If Republican Glenn Youngkin wins the Virginia governor's race on Tuesday — or even comes particularly close — expect the GOP to push hard on the cultural issues that appear to have propelled him to a near-tie with former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
Youngkin has run on controversial topics concerning public school curricula and policies, focusing on instruction in critical race theory, transgender rights, and the broader question of how much control parents should have over their children's education. Two incidents have amplified Youngkin's message: the sexual assault of a girl in a Loudon County school restroom by a fellow student whom the girl's parents have said is "gender fluid," and McAuliffe's own debate assertion that parents shouldn't tell public schools what to teach. Even in the Democratic stronghold of Northern Virginia, Youngkin's support of greater parental rights and more conservative gender policies seems to resonate.
That's counterintuitive because social issues were long thought to be a major reason increasingly purple suburbs turned away from the GOP before and during the presidency of former President Donald Trump. Now it seems waging the culture war has helped Youngkin make inroads in the suburbs while simultaneously revving up the conservative base.
Perhaps Youngkin overreached by weighing in on controversial books, or maybe Trump will travel to Virginia and vindicate the Democrats' strategy of obsessing over him. But if Virginia turns out to be as competitive as the public polling says, there will be a strong Republican temptation to replicate Youngkin's campaign strategy in places that are a lot less blue than the commonwealth has become over the last decade. And if a culture war focus helps in the suburbs, Republicans will definitely try to use it to wipe out Democrats' narrow congressional majorities.
That would be shrewd, because people care deeply about what their children are taught in school and about their physical safety while attending. These aren't abstractions or distractions from pocketbook issues. For parents, curricula and school policies are the kind of issues that decide where they will live. They could certainly influence how they vote.