and remains structurally racist today.”
The debate reached a boiling point during a tense school board meeting this week in the Washington, D.C., suburban enclave of Loudoun County, Va., after the interim superintendent announced he was launching an “equity” plan. The superintendent has insisted that critical race theory is not a part of the school district’s curriculum.
Virginia Republican candidates have taken the issue head-on ahead of the commonwealth’s elections later this year.
“It’s going to be detrimental to our schools and it’s not what we want,” Virginia GOP lieutenant governor nominee Winsome Sears told Fox News on Thursday. “It supposedly is to help someone who looks like me and I’m sick of it. I’m sick of being used by the Democrats, and so are many people who look like me.”
Youngkin has campaigned frequently on education issues, including the reopening of schools and school choice, as well as critical race theory. He vowed during the campaign leading up to the state GOP convention that he would take critical race theory out of Virginia’s public schools if elected.
“Day One we’re going to fix this curriculum problem we’ve got,” Youngkin said at a campaign event earlier this month. “I believe that we are all created in the image of God, and as a result we’re all equal. And anything that teaches division is not of Him, and therefore we will not have critical race theory in our schools.”
While the issue has shown its potential to galvanize the conservative base, some strategists say leaning into critical race theory may not be the right messaging move in growing and diversifying suburban areas, which could play a determining factor in upcoming races.
“[Youngkin] has to pivot to issues that are far more important to these suburbanites,” said veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth. “This is a talking point that doesn’t win him any more votes. There are education issues that they could focus on that are potentially far more fruitful.”
Conservatives also say they are unsure of how the issue will play in suburban enclaves, pointing to Democratic successes in those areas in the 2020 cycle.