Speaking the other day on a 2022 “Netroots Nation” panel about the 2021 Virginia governor’s election, VA State Senator Jennifer McClellan – who ran in the 2021 Democratic gubernatorial primary, finishing third behind Terry McAuliffe (who got 62.1% of the vote) and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (who got 19.8% of the vote) – had some pointed comments about how she thinks McAuliffe lost to Glenn Youngkin, and specifically what the “beginning of the end” was in that campaign. See below for video and a transcript (note: Nice job, BTW, by Brian Devine moderating the panel).
So no question, Sen. McClellan is right that:
- The COVID pandemic, particularly in the first few months, was traumatic for everyone, and certainly for parents and kids;
- Parents wanted to feel like their political leaders understood that they were anxious and were going to do something to try and ameliorate that anxiety
- Terry McAuliffe didn’t answer that debate question well at all (McAuliffe’s answer was, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach”), and his campaign waited waaaaayyy too long to “walk back” his remarks – and when they did so, it was too late and not effective. Instead, the McAuliffe campaign should have clarified clearly and forcefully *immediately* after the debate that of COURSE McAuliffe believed parents should be involved in their kids’ education, as long as it was in a positive/constructive manner or whatever.
- Youngkin no doubt was searching for an issue or set of issues that might resonate with voters, and specifically that might fire up the hard-core Republican “base” voters while not turning off the rest of the electorate, and one of the things he settled on was dishonestly and cynically stoking anxieties about schools – “CRT” as a racial “dog whistle,” COVID, “transgender bathrooms,” etc, etc.).
- At the time McAuliffe made his remarks in that debate, the race was very close in the polls, and after that debate, the Youngkin campaign pounced almost immediately on McAuliffe’s comments about parents not “telling schools what they should teach”…and that may have made the difference in a super-close election – who knows.
In the end, was that debate gaffe by McAuliffe the “beginning of the end” for McAuliffe’s campaign? Maybe, but it’s really hard to know for sure. Still, it clearly didn’t help matters, and in a close election, it could have made the difference.
In sum, none of what Sen. McClellan said at Netroots Nation is wrong or particularly controversial, and many/most Virginia Dem politicos – and voters, activists, etc. – probably agree with it. The bigger surprise, in my view, is that she said it publicly at all, given that it’s sure to anger McAuliffe, who is known to value loyalty and not appreciate disloyalty (and to have a long memory!). Of course, it’s possible that McClellan has reasoned that McAuliffe will be supporting Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney – and not her – for governor in 2025 regardless, so she has nothing to lose by angering McAuliffe. Anyway, we’ll see how it plays out. But no question in my mind, these remarks were newsworthy and significant, coming from a very careful, cautious, smart politician like Sen. McClellan who is a major figure in the party and who is likely to run again for governor in 2025.
“[Education/schools] was more of an underlying issue…I’m also a parent. I have…last year a kindergartner and a fifth grader who were in virtual school…when the pandemic started, they went home on a Friday and never went back. And my husband and I were trying to deal with, like every other parent, how do we keep our children safe, how do we both work while having kids in the house, how do we make sure that they’re getting some kind of socialization, because they miss their friends. This was very traumatic. COVID in and of itself was traumatic. It was particularly traumatic for parents, because you’re dealing with your trauma and your kids’ trauma.
So there was a lot of parental anxiety that no candidate in the general election in the governor’s race was talking about. And Glenn Younkin was floundering for any issue that would stick and he could talk about. And Terry McAuliffe handed him that issue when in a debate, the question was about CRT, and yes CRT was starting to be discussed, but in that debate when asked a question related to CRT, Terry said in an offhanded way a parent shouldn’t be involved in what their kids are learning. And every parent I know who watched that debate, Democrat or Republican, said he just lost the race.
And it wasn’t necessarily CRT, it was every parent who was anxious about something – and yes there were parents who were anxious about CRT even though they didn’t know what it was, they knew it was bad because Glenn Youngkin told him and Fox News told him it was – but what really happened in that debate was those anxious parents said here in Glen Younkin is a candidate who at least acknowledges that I’m an anxious parent, and here is a candidate in Terry McAuliffe who is dismissive of anxious parents. And the problem was for the people who knocked on doors the next day, that’s all they heard was that one moment in that debate. Yet it took the campaign three weeks to respond.
So that was that was the beginning of the end, really. And there are lots of other things that kind of laid the groundwork for why that was the beginning of the end. But again, it wasn’t so much parents were worried that CRT was being taught in schools, it was that they just wanted somebody who was going to be governor to say, I recognize that you’re anxious and I’m going to do something about it.”